Last Friday, on Radio 4, Mr Howard had shown signs of backtracking - in particular over his use of the United States as an example of a country in which 'prison works'. But over the weekend, again on BBC Radio, he seemed if anything to be firming up his position. There seems little doubt that this turf warfare between the law lords and the new, hardline Home Office will have enormous influence over the direction of penal policy, and also in defining the parameters of the debate about the control of crime.
There are several important features of Mr Howard's embrace of penal severity as practised in the US, which need to be separated out. Firstly, there is the fact that the minister highlights prison - rather than new employment initiatives or other social programmes - as a solution to problems of lawlessness.
Second, Mr Howard, like some less senior sections of the judiciary and the Police Federation, approaches the problem in terms of the neo-classical paradigm that can see crime only as the conscious and freely willed action of individual villains and criminals, rather than in terms of some kind of basic sociological understanding that recognises how social and economic processes may, quite coherently and predictably, generate crime as a social outcome.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, Mr Howard speaks of prison, quite shamelessly, as an institution, not just for 'warehousing' individuals and forgetting them (a Conservative viewpoint of the late Seventies), but for the active incapacitation of 'criminals' as a group over a given period of time. Gone is all pretence of rehabilitation or re-integration of offenders; now there is enthusiastic support for the prison performing an active role in expelling significant numbers of citizens from social life.
The empirical debate that we are supposed to engage in is to be about what number of people have to be so incarcerated to have a longer-term effect on the crime rate: in the US, where the total number of serious crimes (as defined by the US Justice Department) is 14.5 million, and there are only (sic) 950,000 in penitentiaries, there may still be some distance to go.
This is a significant shift in the official explanation of the purpose of prison. Prison populations in Western capitalist societies have always increased very markedly during recessions, and this one is no exception. In the Thirties, Georg Rusche, a Marxist criminologist working in Germany, tried to argue that the function of prison was to incarcerate a significant proportion of the 'surplus population' (the 'reserve army of labour') for the duration of the slump, in such a way as to allow the release of this surplus population during subsequent periods of boom.
Stephen Box and Chris Hale, re- working Rusche in the Eighties, showed that the prison population could never conceivably approach the size of the unemployed population. They concluded that the real purpose of severe sentencing during periods of recession was ideological, to act as a very public deterrent to potential miscreants, maintaining social order through fear.
There were certainly echoes of this position in Michael Howard and John Major's speeches at the Tory party conference, and in their subsequent pronouncements. But Mr Howard must know that the empirical evidence for the deterrent effect of any penal sanction is negligible, and, in as much as the Tories have been forced away from a purely theological approach on to the pragmatic territory of producing a credible law and order programme, prison as a system of fixed- time incapacitation may seem to fit the bill.
In his confrontations with Mr Blair, Mr Howard seems to have backed off from citing the US as the success story of how increased use of prison has a beneficial effect on crime rates. But it is intriguing that he should have wanted to introduce this example in the first place. There is no question, of course, that the Major government, like its predecessor under Margaret Thatcher, has consistently been in awe of the US, which is seen as an exemplar of the benefits, on all fronts, of free- market economics. The decline in property crime in the US, which has been quite marked through the Eighties, must have proven enticing for free-market Conservatives, as yet another area in which America has 'got it right'.
But the explanations on offer for this decline in property crime hardly support the Tories' Utopian image of America as the land of the happy and the free. A key development in the US throughout the Eighties has been the introduction into most private homes of highly sophisticated private security systems. Downtown apartment blocks and large suburban homes alike have installed ever more elaborate high technology dedicated to the protection of residents from 'intruders' - and the idea of the home has been transformed into a kind of private domestic fortress, a living space almost hermetically sealed off from 'the outside world'.
There may have been some benefits in terms of the security of property, but it is by no means clear that this further privatisation of North American life has done anything, in the longer term, to bring about 'peace of mind', or to reconstruct a sense of community, either in the city core or the suburbs. Empirically, it has clearly had no effect on the level of violence in American life (except, perhaps, a negative one, given the intensified pressures on the domestic household to act as a kind of alternative civil society).
The technology of private security is extremely expensive; and its purchase has had a significant impact on the budgets of the large suburban American middle class. It is unclear whether the cost of such security systems (like the perimeter system being advertised in a door- to-door leaflet drop last month in Manchester at a special sale price of pounds 2,999) is within the reach of the British middle class. It may be that the fully fledged 'security system' - like the swimming pool or the sauna - is a symbol of success, attainable in a society like the US which, before the demise of mass manufacturing, was a successful modern economy. But no Englishman or woman, even of the acquisitive commercial middle class, could seriously believe that this kind of personal economic success is generally on offer here.
The evidence is also mixed as to whether the British middle classes are enthusiastic about the privatisation of policing, which is far advanced in American cities. The historical role of the police in Britain in maintaining peace and order in local communities still has a powerful effect in the public consciousness.
This American-style privatisation of the domestic sphere, and the further privatisation of police duties, were not issues in Blackpool. Perhaps they should have been. The recent public anxiety about the Sheehy Report proposals does suggest that the free-market law and order agenda (which has in reality done nothing in the US to produce a 'secure and peaceable' nation) does not translate to this society. Our society, it seems, still believes that social problems require a public, collective response.
The writer is professor of sociology at the University of Salford.
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