Britain has a blooming love affair with punishment
I can remember in 1977-78 delivering newspapers (mostly the Telegraph, Mail and Express) around leafy lanes in Surrey. One outraged headline demanded what was happening to Britain with the prison population exceeding 40 000. The 1970s, after all, were a time when class discontent was supposedly making Britain ungovernable and law and order was breaking down. Mrs Thatcher, then on the verge of office, was preaching authoritarianism and shock capitalist therapy.
Today, more than three decades later in a richer but more unequal Britain, government boasts a prison population of over 80 000, representing the highest incarceration rate in Europe. Maybe the dreck of society is always present, but the size of a country's lumpenproletariat and the proportion of it dumped into jails are determined by social and political factors.
Two factors stand out in explaining this. One is the increasing inequality in British society in which any sense of a community-of-equals is ebbing away, with the result that the shared public morals binding social behaviour have weakened, particularly so in the junk estates and inner cities.
The other, and perhaps related, factor is Britain’s current addiction to punophilia, the love of punishment: a person sent down for six months for stealing a bottle of water, or another receiving three months for making a sick joke on Facebook. Increasingly, imprisonment is used not as an unavoidable last resort, but to “send a message” by government and the judiciary grabbing a headline.
On a more positive note: if Britain imprisoned the same proportion of its population as the US there would 400 000 people rotting in Britain’s jails. But America aside, if you judge a country by the proportion of its population in jail – not a bad measure – then Britain performs very badly indeed.