IF the referendums on the EU and Scottish independence have changed all of us, then they have changed our politicians the most. They may still talk about other things – the health service, schools – but, in reality, everything is defined by Brexit and Scottish nationalism, the two great monoliths that have been towering over the political landscape for at least six years. Everyone is now judged – and everyone judges others – by how far, or how near, they are to those two great edifices, those never-ending issues, those questions for which there is never a final answer.

The effect has been particularly obvious in recent days, with both Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson doing a bit of nifty manoeuvring from left to right, and right to left, in the search for an optimum position. In Ms Sturgeon’s case, there was an apparent move away from the left with the launch of a report on independence that read like a comeback by George Osborne. Ms Davidson on the other hand was busy promoting a most un-Tory-like policy of increasing tax and an end to Theresa May’s immigration targets. Because this is what happens now: the old labels of left and right can be stuck on, and ripped off, depending on the political contingencies of the moment.

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However, on one issue at least, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson are both disappointingly right-wing. This weekend, it was revealed that self-harming in Scotland’s prisons has almost doubled in four years. David Strang, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, also said too many people are being jailed for short terms that are likely to result in reoffending. It’s the system Fagin and Fletcher would recognise: commit crime, go to prison, come out, commit crime. And yet the positions of the Tories and the SNP, while different on the surface, are remarkably similar in their visceral conservatism: the core of justice is, and should be, the lock and key.

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To be fair to the SNP, they have changed some of their language and policies. They backed off, for instance, from their plans for a women’s “super-prison”, and the introduction of a presumption against prison sentences under three months – soon to be extended to 12 months – was progressive. It appeared to represent an acceptance that short sentences don’t work, mostly because the prisoner is cut off from the things that keep him or her away from offending, such as family and a steady job.

However, the public words from the Government have not been matched by the private reality for prisoners. Thousands are still being imprisoned for three months or less and there’s no reason to expect judges will change their ways when the presumption is extended to a year. There are also other signs that deep down, the Government hasn’t really changed – for example, it looks likely to resist the suggestion by a committee of MSPs that prisoners should be given the right to vote. As for the Tories, they’re being reliably Tory and clinging to the idea of the short-sharp shock effect of prison even though all the evidence says it doesn’t work.

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The reason the parties cling to the old ways is obvious: Sturgeon and Davidson are both aware that the public in Scotland, just like in the rest of the UK, is still deeply conservative on justice and thinks it should mean punishment, deprivation and revenge. I saw it for myself when I visited the old Peterhead prison: one guard talked about the trauma of discovering an inmate who had committed suicide. I’m also unlikely to ever forget the “silent cell” where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement. I came away thinking that, like the cells, the prospects of anyone emerging from this system a better person were tiny.

And yet that prospect, the prospect of changing a person and making them less likely to reoffend, should – must – be the aim of the prison system. In his address last week, David Strang put it this way: if the purpose of criminal justice is to reduce the number of victims by preventing offending, and we know that people sent to prison are highly likely to reoffend, then we need to do prison differently as well as offer better alternatives.

To work effectively, the change will need to happen at every stage, from sentencing, through to prison (and its alternatives), through to release into the community. On sentencing for example, there needs to be a radical reduction in the number of offences that attract the option of prison. And if the presumption against shorter sentences is still not working, there will need to be an effective ban.

The reform also needs to happen inside prisons as well, with custodial sentences focused much more on education and rehabilitation. Why on Earth are prisoners still not allowed to vote, or go on the internet even though some benefits can only be accessed online? And why isn’t literacy, reading and education a much greater part of prison life? Why not reduce sentences by a day every time a prisoner reads a book and by a year every time he or she earns a qualification?

Everyone knows that profound changes along these lines are unlikely to win public support quickly – greater investment in alternatives to prison so that judges, and the rest of us, can begin to have faith in them, will also be a hard sell. But we can also expect benefits for victims – Sweden, for example, is closing several of its jails and its reoffending rate is half that of Scotland; in other words, fewer victims.

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The hope must also be that the political dialogue on justice could change at long last. Perhaps the Tories will always resort to the jangle of keys and the slam of the cell door, but it’s disappointing that the SNP aren’t being more progressive. Perhaps they’re worried a radical policy will lose them support among the large constituency of former Labour supporters with conservative views on justice – voters they need to keep on side.

However, the SNP have something else to prove on this, and it’s the old, familiar story it tells that Scotland is, at heart, by instinct and by action, more liberal than the rest of the UK. It’s a story that will never come true until we change the way we treat our prisoners.