Having recently completed the Three Peaks Challenge I consider myself an expert on punishment. Aside from the physical exertion, the challenge forced me to spend around 48 hours in close contact with two friends. It would not be unfair to say that some of the conditions Gordon Ramsay saw when he visited HMP Brixton were luxurious in comparison. For starters, they are at least dry.
Titled ‘Gordon Behind Bars’ and available on 4OD, the series follows TV Chef Gordon Ramsay on his mission to set up a food business within Brixton prison and get prisoners to pay something back into the system. For some viewers, the conditions found within HMP Brixton will no doubt have raised a few eyebrows. Complete with televisions, PlayStations and personal items some cells are comparable to the average teenager’s bedroom.
Indeed, one prisoner arrogantly told Gordon that “it’s an easier life in jail than it is outside. In here you’ve got everything done for you.” Given five meal choices each day, access to taxpayer funded degree courses and a plethora of other rehabilitation options the contrast with the thousands of students taking out massive loans for higher education study and living in relative poverty is an obvious one.
It is clear that I am not an expert with regards to the issue of whether prisoners should be shown the cooler or the path to rehabilitation. Whilst my gut tells me that prisoners should learn to deal with the consequences of their actions and be fed no more than stale bread and water, the reality of the situation is that some people do genuinely need help. Often victims of their surroundings, it is a well-known fact that more than 50% of all crime is committed by reoffenders. Aside from the emotional impact upon the victims of crime it must be noted that this constant reoffending is costing the taxpayer a fortune. When it is considered that this fortune is actually £2 billion a year (or £38 000 per prisoner per year) any new attempts to reduce the reoffending rate should not be scoffed at as the system is clearly currently failing.
Of course, most victims of crime are not interested in the offender’s emotional stability. For many, even the most extreme implementation of Sharia law would be too soft, this especially true for the majority of the British population when the offender is identified to be a City of London investment banker or hedge fund manager. Whilst ‘banker-bashing’ is a recent, popular and potentially destructive national pastime, there is a growing fear that a ‘two-tier’ justice system is developing; one in which the poor are doomed to a life of prison, crime and reoffending whereas the wealthy are able to dodge severe punishment through political connections and the hiring of ludicrously expensive lawyers.
This was a point stressed by John Lydon on BBC Question Time only a few weeks ago. Arguing that wealthy bankers, corrupt politicians and caviar guzzling chief executives were above the reach of the law, Lydon clumsily concluded the mood of much of the nation. And despite his desperate attempt to incite a revolution and appeal to the masses, Lydon does have a valid argument which can now be investigated whilst public attention is temporarily refocused upon the London Olympics.
Take for instance the recent LIBOR banking scandal. Having taken the Western financial world by storm, estimated to have caused $1.5 trillion damage and increased misery to millions of ordinary mortgage payers the total theft is likely to be the largest fraud operation ever seen within the market to date. And as of the 30th July 2012, not one person has been arrested. Aside from the Chief Executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, resigning and being asked to appear before the Treasury Select Committee on July 4th, the only other punishment has been a record breaking fine imposed by regulators in both the United Kingdom and United States. Whilst severe, the £290 million fine is only a fraction of the £4.2 billion profits that Barclays has made so far this year.
Conversely, the action taken against those at the other end of the spectrum is far more severe in comparison. After stealing £3.50 worth of bottled water during the London riots in the summer of 2011 electrical engineering student Nicolas Robinson was jailed for six months. Whilst his actions are impossible to defend, the ‘two-tier’ system Lydon refers to could not be more obvious. Should the law be applied equally Bob Diamond, half the Barclays board and several key bankers involved in the scandal would be serving lifetime sentences within a maximum security prison.
Despite the above, this article should in no way be seen as promoting proletarian uprising. Infact I suspect that both wealthy and poor criminals have more things in common than a desire to act dishonestly. Whilst interviewing one of the prisoners in HMP Brixton, inmate Lawrence Gibbons claimed that he didn’t care ‘about any of the victims’ in any of the cases he had been involved in throughout his 45 year existence.
