Eye-Catching Initiatives

The drip, drip of poisonous US social policy from the US to the UK has been one of the more depressing features of British politics over the better part of the last decade. Ever since the idiots in New Labour decided that Being Like Clinton was the key to getting elected and governing the country, we’ve been exposed to a string of what Tony Blair once carelessly referred to in a confidential memo as “eye-catching initiatives“, which grab the headlines for a day or two and then drift out of sight to do their destructive work on the lives of British citizens and British society. Not everything that the ministers have recommended, of course, has been enacted. Local authorities have been reluctant, for example, to implement the youth curfews of which Jack Straw was so enamoured once upon a time, and the traditional right to a jury trial seems to be intact, for the time being.

In general, however, it remains a safe assumption that the Straw – Blunkett – Blair axis will be inclined to smile favourably on any policy which was dreamt up by neoconservative sociologists (Banfield, Herrnstein, Wilson, Murray) in America in years past and then embraced by the US ruling class in the 1990s. A fondness for prison-based “solutions”, ideas of “zero tolerance”, mention of “broken windows”, flirting with “three strikes” rhetoric, and championing a general get-tough attitude against anti-social undesirables (“yob culture”, “street crime”, “mobile phone theft”, “leopard skin accessories”, and so on) — the transatlantic origins of the British Government’s attitude is palpable. And one of the many vital contributions of Nick Cohen to understanding the present, of course, has been his refusal to stop writing articles about the social authoritarianism and punitive instincts of our supposedly progressive lords and masters: his essay on “The Punishment Boom” in his collection, Cruel Britannia [pp.114-122] may be the highlight, but the lowlights are pretty good, too, and he remains far and away the best reason – perhaps even the only reason – for continuing to read the Sunday Observer.

Understanding the uses and disadvantages of US social policy, therefore, is an important task for those of us interested in the government of the UK. To this end we are now extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the wisdom of Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Arizona Law School, in his new essay “Policing Disorder” in the current issue of Joshua Cohen’s excellent publication, the Boston Review. “Zero tolerance” police tactics have become overwhelmingly popular on both sides of the American political “spectrum”, the falling violent crime rates in New York City providing all the justification an office-seeking politician could want for vindicating the tactics of the Giuliani NYPD. This excellent article combines a careful, critical survey of the empirical evidence which has been used to justify the so-called “Broken Windows” approach to policing, with a useful discussion of the shared philosophical assumptions which underpin both this approach to fighting crime and the mass incarceration policy the US has followed over the better part of the last 30 years, with the result that a phenomenal two million people are now in federal and local jails. It is a fine article, thorough and learned without being technical or unpleasantly social-scientific, and it is on the side of the angels.

Switching gears from the political to the personal, I should say that Bernard is an old colleague from my days in the graduate school at Harvard, where we both studied political philosophy in the Government Department there, and that this is, among other things, a plug for the work of a friend. The first time I came across his unique talent for combining theory and practice was the day in 1996 when he wasn’t able to turn up to make a presentation at a Harvard social theory seminar on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He had been appearing in a death penalty appeal case before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier that day, and his flight back to Boston was delayed. Although he couldn’t be there in person, he faxed his notes for his presentation through to us for the course professor, Tom Ertman, to read aloud in his absence. It is still the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not turning up to a class, and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

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