Hi-vis chain gangs? This is what happens when a newspaper columnist becomes prime minister

Is it a good idea to get prisoners to do litter picking and so on? Naturally it has emotional appeal, and that’s what counts

Tom Peck
Tuesday 27 July 2021 16:47
Boris Johnson says stop and search policy is 'kind and loving'

Ah, recess. That magic, paralysing time of year in any political columnist’s life when any old crap will have to do. A half-baked thought? Fine. How about something from a few years ago, barely even recycled. No one will remember, will they? Nah, just go with it.

Look, we all do it. There’s no choice when there’s nothing happening. The only slight change in proceedings is that one of us is the actual prime minister, and some decade-old Daily Telegraph column is not merely getting dusted down as today’s Daily Telegraph column but an actual government policy.

Today’s big announcement, announced, as is now customary, via a two-minute clip with a pooled broadcast camera, is the return of chain gangs for antisocial behaviour offenders. Make them wear hi-vis as well. That’s what Boris Johnson has announced, standing in the pouring rain outside a Surrey police station holding a tiny umbrella. It’ll do, won’t it? It certainly got them going in the Telegraph morning editorial meeting circa 2005, so why not now?

It also got them going when, as London mayor, Johnson launched the same idea in 2008, in which under-18s who’d misbehaved had to clean graffiti in hi-vis jackets in order to win back their free bus pass. These people, too, were “visibly repaying their debt to society”, as Johnson described it this morning. Anecdote isn’t data and all that, but I would be thrilled to hear from anyone living in London back then who actually witnessed any of this debt to society being visibly repaid, apart from at the launch event itself.

Look, we could talk about whether or not it’s a good idea – but given it won’t happen, what’s the point? As Johnson made clear in the profile piece of him in The Atlantic, the business of government is not about policies, it’s about a mood. Don’t give people anything, you know, actually real; just give them an idea to believe in, then win the next election and carry on winging it for another few years.

Naturally, it’s all part of the “levelling up” agenda, which we now know for certain is entirely without meaning and is in fact its own too-small umbrella under which all government policies can try and squeeze but take a very visible soaking anyway.

More police officers is levelling up. Hi-vis litter-picking is levelling up. Everything’s levelling up. Maintaining the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit? That actually would be levelling up, so naturally, that’s not happening.

Is it a good idea to get prisoners to do litter picking and so on? Naturally, it has emotional appeal, and that’s what counts. It certainly had emotional appeal to a Tory councillor called Ashley Clark, who two years ago wrote to the then environment secretary, Michael Gove, and requested exactly that – that prisoners be made to pick up litter on the A2. He got a reply, from Gove’s department, explaining why it was a terrible idea: that good deeds in the community are regularly done both by volunteers and council workers, and they tend to wear hi-vis clothing to keep them safe.

“We do not wish to discourage volunteers by implying that litter picking is a punishment in itself,” Gove’s department explained.

In a country where it was still not all that long ago that a woman was driven from her home by a vigilante mob that was unable to tell the difference between a paedophile and a paediatrician, maybe Gove’s ex-department had a point.

Not that that will matter. If one of two church wardens, or what have you, are mistaken for petty criminals and savagely beaten, well that’s the price that must be paid to keep the narrative going. And it’s not much of a price anyway, is it? Not compared with, say, Northern Ireland.

The precise details of the uniform requirements are as yet not forthcoming. Why draw the line at hi-vis? Why not go with the full mustard waistcoat and blue tailcoat, Johnson’s very own antisocial-behaviour outfit of choice? There is a difference though. There’s only a debt to society that needs to be repaid if no one’s daddy is around to send a cheque for the damage.

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