Soft on crime but . . .
No I’m not happy, either, that Ken Clarke is our Justice Minister. He’s soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime. He doesn’t believe that prison works whereas all the evidence suggests it does – if only through the simple expedient of keeping off the streets habitual criminals who would otherwise be out there doing the rest of us a mischief. He is there not because he is any good or because he has anything useful to offer the country (let alone his party) but as a cynical expedient on Cameron’s part to suck up to his Lib Dem Coalition partners by appointing to cabinet positions “Tories” so irredeemably left-wing they make Simon Hughes look like Augusto Pinochet.
If Clarke were sacked tomorrow no one would be more delighted than me. But I’d like it to be for the right reasons: because of what he stands for politically rather than for an ill-phrased remark made in the heat of the moment in a radio interview.
Yesterday I watched Clarke trying to explain away his unfortunate remarks on rape in an interview with Nick Robinson – and only digging himself a deeper hole. And what I felt for him was huge empathy. Had Robinson been viciously skewering him on the disastrous consequences which are certain to result from Clarke’s liberal sentencing policies I would have rejoiced and revelled in the Justice Secretary’s every last sweaty, blubbery squirm. Instead, Clarke was being steered to the brink of political suicide for a slip so venial it doesn’t even count as thought crime – because I’m quite sure Clarke doesn’t even “think” the thing he’s supposed to have meant.
Much has been made of Clarke’s chuckle as he defended his position. Well wouldn’t you have laughed nervously had you been in his shoes? Here you are: a career politician, of such long service you saw action under Margaret Thatcher, so skilled in the art of political swordsmanship that no interviewer, however experienced, can bypass your guard to prick your pachydermal hide. And suddenly, you find yourself placed in a position where you’re trying to argue that there are two kinds of rape – “good” rape and “bad” rape – and saying to yourself: “Hang on. How on earth did I end up here?”
If we weren’t so worked up in our fit of righteous moral rage, most of us would concede that the point Clarke was trying to make was perfectly unexceptionable. Of course the kind of violent rape committed against a woman by a predatory stranger is of a different order to the kind of rape which a hungover woman decides the day after may have been committed against her during a night’s heavy drinking with a friend she’s not sure whether or not she fancies. The fact that both extremities of crime embrace the terribly emotive “r” word represents a big problem for judges, juries and police prosecutors. Clarke – I suspect – was doing no more than try to reflect these complexities in an honest way.
Many of Clarke’s many enemies must be thinking rather they are of Chris Huhne: who cares why he gets booted out – just so long as he’s booted out, that’s the important thing. But I’m not so sure about this. I think it goes to the heart of what has gone wrong with our relationship with the political class: we’re obsessed with presentation at the expense of substance, with how well they come across on Any Questions or how effectively they parry Jeremy Paxman, rather than with their core values and with the policies they are trying to impose on us.
Sometimes, of course, the two are connected. For example, you could argue that Chris Huhne’s alleged lack of probity concerning his speeding ticket – not to mention the brazenness with which he is trying to ride out these allegations now – has a direct bearing on his probity as a politician. If (allegedly) he’s capable of lying about a driving offence, how can we be sure he’s not lying about, say, the cost and efficacy of “renewable” energy?
But in Clarke’s case the connection is not so clear. The man is a bleeding heart liberal not some DSK lothario who thinks all women are secretly gagging for it. The fact that he is now being pilloried for being otherwise reflects on nothing more than (uncharacteristically) poor presentational skills.
Is this really how we want to judge our politicians? On how smoothly and effectively they lie to us? On how cleverly they sneak under our radar policies that are going to ruin our lives? If it is, we deserve the appalling governments we have had for the last 13 years. It was presentational skills that kept Blair in power so long; it’s this same obsession with appearances (eg doling out £8 billion of foreign aid because it looks nice, not because it works) which tells you everything you need to know about Cameron and his dismal Coalition.
We deserve better than this. A man like Ken Clarke should be sacked not because he looks like an idiot but because he is an idiot. And there is a difference, you know.
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