Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University
On November 29th, two weeks before the general election, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were horrifically murdered by Usman Khan. In the immediate aftermath of Jack and Saskia’s appalling deaths, Boris Johnson, appearing in nearly every news outlet, made it clear that there would be changes to the criminal justice system including tougher sentences and restrictions on early release. The poignant interventions from Jack’s father, Dave, who pointed out that his murdered child would have had no truck with such retributive policies, and who passionately believed in the redeeming spirit of rehabilitation and reform, were ignored by Johnson in the rush to invoke a grotesque spirit of revenge and punishment. On December 9th, three days before the election, Joseph McCann received 33 life sentences. He had committed 37 rapes against 11 women and children aged between 11 and 71. And while none of the victims had physically died, the account below from one of the survivors of McCann’s misogynist terror, spoke eloquently about the psychological death she had experienced:
This is a significant and limiting change in my lifestyle. I used to be very independent with no fear of going out and doing things alone. I am now much more dependent on other people. My life looks very different from how it once did. It has been a huge loss for me. My aspirations, both small and big, and my vision of a positive future, have been violently taken from me. My partner and I both exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and my sleep remains disturbed by nightmares and physical pain. I often feel like I’m hiding a terrible secret and I can’t connect with people like I used to as a result. To replace a life thriving with one of surviving is deeply demoralising and difficult. I only hope that this process will take us one step closer to building a society in which rape and sexual assault are never excused, in which the voices of victims and survivors are heard and respected, and in which this can never happen to anyone else.
In contrast to his intervention after Jack and Saskia’s murders, McCann’s crimes provoked little response from the soon-to-be Prime Minister, nor indeed from any of the other political parties. (Nor did any of them see the desperate irony in the fact that those who confronted Khan, and who could also have lost their lives, came from two of the most vilified groups in an increasingly pitiless society: a Polish immigrant and serving and ex-prisoners). On December 12th, Johnson was re-elected as Prime Minister.
Johnson’s reaction to Jack and Saskia’s deaths, and his non-reaction to the crimes committed by McCann, was not unique. Over the last forty years, both major parties have hypocritically capitalised on specific crimes in order to legitimate hard-line, authoritarian policies. The horrific murder of James Bulger in Liverpool was mobilised by Tony Blair to justify New Labour’s infantile law and order mantra, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. New Labour politicians had plenty to say about this appalling murder but had much less to say when Anthony Walker was brutally murdered by racists on Merseyside. Why was this? Because Anthony’s mother did not utilise the language of revenge and retribution but pleaded for understanding and forgiveness. However, like Dave Merritt, her views were ignored. Her language did not suit the retributive law and order policies favoured by politicians. So the idea that victims are centre stage in the thoughts of politicians is false. Only some victims’ voices are heard, the ones that suit those in power, or, in Johnson’s case, those seeking and winning power.
Over the decades, it is has become clear that the main political parties, having no answers to the complexities around conventional crimes, and the lamentable failure of their law and order policies in dealing with these crimes, have responded to any criticisms of their policies by labelling their critics as pro-crime and anti-victim. This offensive caricature, and the morally vacuous sloganeering that underpins it, has mystified the fact that, in practice, it has been successive governments which have been pro-crime, for example, in terms of their attitudes towards, and lack of response to, white collar and corporate crime. And it is they who have been anti-victim, for example, in their deplorable response to domestic and sexual violence in England and Wales. In Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit world that is likely to remain the case.
There are a number of other issues to consider. First, implicitly and explicitly, Johnson’s view is that the criminal justice system in general, and sentencing in particular, have become too liberal. Not so. Sentences have been getting longer while England and Wales imprisons more people per 100,000 of its population than any other country in Western Europe.
Second, there is his view that a prison-driven, hard-line approach to conventional crime (not, of course, to corporate, white collar or state crime) will protect the wider society and prevent more people becoming victims of crime. Given this fairy-tale logic, America, the country with the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, should also be the safest country in the world. Again, not so. Speaking on the 39th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder in 1980, – a ‘hollowing experience’ – Yoko Ono pointed out that there are 100 gun-related deaths each day in America while over 1,400,000 people have been killed by guns since John’s death in December 1980. Additionally, between 1968 and December 2015, more Americans were killed by gun violence than the combined number of Americans killed in all of the wars pursued by the USA in that country’s history.
