I was astonished recently to learn that Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister whom I always thought of as something of a libertarian, should seek to clamp on the land of Magna Carta a Bill of wholesale restrictions on open justice.
He wants a special body of lawyers to sit behind closed doors conducting cases in which the accused cannot defend himself in time-honoured fashion. Incredibly, the accused will not even know with what he is charged nor have the right to face his accuser. He will be defended by a government-appointed lawyer he will never meet or speak with. And a Minister of the Crown, who may well be trying to protect himself or his department from well justified exposure, gets to decide whether the case in question merits this very special treatment.
Now, if this isn’t the very purest form of Kafka, then I’d like to know what is. Certainly every tinpot dictator of modern times would love it.
As you may have guessed from previous writings, the preservation of our ancient liberties is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. As I see it, we didn’t create, over centuries, the great edifice of The Common Law – admired around the world and used by over a quarter of it – only to see it dismantled in many of its essentials by a latter day band of political pygmies.
It is not as though I believe that it should be set in aspic, never to be changed. Some years ago I had deep misgivings when New Labour proposed to change the law of Double Jeopardy, whereby an acquitted person could never be tried on the same charge twice.
I came to believe that if science (DNA) could prove incontrovertibly at a later date that a guilty man had been acquitted then it would not be natural justice to let him continue to get away with it. There were, I considered, many good reasons for my earlier misgivings.
If, for instance, an oppressive government or police force were determined on a guilty verdict then it could keep on coming back for another bite of the cherry until it got the result it wanted.
Also, were the police to know that they could always have another try, they would not feel under the same compulsion to go that extra mile to ferret out all the available evidence the first time round. It would also be unfair on the acquitted person – who might believe that the powers-that-be were out to get him – to ask him to live under such a cloud of deferred retribution. But amendments were put in place that held to the double jeopardy principal except in the most serious of cases, so I was satisfied.
I have long felt that New Labour were cavalier in its attitude to the protections which The Common Law bestowed on us. When terrorism reared its ugly head in the aftermath of 9/11 they leaped to panic stations. They seemed to have forgotten that we, as a nation, had long experience of dealing with that particular sick and murderous element in society – thirty years, no less.
The IRA, of whom we are speaking, were, moreover, far more accomplished practitioners of the dark and terrible arts of mass murder than the Johnny-come-lately Jihadists who had grown up in our midst. Sadly, their bombs went off first time on nearly every occasion. The result was that, on a head count of victims, the IRA were light years ahead of their successors.
But New Labour saw it differently. They rushed through a whole range of measures which began the long assault on things we held dear: which had taken centuries of struggle to achieve. Now we have a new government of a different political hue, but it, too – inexplicably – continues the assault and even carries it into realms hitherto unthought-of. It has to be stopped.
Luckily, these new proposals have raised a great hue and cry from almost every quarter, including 57 of the 69 specially appointed lawyers who want nothing to do with it: bless their courage and probity.
Yet Cameron is supportive of the tragically misguided Clarke. No doubt the police and the security services would like – where they chose – to dispense secret ‘justice’ along with the hospital authorities, coroners’ courts, government Ministers and the Ministry of Defence – all of whom, it is proposed, at the minister’s discretion, can impose in camera hearings.
Were they to have had these powers, we would never had learned the truth with regard to the seven shots to the head, underground shooting of poor Charles de Mendez, mistaken for a terrorist; nor the lack of body armour and helicopters and the use of thin skinned vehicles which led to the death of so many of our brave soldiers; nor the lamentable toll of scandalous hospital deaths and shocking mistreatment of our old people; nor the truth about Princess Diana’s death; nor that of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter; nor even, who knows, of the former Energy Secretary’s alleged wrongdoings. All of them bring acute embarrassment to the people and agencies involved and they would rather we knew nothing of their incompetence or couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Truth and openness, in my view, trumps every other consideration. Only in the most clear-cut threats to national security are we entitled to consider secrecy.
If David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ means a smaller, less intrusive state and more power to the people then I am all for it. Power, inevitably, seeks more power. But I am not concerned how much power accrues to the people; the more the better: they can be trusted. But individuals and agencies must always be constrained, and a free press is there to help us to achieve that.
Servants of the state must also be held to account and answer for serious shortcomings. In industry, commerce and even sport, heads roll regularly: not so in the public sector. This must change. How often is abject failure rewarded not with the sack, but with promotion. This truly incenses the public.
Everybody knows what a failure the head of the Borders Agency has made of her job. And not just that, but the one before. Yet she gets promoted to head up HM Revenue & Customs, an agency failing almost as badly as her own and which desperately needs real and proven talent not failure.
What a way to do business. But that’s big government for you! Spitting in the eye of its paymasters at every turn.
In the ongoing debate about the UK riots it is important to explore further its causes as well as possible remedies. A great mystery for many is why by no means all of the rioters were from deprived, ill-educated backgrounds. What we have to recognise is that below the veneer of civilised life there lurks an anarchic streak which needs only a few factors to coalesce to release mayhem. (St. Petersburg was the most civilised of cities until its people started to eat one another under the pressures of the German seige.)
