I’ve never understood why many people had a high regard for Ken Clarke. Even so, I fear the fuss about his remarks on rape reflect discredit not just upon him, but upon our political culture too.
What I mean is that there is a genuine and tricky political question here that is being overlooked.
Imagine we were to implement one implication of the “rape is rape” view and give all rapists long sentences. Because people are risk-seeking in the domain of losses, this would discourage guilty men from pleading guilty as they‘d prefer to take their chances with a trial. This would have two effects. It would inflict upon victims the trauma of giving evidence and reliving their ordeal. And - juries being juries and reasonable doubt being reasonable doubt - it would mean that some guilty men might get off.
Clarke’s proposal to discount sentences for guilty pleas is intended to diminish these costs.
What we have here are a set of trade-offs. There’s a trade-off between giving rapists long sentences on the one hand and ensuring all the guilty are convicted on the other. And there’s a trade-off between justice - insofar as harsh punishments are just - and minimizing costs, both to the victims in terms of giving evidence and to tax-payers in terms of banging people up for long spells.
These trade-offs are ubiquitous in sentencing policy. In some cases, the sentences that are best from the point of view of deterring crime might be too harsh for the requirements of justice. In other cases the sentence necessary to ensure adequate punishment might actually lead to more recidivism.
The various things we want from sentencing policy - justice, deterrence, rehabilitation and cost minimization - will in many cases conflict with each other.
And herein lies the essence of what proper politics should be; a debate about what to do when values collide. Of course, judges must have discretion in individual cases, but their decisions must be taken within parameters set by informed public opinion about such values.
But this is not the debate we’re having. Instead, we’re seeing three ugly aspects of our political culture.
One is a tendency to view all political utterances through the prism of whether or not they are “gaffes” - the effect of which will be to discourage plain speaking, or indeed speaking at all.
A second is an atavistic tribalism, which leads both Ed Miliband and The Sun to demand Clarke’s resignation, both on the grounds that he is not “one of us.”
And this leads to a third aspect - the tendency for politics to be reported in terms of who's up/down/in/out - terms which are to a large extent uninteresting tittle-tattle.
Meanwhile, the real substance of proper politics is forgotten.