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One subject no good writer has ever had a crack at is the idea of crime; and, as a flipside to that, punishment. But finally, I am here to change that. Let’s start with the bad news: Boris Johnson has said something in public again.
This was a real problem at the start of lockdown last year and through those opening, paranoia-charged weeks of it: every Monday or so, we’d all get a five-minute warning that Boris Johnson was going to be on TV, and we would all rush to assemble in our living rooms waiting for news – Are we free? Is the problem solved? Can we stop clapping yet? – and then he’d be 20 minutes late before he’d turn up looking haunted and just waffle on for a really long time and make a lot of hand gestures. Do you remember this era? It went on for months and was relentless. But weirdly the only crumb of it I can remember is the day he really slowly explained what the “R rate” was, using illustrations.
Anyway, he’s back. And after not stamping out Covid, he’s now focusing on not stamping out crime. On Tuesday, at the Surrey police headquarters in Guildford, Johnson stood alongside Priti “TikTok smirk” Patel to launch “crime week”, announcing an extension to the ever useless stop-and-search powers and, uh, a plan to make teenagers in hi-vis jackets work in graffiti clean-up chain gangs.
“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society,” Johnson told reporters, “so you are going to be seeing more of that as well.” Truly, we should never elect someone to high office who spent decades of their career thinking in headlines. I wonder if the country will learn this lesson before my inevitable reign of terror.
We love fighting crime in this country, don’t we? We love fighting crime because we love to think of ourselves as likely victims of it. There is no person in the country more paranoid about being the victim of a crime than a high-premium home insurance customer who lives in a sleepy Neighbourhood Watch cul-de-sac and is about to go on holiday, ie 40% of the voter base. And for that reason, “I will go hard on crime!” will be a rallying cry of any prospective MP until the sun burns out of the sky.
Putting a kid with a shoplifting conviction in a high-visibility vest to pick litter on a canal doesn’t really do anything to stop them from reoffending, but it does make people who think stealing electronics should be punished by bringing back hanging feel better about law and order in the abstract. I don’t have the stats on hand, because I don’t think YouGov existed back then, but similar humiliation tactics famously worked very well several centuries ago, in the form of throwing rotten tomatoes at people in stocks. Which, of course, eradicated crime forever..
I can’t help but feel this proposal puts a slight over-reliance on caring what neighbours and self-described “law-abiding citizens” think is an effective deterrent against someone committing a crime versus the sheer thrill (or, in most cases, necessity) of getting away with it. Which again feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of what crime is and why it happens.
Sure, yes, of course: some people do just commit crime for the love of the game. I’ve seen the Fast & Furious films. Sometimes it is just fun to steal some globe-spanning cyber weapon from a faceless organisation, kick someone’s head in or go very fast in your car. But a fair amount of crime happens because things called poverty and deprivation exist, and the government is doing little to nothing to tackle it, and the more urgent needs for food, shelter and money take over. “Don’t do crime, kids! We might make you wear a big orange jacket” is – and I am guessing! This is a guess! – unlikely to change even one person’s attitude towards doing things that society deems illegal. Not even one.
But then I suppose there is the disconnect between the people in power, the people who think and the people who do. If you put the middle England voting bloc in charge of law and order – something they would lick their lips and rub their pink little hands at the prospect of – you’d find a lot of the usual methods of punishment would be replaced with archaic forms of public humiliation, and the barrier for entry of what constitutes a crime would drastically dip. (“Anyone who rides the DLR without scanning their Oyster card first has to play a little flute solo in the middle of Parliament Square while wearing Y-fronts”, that sort of thing. “Teenage loiterers will be forced to do Ministry of Silly Walks-walks in front of an assembly at their school, while wearing a pointed hat that says BUFFOON on it”, and so on.) And the offshore gulags they build will be filled to bursting with people who were caught committing minor driving infractions on one of the thousands of new traffic enforcement cameras they put up.
Basically: Britain won’t ever really be happy until everyone in the lower tax brackets is in prison or flogged. I’ll see you either in the cells or in the stocks.
Joel Golby is the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant