Peter Hitchens is exasperating. One minute he is the epitome of the old fogey, ranting about the decline of moral standards, and the next he is expostulating on the role of the modern police force and making some original and cogent points. But mostly he is the old fogey.

Peter Hitchens
Atlantic Books
316 pp

A Brief History of Crime is a good read, in that it takes you along a clearly mapped out pathway, and he does write well. It is easy to follow the arguments, and much of the history is genuinely interesting.

Have I been too kind to him? Peter Hitchens would have no compunction about disagreeing with everything that the Howard League argues, and his conclusions on the future use of imprisonment are arcane nonsense. But, I still found the book mildly amusing and did learn things I didn't know before. So I am trying to put the positive bits first.

His history, whilst highly selective with dubious conclusions, includes some fascinating gobbets. The development of the 999 emergency system he posits as symbolic of the changes in society and in policing. A fatal fire in London in 1936 killed five women. There were complaints about the slowness of getting through to the operator on the telephone system, and the Post Office began the 999 system so that emergencies could jump the queue. Confined to London and Glasgow before the war, it was soon copied around the world.

But underneath all of the superficial amusement the reader gets is such a sad book. A book written by someone disturbed and angry, who sees decay and destruction around everywhere. The apparent lack of moral values and self-restraint leading to misery, particularly of the poor who are made poor in spirit.

It is all nonsense of course. We are in a period of transition, from several thousands of years of male authoritarianism and a new society must be forged. So new systems of social control need to be found, and this transition period is as difficult as a birthing process always is, and as discomforting to the paternalistic onlooker who is left with nothing to do but boil the pointless water.

Fundamentally we liberal do-gooders don't like crime and anti-social behaviour. We want people to behave well and we want an orderly and cheery community, but unlike social conservatives and traditionalists we think it is more likely that people will behave well if they are treated well, and that if the state and its organs are cruel, barbaric, vicious and capricious then the people will be too.

I live in a world where I feel enormous optimism for the future. I like the fact that young people question everything, and was deeply proud of all those young people who risked so much to go demonstrating for peace. What makes me angry is the wasted lives I see languishing in prisons, the people who are made victims by the extremely harsh and unimaginative loss of precious time from their lives, for no purpose.

Peter Hitchens is right in criticising the prison systems for having lost the plot, but he is wrong in suggesting that the solution is to introduce severe external controls and physical punishments.

The prisons, the microcosm and distillation of society, should only exist for the very few who really need incarceration because they have committed serious and violent offences and they represent danger. They should be busy, humane and creative places, which allow decision-making, and for prisoners still to be engaged with society through their families, and economic and social contacts.

The number of men, women and children in prison today is almost twice that of ten years ago. Yet, apart from an increase in spending on basic skills education (why should we have to send people to prison to teach them to read and write?) there has been no serious thinking about why we are doing this. The cost to the taxpayer and to the families is huge. The concentration on punishment damages the national debate by focussing all attention on revenge. And there is no evidence that it does anyone any good. Certainly not the victims, who are all but ignored in the criminal justice process.

Peter Hitchens is right to point to the costly futility of all of this, but not in anything else. It is a lively and amusing book, but I hope it has absolutely no impact on policy or practice.

A Brief History of Crime is available from Amazon UK