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Prison Diaries by Denis MacShane review – deserves a sympathetic reading

The cry ‘it’s not fair!’ runs throughout this book … But the disgraced former minister, jailed for expenses fraud, eventually redeems himself.

When I edited the New Statesman, the then Labour MP Denis MacShane would often bustle into my office carrying in one hand a cycle helmet and, in the other, a few sheets of paper. “Just thought you might want to use that,” he would say cheerily, thrusting the paper into my hands. “Dashed it off this morning. Don’t worry if you haven’t got space.” I don’t recall ever publishing one of his articles – his prose struck me as unstylish and his ideas unoriginal – and I am not sure he expected me to. MacShane, a journalist by trade, is one of those people compelled to write whatever comes into his head. “Scribo ergo sum,” as he says with apologies to Descartes: “If I don’t write, I don’t exist.”

It was all but inevitable, therefore, that when MacShane got six months in prison for false accounting in relation to his parliamentary expenses, a book would follow. But what kind of book is it? There are two ways of reading these diaries, neither assisted by misprints and sloppy editing.

The first is to regard them as an extended whine from a man who believes he was grievously wronged. MacShane refers to himself throughout as a “politician prisoner” and, if you misread that for something very similar, you are probably intended to. He never stops reminding us that the original complaint against him – to the parliamentary authorities who later sent the dossier to the police – came from the BNP and that he has a proud record as an anti-racist. He insists that he and his family never gained personally from his fraudulent claims, which were in the form of invoices from the “European Policy Institute”, a thinktank that, while not exactly inactive, leaves little trace of its work and seems to involve only MacShane’s brother, a poet. The institute’s “charges”, according to MacShane, were a way of recouping expenses incurred in trips around Europe. As a former minister for Europe, dropped from the government after the 2005 election, he says that he needed to undertake this travel in order to keep himself informed and, on occasion, act as Tony Blair’s personal envoy (in which case, one wonders, why couldn’t he ask Blair for some funds?).

He repaid the money in full. Other MPs, by contrast, netted much larger sums, lining their pockets and buying into a rising housing market at taxpayers’ expense. Because they simply bent the parliamentary rules, they could not be charged with criminality. But MacShane found himself at the Old Bailey and, worse still, up before Sir Nigel Sweeney, a judge known for handing out harsh sentences. He was, in short, a scapegoat, offered to placate an outraged public. Nor did the injustice stop there. Unlike other “politician prisoners”, MacShane was not moved quickly to an open prison but held in much less pleasant conditions at Belmarsh and Brixton.

The cry “it’s not fair!” runs throughout this book. MacShane rails against what he sees as his persecutors: the judge, the parliamentary authorities, the BNP and Chris Grayling, the coalition minister who has decreed that prisons should be tougher. The special pleading becomes repetitious, tedious and alienating. “I admit my wrongdoing,” MacShane writes in the introduction; “I can only blame myself … I must accept the consequences.” He occasionally remembers to repeat this, but it is clear that he truly believes he was foolish rather than wrong and doesn’t “accept the consequences”.

The second way of reading this book is as a contemporaneous account of what it is like to be in prison. Read this way, the diaries and their author appear in a much more sympathetic light. If MacShane dwells on how unjust it all is, that merely reflects what goes through most prisoners’ minds as they start their sentences. While he reflects inconsequentially that an “independent financial adviser” who robbed him of a £65,000 inheritance is “sipping his Tiger beer on a Thai beach while I am stuck in Hellmarsh”, he also listens to other prisoners. Nearly all believe they were unlucky or took the rap for someone else or were set up by the police or suffered from useless defence lawyers or received a harsher sentence than someone who did something worse.

They also, like MacShane, hate the brutality, insensitivity and sheer incompetence of the prison system. When he arrives in Belmarsh, his books, pens, notepads, dental floss, shaving foam and toothbrush are confiscated. Most are returned only after five weeks. It is two weeks before he can go to the gym, three before he gets even 10 minutes in the library. Post arrives late if at all; even a letter from MacShane’s solicitor takes nine days to reach him. The food almost entirely lacks fresh fruit and vegetables of which, prisoners are told in an induction session, they should have “eight to 10 servings a day”. The regime has no organisation or structure: prisoners are locked in cells at arbitrary times, sometimes for 17 hours continuously; gym and exercise sessions and religious services are held at unpredictable hours, often without prisoners being informed; arrangements for visits by relatives are chaotic; “red marks” for bad or discourteous behaviour, which result in being “banged up” early, are awarded without the alleged offenders being told; many prisoners are allowed out on tag only several weeks after they should be released. As MacShane describes it, the regime is Kafkaesque in its tortuous bureaucracy and erratically applied rules. It even gets MacShane’s name wrong, calling him Ian throughout, so that well-wishers trying to contact him are told that nobody of his name exists in the prison system.

As his incarceration nears its end – he is allowed home on tag after six weeks – MacShane seems more accepting of his fate, less angry at his persecutors and more interested in other prisoners’ stories. The diaries become vivid, often moving and always generous to fellow inmates, from whom, he writes, he found only “kindness, gentleness and warm solidarity”.

The book deserves this second, more sympathetic reading. Most people who have met MacShane like him, finding him approachable and entirely lacking in pomposity. Nobody who knows him well thinks he is a criminal. But he is a chancer, a mischief-maker and a bit of a fantasist of a type that is common in journalism and, indeed, politics. During his early career at the BBC, journalists there and elsewhere commonly deployed a deal of imaginative skill when compiling their expenses. There but for the grace of God …

MacShane is eloquent about the loneliness of being in prison, even for a brief period, and how precious are messages from outside. “You cannot write too often to a prisoner,” he says and, as someone who didn’t think to write to any of the incarcerated MPs (I knew three, including MacShane), I feel duly chastened. I hope others do too and, if all readers resolve to offer more support in future to imprisoned friends and colleagues, no matter what they’ve done, this book, for all its faults, will have been worthwhile.

Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/27/prison-diaries-denis-macshane-review

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