It is fair to say that nobody is going to feel much sympathy for the poor rapists, whom the Tories targeted in yesterday’s announcement. They plan a review of sentencing – “review” being political code for “lengthening”.
There may very well be grounds for a review. If Theresa May is correct, sentences have been falling over the past three years; if this is due to changes in, or poor application of, the law then a review is warranted. Similarly, if Mr. Cameron is correct that “as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it's okay to force a woman to have sex” then there is an urgent need to tackle the causes.
I have two reasons for feeling uncomfortable, however.
The fist reason for concern is that being tough on criminals is to politics what a steep gully is to water; it is the path of least resistance. Few people have any sympathy for criminals, and rapists in particular engender very strong feelings of anger among large numbers of people. It is thus all-too-easy to achieve what political analysts call “valancy”, a sense among people that a politician thinks like they do, by taking a tough line on crime.
We have seen the upshot of this after ten years of Blairism (which if it exists as a philosophy at all is the belief that the primary goal is to remain in power, from which good must eventually follow). On average a new crime was created every day during the Blair years; there are 170,000 new pages of law; and our gaols are now bursting at the seems because of longer minimum sentences. Yet there is no evidence that we feel safer.
Which brings me on to my second reason for hesitancy: that one cannot change attitudes through legislation. I agree with Mr. Cameron that it is appalling (and indeed shocking) that up to half of young men think that a circumstance could exist where it would be acceptable to force somebody to have sex. However, I think the point is both a wider and an older one; that there are still many people in society who think that it is acceptable to use force to compel others to do anything. Rape is a particularly unpleasant example, but there are plenty of other instances where people are forced or bullied into obeying others. It is this general attitude that we should be addressing; rape is merely one symptom of a more prevalent disease.
Yet, as I have argued before, the law is not the solution (though we must in the meantime criminalise such behaviour so as to protect citizens both through incarcerating the abusers and deterring those who might abuse). People do not change their attitudes because something becomes illegal; indeed, legislation is only necessary because people have not been persuaded. What is necessary is to address the root causes – the beliefs of those who believe that force is justified in getting what they want. Unsurprisingly, the coercive power of the state will not achieve that goal.
So while I agree with Mr. Cameron that school is a perfect environment to address these attitudes, I would hope that our education establishments would go beyond focusing on sex education, and instead address the whole issue of freedom from compulsion, to instil in our children an understanding of why it is wrong to force people to do things against their will.
In the meantime, by all means address low conviction rates or inadequate sentences that result from failures in the system. But do not make political capital out of seeking to be seen to be “tough on crime”. Toughness may win the brief adulation of voters, but in the long run what they want is to be safe and secure. That would be popular without being populist.