His object all sublime, he shall achieve in time - to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime. One would need the talents of WS Gilbert to do justice to the fevered efforts of this Government to reach that elusive ideal. Successive home secretaries have run faster and faster in smaller and smaller circles as they try at one and the same time to placate the tabloids, and to stop our prisons from becoming impossibly overcrowded.

Yesterday was a day for placating the tabloids. The Sun carried the huge headline "Blair axes soft sentences", followed by the claim that there will be "no early parole for murderers, rapists, paedos". John Reid later came to the Commons to announce measures that will indeed reduce the right to early parole of some serious criminals. But who introduced some of the very measures that made early parole compulsory, and why has it taken Tony Blair nine years to "axe soft sentences"?

Hard cases make bad law. There will always be some sentences that appear, from a distance, to be pretty much incomprehensible. But what is the least bad way of deciding how long a particular murderer, rapist or paedophile should spend in jail? This is evidently a question that should be decided by a person who has heard the whole case, and not by a politician, journalist or man in the pub who has acquired some fleeting knowledge of its most sensational aspects. In other words, the sentence should be decided by the judge.

It is hard to convey the extent to which judicial independence has been sapped and undermined by home secretaries who have preferred to play to the gallery. Words such as "life", as in "life sentence", have been robbed of all meaning. The public is not deceived. It knows that the entire system has become dedicated to the bogus project of convincing us that the courts are tougher than is really so.

Will Mr Reid prove to be as lamentable a Home Secretary as his three immediate predecessors? The desire to be fair, and to let him show what he can do, will impel many people to suspend judgment. He seems to have calmed down a bit since his arrival, when he launched a brutal attack on the civil servants in his department. On Wednesday, when he launched his Home Office Reform Action Plan, he concluded by saying that "the task ahead" is "the unglamorous hard work of delivering good government".

That is fine as far as it goes. The more unglamorous the Home Secretary is, the better we shall be pleased. But it would be a pity if Mr Reid imagined his job is an essentially managerial one, which can be solved by applying the techniques of management consultants. The problem is much wider. It entails the restoration of authority.

New Labour has never trusted the professionals on whom it relies to deliver its reforms. It does not trust doctors or teachers or officials, and demonstrates this distrust by pouring forth a stream of insulting and often mutually contradictory instructions to them. One cannot pretend this problem began in 1997. Local government was treated in much the same way when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and her grand attempt to rectify this problem - the poll tax - proved a disaster.

Reasons can always be found for not trusting people: any profession can degenerate into a conspiracy against the public, and individuals within it can be staggeringly incompetent, lazy or corrupt. It can seem safer to suspect every doctor of being Harold Shipman and every judge of being a pompous old fool. But the present atmosphere of undeclared suspicion, manifested by such absurdities as sending people who would never dream of being racist on racism awareness courses, is a hopeless way to administer things. It is already very difficult to recruit head teachers, because although they are quite well paid, they are treated as if they were delinquent children, who have to be constantly supervised and must at all costs be denied any capacity for independent action.

The best thing Gordon Brown ever did was to give the Bank of England the freedom to set interest rates. Everyone now says this, but it required courage to do it. A great institution was revived by making it responsible for something. The universities need the same freedom: they have to rediscover the sense of themselves as great independent corporations, which are not mere agents of the state, with its inescapable urge to use them for pallid, mock-egalitarian exercises in social engineering.

How does this apply to Mr Reid? Instead of attacking the judges, and trying to micro-manage their decisions, he needs to trust them. There is a strong case for passing no new laws for the next five years, not even the laws needed to correct the bad laws passed in the past five years. Leave the judiciary to fulfil its responsibilities, and build as many prisons as we need to house those people it decides to incarcerate.

The paradox of authority is that the more you have of it, the less you need to use it. The best teachers do not generally have to inflict very frequent punishments. This is one of the most distressing aspects of the behaviour of Richard Brunstrom, the Chief Constable of North Wales, who has begun a blog in which he writes: "On Saturday I spent the day (should have been my day off, but my wife's away, so I can sneak off to have some fun) out near the Wakestock Festival at Abersoch with our ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) team. We did a 12-hour stint... The camera read 5,891 number plates, from which we had 321 hits, resulting in us stopping 109 cars."

This is manic behaviour of a most alarming kind. A man in authority has allowed himself to become immersed in petty detail. Mr Brunstrom has long been known for his enthusiasm for speed cameras, and has proved quite unable to see that it is simply not fitting for a man in his position to engage in what looks like a general war on motorists. It is a question of preserving a sense of proportion. The man at the top must be able to distinguish minor offences from serious crimes. He must on no account fall for the illusion that because he is busy, he is doing his job.

So too the Home Secretary.

We may respect Mr Reid for promising to work 18 hours a day, but in the end we require judgment and a sense of proportion from him, not activity for the sake of it. Benjamin Jowett, the great Master of Balliol College, Oxford, once said: "Men get lazy, and substitute quantity of work for quality."

This kind of laziness is seen throughout this Government. Mr Blair suffers from it, having long ago substituted quantity of initiatives for quality. Nothing would reassure us more than to learn that Mr Reid has decided to spend the next five weeks on holiday.

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