The politics of fear


When Gary Glitter – former glam rocker and convicted paedophile – was released from a Vietnamese jail and deported, the UK government's reaction was comically predictable. Concerned that he might eventually dredge up on her patch, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced a package of 'tough' new measures on sex offenders. They would face more stringent police monitoring. Restrictions on their travelling abroad would be extended. They might even have their passports confiscated.

It seems that when even the humblest sparrow falls, the government feels compelled to announce some new initiative about the problem, and so convince us all that they're on top of it. What does it matter if they haven't bothered to think it out beforehand?

The UK's restrictions on sex offenders are already some of the world's 'toughest'. Do we really need to re-visit them again? Are ministers telling us they got it all wrong the last time? And since only 1% of offenders go on to commit another serious sex crime, aren't the current laws pretty effective? If it's 'evidence-based policy' you're after, that's pretty good evidence.

But of course it isn't 'evidence-based policy' that ministers are after. They are after two things. First, to justify their existence by introducing as many initiatives on as many subjects on as many occasions as they can muster. That's how Westminster careers are advanced. And second, to convince the public that they are on the ball. The trouble is, that by loading 'tough' measure on 'tough' measure, and 'tough' rhetoric on 'tough' rhetoric, they scare the public rather than reassure them. Paedophilia, yob culture, knife crime and the rest are no more common than they were decades ago. It's just that ministerial spin has frightened us into believing that they are. it's a game the politicians can't win - every 'tough' measure makes them look even less in control. Which is undoubtedly the reality.