The new government displays a distinctive self-confidence, at least in comparison with its neurotically insecure New Labour predecessor. I do not agree with the coalition's main economic judgements, but admire the way its leaders make use of power in order to advance their ideas. When Labour won a landslide in 1997 its leaders agonised over whether to spend 20 pence more a year on schools. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats secured a majority in May and yet they are about to reduce the size of the state by a quarter. In some cases they are calm too, as if the exercise of power is as straightforward for them as drinking a cup of tea.
The self-confidence extends beyond the economy. The declaration from Ken Clarke that prison does not always work and is often a waste of money comes like a blast of fresh air in an arid climate. His words were important as a statement of intent but also cast light on the failings of New Labour and the tentative character of the government that replaced it.
One of the great scandals of recent decades has been the approach from different governments to prisons, wilfully ignoring evidence, rejecting advice from prison inspectors and playing to the worst populist instincts even though the ministers involved must have known what was really happening.
The speeches in the House of Lords from the former Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, were highlighted by Clarke yesterday as a good starting point in a move towards reality. Ever since he left government Hurd has spoken with passion about the hidden squalor of Britain's overcrowded jails, utterly pointless because a lot of those inside reoffend and return at vast expense to the crammed cells.
Several books from former senior prison inspectors tell the same story. After he ceased to be the chief inspector of prisons during the New Labour era, Sir David Ramsbotham wrote the elegant and shocking Prisongate, in which he highlighted the squalid overcrowding, the failures to rehabilitate and the reoffending that follows prison. Written during Labour's second term, he argued: "The biggest problem is many of the people shouldn't be in prison in the first place. Take the elderly. When I discover an 87-year-old on a Zimmer frame with Alzheimer's in a so-called high-security training prison on the grounds that he represents a danger to the public, I think this is a nonsense."
Ramsbotham put his case to a series of Labour Home Secretaries who showed no great interest. Prison worked for New Labour because it helped them claim they were tough on crime. Yesterday Jack Straw was in the Daily Mail still making the case. Straw is a serious-minded politician. Presumably he believes what he writes, but he will also have calculated wrongly that such a position helps his party, placing it closer to the Mail on law and order than those woolly liberals in the new government. Such calculations paralysed New Labour for 13 years, when it was often in office but not in power.
Tony Blair is convinced that he became a great reforming prime minister and was frustrated by others who lacked his courageous zeal. But Blair only contemplated certain types of reform, limited ones in relation to public services. He ran a mile from evidence-based prison reform and would not have allowed his Justice Secretary to make the case that Clarke has made out of fear of being seen as soft on crime.
The same applied to a whole range of reforms that was suggested to Blair. As David Miliband has pointed out recently, he and Charles Clarke pressed for significant changes to secondary school examinations when they were at the Department of Education. Blair ran another mile, fearing they would alienate Middle England parents. Blair's memoir is called The Journey and will no doubt argue that he embarked on a course in which at first he tried to please everyone but at the end became a radical reformer irrespective of public opinion. This is a fantasy. He supported some reforms and opposed others. The nature of the reform was the key.
Historians will look back and marvel at how a simplistic narrative was established during the Blair years in which some were pro-reform and others were anti. It was all a lot more complicated than that, and any aspiring leader of the Labour Party should support Clarke's approach to the reform of prisons rather than resort to ineffective triangulation in which the Daily Mail is wooed fruitlessly. The next Labour leader cannot be, or pretend to be, an apolitical technocrat. It will not work in opposition and makes power pointless.
Clarke's policy also reminds those of us who see merit in public spending that not all cuts are damaging. There is a danger that the current debate on spending becomes similar to the silly one over Europe. Because the coalition is taking an extreme view on cuts it does not mean that all existing public spending is worthwhile. The Tories' old extreme Euro-scepticism tended to force pro-Europeans to defend the whole unaccountable, bureaucratic and inefficient elements of the European Union. Debate about constructive reform over Europe became impossible.
Similarly anyone who has worked in the public sector or relied on it will be aware of waste and inefficiency. There is no justification for the scale of cuts being considered by the coalition and Britain will become a more squalid and iniquitous place as a result of them. There is, though, a difference between productive and unproductive spending. Welfare spending is unproductive and the coalition is right to seek savings. Building prisons and spending a fortune on incarcerating those who should not be there is another example of destructive waste.
There is, of course, a twist in relation to public spending on prisons. While there are huge savings that could be made on reducing the prison population, the Government will almost certainly find additional resources will be needed to ensure effective rehabilitation. They do not want to be in the worst of all worlds in which fewer are in jail and crime soars, New Labour and the Daily Mail in triumphant vindication.
Clarke will not worry about the onslaught. He has always been a wholly self-confident politician, undisturbed by attacks from newspapers or from his own side. Labour had no equivalent during its 13 years in power. David Cameron has cause for anxiety about such a policy but he defended it robustly during Prime Minister's Questions. Wisely Harriet Harman chose not to challenge him by quoting childishly the famous view of Michael Howard that prison works. Almost certainly she agrees with Clarke's policy. I am told that at least one of Labour's former prison ministers was expressing private agreement yesterday with the Government, telling colleagues that Labour must find a way of moving on from a mid-1990s fear of appearing soft on crime. Perhaps some of them will express these views in public.
Cameron is a Prime Minister at ease with power and evidently willing to give some space to his more daring ministers. Of course there will be trouble ahead for the Government, and the same was said of John Major with some justification during his early days in Downing Street, that he was relaxed and calm as PM. Let us see whether Clarke succeeds in implementing a new prisons policy, but Cameron deserves credit for letting him try.Reuse content