Third, like his Conservative and New Labour predecessors, Johnson was, and is, concerned with crime in the world of the public. Of course, deaths such as those resulting from knife crime have a terrible, traumatic impact on families, friends and communities. However, there are other crimes in the public which do not receive the same attention. For example, the number of hate crimes increased from 42,255 in 2012/13 to 103,379, in 2018/19. There is still little debate, nor concern, about the impact of these crimes on the families, friends and communities of these victims. Then there is the question of crimes in the world of the private. In the year ending June 2019, over one-third of offences involving violence against the person were domestic-abuse related. What about sexual violence? There were over 163,000 sexual offences recorded by the police in the year up to June 2019, including nearly 59,000 rapes. Police recorded sexual offences were at their highest volume since the introduction of the National Crime Recording Standard in 2002. Grassroots women’s organisations and survivors, continue to point to the lack of empathy, sympathy and support from criminal justice personnel towards them and the traumas they continue to experience when, and if, these crimes get to court. A highly masculinised criminal justice system reflects and helps to reproduce, a highly masculinised political and popular culture in these particular cases.
Fourth, as ever, there is the marginalisation of the social harms, including death, generated by white collar, corporate and state crime which have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on the wider society. Johnson’s post-Brexit state is unlikely to address:
income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent.
Fifth, and more broadly, there is the question of the democratic accountability of state servants. Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and former Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations in the Metropolitan Police – therefore he is hardly a paid up member of the revolutionary Marxist clique which is central to the caricatures articulated by politicians towards their critics – has consistently pointed out that his recommendations for improving prison safety have been systematically ignored by prison managers and staff. Between 2009 and mid-December 2019, 2713 prisoners died in England and Wales, 854 of which were self-inflicted. Up to mid-December 2019, there were 271 deaths in prison, 75 of which were self-inflicted. Johnson has had nothing to say either about the institutional chaos and dehumanising regimes which provide the traumatising context for many of these deaths, or about the lack of implementation of official recommendations from Peter Clarke which could have prevented many of them or about the culture of immunity and impunity in which these deaths occur.
Finally, there is the question of access to justice. The cuts to the criminal justice system which have been implemented since 2008 have been devastating in terms of reducing access to civil and criminal justice, and legal representation, particularly for the poorest and most impoverished members of this society, especially women. Will these cuts be restored? Allied to this is the question of miscarriages of justice. Will this issue be taken seriously or will those who claim to be innocent continue to be dismissed as dissembling liars which is ironic given what passes for ‘truth’ from the political class in this country. In 2017/18, despite an increase in its workload, the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s (CCRC) budget for investigating miscarriages was cut to £5.6 million, down from £7 million in 2003/04.
Expenditure on the CCRC represented a fraction of the criminal justice budget for the year. In fact, the annual budget for investigating miscarriages was below the average salary of the Chief Executives of the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 companies which stood at £5.7 million. Altogether, the top five executives earned £148.1 million over the year, more than 25 times the budget for the CCRC. The cost of the CCRC was also less than the cost of the relocation expenses for some Chief Executives – over £6 million – in recent years. This included £497,000 for the Chief Executive of the National Grid to relocate 97 miles from Warwick to London.
In focussing on crime and insecurity in the world of the public, including knife crime, Johnson was, and is, consciously and uncritically following the dominant discourses articulated by successive governments for decades, discourses which have relentlessly been reinforced by the mass media and state servants and their representative organisations such as the Police Federation and the Prison Officers Association. This corrosive network of power has been crucial in socially constructing what crime is, where it takes place, who is responsible for it and how it should be responded to. In the rush towards the further intensification in the process of punishment, revenge and retribution for conventional crime, the systemic inequalities in the delivery of criminal justice, or rather criminal injustice, will continue to be marginalised and are unlikely to make it onto the punitive radar of the Prime Minister, or his hard-line Home Secretary.
The Brexit State
On the Saturday after the election, the Daily Mail, which devoted 25 hagiographic, triumphalist pages to Johnson’s election victory, indicated that he would start with a‘100-day whirlwind’. This will involve employing 20,000 police officers, 6000 of whom will start next year. Additionally, ‘the law will be changed to allow more stop and search. He will end early release at the halfway point of sentences for paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals, who will have to serve at least two-thirds of their prison terms’. Chillingly, in terms of the constitution, the newspaper also noted that there would be ‘restrictions on judicial review’ and asked [c]ould there also be a look at how Supreme Court judges are selected?’ Writing in the Sunday Telegraph three days after the election, Simon Heffer, demanded ‘radical constitutional reform.’ The government, he said, should ‘fix the scandal of our broken constitution’. In saying this, Heffer did not mean changing the anti-democratic and unfair nature of the voting system through introducing proportional representation thereby democratising and modernising how politicians are elected. Rather, his proposals would involve boundary changes to Parliamentary constituencies (which will overwhelmingly benefit the Conservatives), reforming the House of Lords (which often has been the main bulwark against Conservative policies) and reviewing the work of the Supreme Court whose members, according to Heffer, ‘must be subject to confirmatory hearings in which they declare their political allegiances’.
