Clegg in James Bulger apology row

by Stephen Tall on December 17, 2008

Today’s Daily Mail has the story:

The mother of murdered toddler James Bulger is demanding an apology from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg over comments that he made about her son’s murder. Denise Fergus has condemned Mr Clegg over the speech in which he claimed the murder of her son had led to a destructive ‘upswing in the number of children in prison.’

In his speech to the think-tank Demos, Mr Clegg said: ‘We know it was the disaster politics response to the killing of Jamie Bulger that led to a massive upswing in the number of children in prison, or prison-like secure accommodation. And we know it isn’t doing any good, it isn’t cutting crime, it’s just turning fragile children into damaged adults. Turning out a generation of career criminals. We need to protect against the worst, but we should not assume it. Crime must not end hope.’

Mr Clegg went to argue that that a ‘get tough’ reaction to James’ murder by successive Conservative and Labour governments had led to children being imprisoned when they should not have been.

The Mail’s report is a follow-up to a story which appeared in yesterday’s Liverpool Echo and Daily Post, and appears to have been sparked by the faux outrage of rent-a-quote Labour MP George Howarth: “By using the James Bulger case as an example Nick Clegg has shown a gross insensitivity and a deep ignorance of what took place and what prompted the reaction.”

All of which strikes me as a sad example of petty tribal politics, used as a smokescreen to divert attention from a serious issue. What Nick Clegg said in no way demands an apology, and I hope he and his office will stick firmly by the stance he struck.

Anyone with a soul will feel the deepest sympathy for Denise Fergus in her grief. But that should not prevent the leader of the Liberal Democrats from stating what is clearly true: that the national revulsion at James’s brutal death prompted Tory and Labour politicians to adopt a ‘something must be done’ attitude towards youth crime; an attitude which has entirely failed to solve the problem, and has in fact deepened it.

Now it’s open to any politician to disagree with Nick, to argue that the subsequent measures taken were entirely justified. But to pretend, as George Howarth does, that there is no link is as fatuous as it is cynical. Indeed, as the Liverpool Echo itself notes:

Mr Blair, then the shadow home secretary, rose to national prominence by calling the murder “a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the nation”. Coining the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, the future PM signalled Labour would never again be seen as the party soft on criminals.

The Conservatives responded and both parties toughened their stances, leading to a huge rise in the prison population – including the number of teenagers locked up.

And as the Prison Reform Trust notes, “Nick Clegg is absolutely right to imply that bad cases create bad law.”

Nick was entirely right to speak out, right to note the link. The kind of thoughtful honesty he invoked in his speech is something we need more of in politicians. The kind of brainless attempt to shut down debate indulged in by MPs like George Howarth (typically) and Peter Kilfoyle (uncharacteristically) is something we need a lot less of.