What are the odds that Bob Diamond feels the same?
Largely ignored by the mainstream media, a recent Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report has shown that in terms of the world economic league table rankings, Brazil overtook the UK in 2011 to become the world’s sixth largest economy. Whilst disappointing for Britain, other key European countries suffered a similar fate. By 2020 Germany, Italy and France are also expected to slide significantly down the league table, having been overtaken by the rapidly emerging Asian ‘tigers’ and BRIC countries. Aside from the obvious dent to national pride and international economic influence, what does the report mean for the future of the United Kingdom, Europe and the Western world?
When considering Western decline, most concerning for Europe, America and Japan is the spectacular rise of two BRIC countries; Russia and China. Largely reliant on natural resource exploitation for predicted future growth, Russia is both a past adversary of the West and a likely future one. Recent Russian defence spending has focused on enlarging the armed forces to cope with high unemployment, joint military manoeuvres with China and an increasingly bombastic international role culminating in the now largely forgotten 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Unlike Russia, China is not particularly resource rich. Despite this, the official Chinese military budget has increased by nearly 200% since 2001; this being fuelled by exceptional double-digit economic growth throughout the decade. Unofficially, the budget is rumoured to have increased by an even larger amount. This budget amplification has enabled the Chinese to design and produce advanced stealth fighters, create a naval base in the Seychelles to directly threaten India and purchase rusting Russian aircraft carriers. Again, similar to Russia, China has become increasingly vocal within international politics by peddling ludicrous territorial water claims and adopting an ever more offensive posture with regards to Taiwan.
When Russian and Chinese investment is contrasted with severe Western military budget cuts (including those recently announced by the United States) and combined with increased international posturing, commentators are rightfully concerned that the West faces a tough choice; to either submit to the new economic powerhouses or invest in the military and suffer from increased debts and economic stagnation. Furthermore, it is a certainty that at some point this century the United Nations Security Council will have to be overhauled to reflect modern day politics; this likely costing the West dear in terms of their previously almost unrivalled control of international affairs.
Faced with the CEBR report, continued Chinese and Russian intransigence combined with military expansion, a stubborn economic financial crisis and a continuous slew of disappointing economic data it would be rational for Western politicians to panic at the prospect of a century increasingly dominated by a series of unstable, unmanageable and untested countries. Especially countries ever more flush with cash and lacking a fondness for quaint European traditions, American excess or Japanese electronic domination.
However, this predictable panic is often unnecessary. Since 1945, the UK has been suffering from a slow international decline as the Empire has been gradually disbanded; a direct result of having fought and shouldering the burden of two devastating world wars. Despite such decline, this has not meant an end to peace and prosperity for the British people. Instead, decline has been ‘managed’ to ensure that aside from brief periods in history, British military power and influence around the globe has remained constant, national security has not been threatened and living standards have generally increased, decade after decade.
If managed correctly, many commentators are confident that gradual Western economic decline is not necessarily the doomsday scenario that scaremongers predict. Whilst international politics and conflict is inherently difficult to predict, unbiased observers are able to see that economic decline does not always correlate with a demise in international influence, foreign policy or military power. Provided that investment is made in the right areas, the British – and in some respects, Western – role in the world as nations of highly educated and skilled designers, service sector workers, high-end manufacturers and engineers can only complement non-Western economic growth. Indeed, the rapidly growing countries of Asia and Latin America need our skills and expertise as much as we need their natural resources and mass produced factory goods.
Whilst the CERB report is undoubtedly a blow to British and Western visions of self-importance, I can still see one reason within the report to be cheerful. Apparently, should the predictions turn out to be accurate the British rate of economic decline will not be as quick as that of our closest continental neighbour and age old national adversary, France. By 2020, the United Kingdom will have come from behind to beat the French to eighth in the global pecking order, and by quite a considerable margin too. Now that is a cause for celebration. Someone pass the Chardonnay…