Better an ideologue than a barbarian

Michael Gove is a refreshing change from his predecessor as Justice Secretary, Richard Garside writes. But he should leave out the God-talk.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Friday, 09 October, 2015

That an air of cautious optimism has attended Michael Gove's appointment as Justice Secretary is in no small part down to his predecessor.

Chris Grayling was, by some distance, the worst Justice Secretary the country has ever had. And while his successor is an ideologue, Mr Grayling was a barbarian.

Better an ideologue than a barbarian.

After his high-profile run-ins as Secretary of State for Education, Mr Gove has had a relatively quiet first few months as Justice Secretary. 

He has gone on various visits and met lots of people. And he's made a couple of speeches - on the rule of law, and on prison education.

The latter speech included the ritual nod in the direction of Winston Churchill's challenge to seek out the 'treasure' in the heart of every prisoner. It was a theme he returned to in his speech to the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday.

The last government minister I remember invoking Churchill was the slightly hapless, though well-meaning, prisons minister Crispin Blunt. He quoted the same passage shortly after the 2010 General Election. It was a speech that nearly lost him his job; his mildly reformist remarks proving beyond the pale for a jittery Downing Street.

Mr Gove is on rather better terms with the boss than Mr Blunt ever was. Judging from David Cameron's comments on prisons in his Conservative Party conference speech yesterday, Mr Gove's agenda also appears closely aligned with Downing Street.

Welcome sentiments

There are reasons to be cheerful about some aspects of Mr Gove's conference speech.

Prisons, he said, were the 'biggest failure' in the criminal justice process. They failed to rehabilitate those caught behind their walls, and created a perpetual revolving door of release and reconviction.

The Conservatives should take a 'reforming zeal into the dark corners of our prisons'. Prisons should become 'places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition... of decency and dignity, hope and purpose'.

And there was this:

We should never define individuals by their worst moments.

None of us - none of us - would want our identity and our future determined by our worst moments.

And we should not compel those who have made mistakes to live lives forever defined by those mistakes.

Committing an offence should not mean that society always sees you as an offender.

Fine words for sure, and ones that Chris Grayling would surely have choked upon. Decency, dignity and hope were likewise not a feature of Mr Grayling's prisons lexicon. So a modicum of fresh air has been wafting over the fetid swamp that prisons became under Mr Gove's predecessor.

Back to Rehabilitation Revolution

Much that Michael Gove said on Tuesday is reminiscent of the agenda mapped out by Ken Clarke when he was Justice Secretary.

During his time in office the coalition took some faltering steps towards modest reductions in the prison population and talked about making prisons places of education and work. The Ministry of Justice also began the process of introducing a competitive marketplace in the delivery of probation services.

These two aspects - education and work in prisons, and competition in probation delivery - was at the heart of Mr Clarke's so-called 'Rehabilitation Revolution'.

For reasons set out in more detail in the Centre's analysis of criminal justice under the coalition - The coalition years - the Rehabilitation Revolution collapsed under the weight of its own contraditions.

Mr Clarke's successor, Chris Grayling, was brought in to sort out probation privatisation (and introduce competitive tendering into criminal legal aid, though that is another story). The result was the 'Transforming Rehabilitation' programme.

The probation service was privatised, in a way both more radical and more flawed than Ken Clarke had attempted. Education and work in prisons fell by the wayside.

Michael Gove's emphasis on work and education in prisons is therefore something of a reboot of the Rehabilitation Revolution. Those who see it as a striking or new development lack a certain historical imagination.

But we should not mistake the repetition of past platitudes about work and education for freshness or genuine innovation.

Prisons as places of hard work and education is a particularly old trope. It will always be possible to quote individual examples of apparent success. But the notion that prisons can offer a rounded education or help prisoners develop a broad range of skills to help them get jobs is pure fantasy.

The problem with prisons is not the lack of opportunities for work and education. It is that we are locking up thousands upon thousands of people unnecessarily. Addressing this scandal is the real prison reform challenge.

We need to talk about God

But listening to Mr Gove's speech left me feeling uneasy in another way. In short, Mr Gove does God.

Before the General Election he wrote a rather quaint piece for The Spectator. Littered with non sequiturs and fallacies, it was entitled 'In the Defence of Christianity'.

Christianity, he argued, teaches us that we are all flawed and fallen but that, equally, we are all capable of moral purpose, responsiblity and redemption.

'Redemption', indeed, is a term Mr Gove not infrequently uses in conversations with civil servants. It also features in his party conference speech.

He called for 'a new and unremitting emphasis in our prisons on reform, rehabilitation and redemption'. He wants to 'bring redemption to those who were lost'.

His understanding of reform and rehabilitation has distinctly theological undertones:

'Giving every individual the chance to reflect in their heart on the wrong they have done - and to change for the better - will be at the heart of our prison reform programme.'

I was brought up a Catholic and studied Theology at University. And while I have long been an atheist I retain a healthy respect for those whose religious beliefs impell them to tackle society's ills.

But God talk and theological reasoning is best left to those responsible for our churches and cathedrals.

We really don't need a Justice Secretary who believes himself to be on a mission from God.