Not surprisingly, he had nothing to say about the appalling role of the mainstream media and social media in demonising the Labour leadership and in reducing political debate to superficial, echo-chamber sound bites. Even his own paper pointed to the ‘grievous falsehoods’ mobilised at the election including: the false claims that a Tory party member had been ‘whacked’ by a Labour activist; temporarily disguising an official, Conservative party Twitter account as a fact- checking service; and the fact that ‘[m]any voters were fooled by a tweet supposedly written by Jeremy Corbyn, which depicted him as sympathetic to the London Bridge attacker- and which was supposedly cited on doorsteps’. Additionally, of nearly 7000 Facebook ads posted by the Conservative, ‘88% were “misleading”’.
Generating hostility towards the Human Rights Act through the media has been another dimension in the Conservative Party’s drive towards deconstructing and repealing the Act as a bulwark against the untrammelled power of the state. Their 2019 manifesto indicated that the government would ‘update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government’. The manifesto also indicated that within a year of being elected, the government would establish a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to make proposals in this area. Essentially, ‘the basis of their argument seems to be that if human rights are universal to all then we may have now gone too far – as they also apply to “bad people”’.
After its defeat, the Labour Party is engaging in a period of reflection including attempting to reconnect with its traditional heartlands. This sounds ominously like a recipe for perpetuating the narrow definition of politics based on an idealised vision of family, community and country on which so much of its actions are based. In other words, politics as usual. Given this, it is arguable if Labour will critically examine its demonstrable role in facilitating the new government’s threats to the constitution and its retributive stance towards conventional crime. There are two reasons for this.
First, and most obviously, Tony Blair’s three governments, through their infantile mantra of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ also followed a retributive path which led to the over-policing and over-criminalisation of working class communities and black and minority ethnic communities, in particular, and the under-criminalisation of corporate, white collar and state crime, Even introducing the Human Rights Act failed to curb the coercive, punitive and non-accountable interventions by the state into the lives of the powerless while simultaneously refusing to take seriously the criminal activities of the rich and powerful. A better and more truthful slogan might have been: tough on working class crime, not too tough on the causes of white collar and corporate crime.
Second, there is Labour’s definition of what constitutes politics and what is deserving of political action. The party might want to consider that its focus has become so myopic and narrow to the point where issues like the constitution, the voting system, prisoners’ rights, the environment have not been classified as ’real’ politics by it or the trade union movement. Blair’s governments had the ideal opportunity to introduce a system of proportional representation, which, done properly and with principle, could have revolutionised and democratised the society in ways which would have been historically unprecedented.
In Gramscian terms, the Conservatives are now beginning a ‘war of manoeuvre’ – ‘a swift, full-frontal assault, capable of winning a knock-out blow especially in the wake of successful positional campaign’. What does this mean in terms of the immediate future? For Tim Bale:
Johnson’s victory this week constitutes the first battle won. His splash-the-cash policy platform – “more bobbies on the beat”, sorting social care, and almost everything else on the agenda of the Daily Mail and Telegraph readership – is the second. And his appointment of Brexiteer ultras to the cabinet, and members of Vote Leave’s campaign machine as government advisors, is the third.
Conclusion: An Apocalyptic but Contestable Future
In November 1968, the former head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover remarked that justice was ‘merely incidental to law and order.’ Although articulated at a different historical and cultural moment, Hoover’s comment captured something fundamental about the atavistic attitude of the powerful, and many state servants, towards delivering justice in England and Wales today. However, as Stuart Hall argued in the wake of the Thatcher-inspired, and what appeared to be irrevocable shift to the right in the 1980s, ‘history is never closed but maintains an open horizon towards the future.’ For Hall, ideologies are fluid, and through contestation they are open to more utopian outcomes where alternative possibilities can be turned into radical, political probabilities.
In the bleakest of times, Hall’s point remains a key lodestar in guiding political interventions and actions. It was reflected in Roger Cohen’s argument in the New York Times in the aftermath of the election: ‘[t]he fight for freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, a free press, independent judiciaries, breathable air, peace, decency and humanity continues – and has only become more critical now that Britain has marginalized itself irreversibly in a fit of nationalist delusion’.
This comment stands in marked contrast to the highly militarized, heavily masculinized state, (and, indeed, the wider highly militarized, heavily masculinized, political culture of which Johnson was a clear beneficiary), which is likely to confront the population in England and Wales as the apocalyptic reality of the post-Brexit settlement begins to materialize. Despite this, Cohen’s argument is something to hold onto for the future as nothing is irremovably fixed in a political sense forever, not even Conservative Party majorities.
Part of the title is taken from the song title of the same name by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Thanks to Kym Atkinson and Helen Monk for discussing different aspects of this blog with me.