One of the factors, I suggest, which let the anarchic genie out of the bottle was the images of the early rioters getting away with stealing much sought after goods with impunity, with the police seeming to be impassive bystanders. The many rioters not normally associated with the lawless underclass saw their acquisitive instincts rise to the fore; they felt powerfully envious and jealous that others were acquiring the things which they themselves valued highly and were doing so unimpeded and without risk, so it seemed, of consequences. Ours, as we are all very well aware, is an extremely acquisitive and materialistic society and the temptation was very great. And so adding to all the other tragedies of the last few days is that of bright young people throwing their futures away. For obvious reasons, and to maintain that veneer of civilised conduct, we must come down hard on rioting. There was a time when rampaging, destructive rioters were shot on sight. As for arson, the law has always bracketed it very close with murder because in so many cases it ended up with just that. Of course those days have gone, although the arson view remains.
Many have drawn a parallel with the blatant and offensive greed we see at the top of society. They are not unconnected, though they are not the same: these people have said that a climate right across society of the devil take the hindmost and every man for himself has had a corrosive effect and they are right; they have further pointed out that the sums involved in what might be called Grand Larceny by the upper classes make their hapless imitators in the lower orders look like pathetic amateurs; perhaps more disgracefully, the big practitioners have used their superior wits and education to mask the wickedness of what they are doing. For the fact is they do know what they have been doing and are still doing. But they have been rumbled (highlighting the need for a free and untramelled press). There is, as a result, a very great anger out there among the public.
Not one of the agencies which shape our lives sets an example of probity, save perhaps the military: not the town halls with their obscene rewards for second rate executives; not the parliamentarians who frame our laws; not the police who receive payment for information; not the press with its eagerness to get an expose; not our financial institutions; nor even the House of Lords who are meant to be above it all, packed full as it meant to be with people we are asked to admire as a result of their lives of supposed selfless service in whatever field they have specialised in. But what of the professions? Have they performed better? Don’t believe it! We have doctors conning a witless government into paying them 30% more for less cover and work. We have ambulance chasing lawyers rubbing their hands with glee as they pursue what should be hopeless Human Rights cases at huge expense to the taxpayer (step forward Cherie Blair). And we have accountants stretching the law to breaking point as they seek ever more ingenious dodges and tax havens for their rich clients. Why do people in corporations such as Sir Philip Green along with the likes of philanderers and ex-drug users such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney as well as clean (as far as we know) Cliff Richard and actors such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore, all of whom along with Rod Stewart short-change their country’s treasury get honoured? They are not patriots, they are cheating scoundrels. Sanctimonious Bono’s U2 cheats even poor benighted Ireland of its desperately needed dues. All of these people and bodies have been found wanting and intent only on feathering their own nasty little nests at the public expense.
Corruption, fraud, dissembling all are alive and well in the British state. Oh, for that magnificent body that we once created in distant India – the ICS (Indian Civil Service) – which in over a hundred years of dedicated and selfless service never found one of its servants corrupt. They were chosen after perhaps the stiffest examination ever known to man (the Mandarin exam being a possible exception) and they were expected to be fluent in the language of the area they were seconded to. Setting example, leading from the front, taking the rap that is what all of us look to in our leaders. When did the last politician (David Davis excepted) resign his post on a point of principal or even when a monumental cock-up has been made in their department? Yet funnily enough, Enoch Powell was one of those to do so. Indeed, the last one that I can think of was Lord Carrington over the Falklands and that was nearly thirty years ago. Even lying to Parliament seems not a resigning matter any more. And we have a Speaker who appears little better than a clown (the previous one was no better, being both ignorant and corrupt). What a distance we have fallen. Where oh where, by the way, was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the terrible events of last week? A few words concerning Christian values would surely have not gone amiss.
Not until we show that we will not tolerate reprehensible conduct can we, with justice, expect what used to be called ‘the lower orders’ to respect the law. But meantime we must hold the line on the streets. Let the work begin. Perhaps we can now see a little of that ‘Big Society’ that David Cameron is so keen on. They were there with their clean up operation the morning after the riot.
The recent shocking events in Norway have affected us in a particularly unusual way, as we have long come to view the Scandinavian family in a special light. Although they may once have been among the most violent people ever to walk the earth, that was a very long time ago; like so many others whose characteristics have changed beyond all recognition – think Romans, Germans, Japanese – we now regard the Norsemen as paragons of virtuous and peaceful living. If such an event can occur in such a region then it can occur anywhere. But perhaps I miss a vital factor here; perhaps I should restrict my comments to the developed world. Why do I say this? I say it because we have not yet heard of an outrage of this sort in Africa, Latin America or the East. And we have not heard of it in the countries of the Mediterranean basin.
A common feature of all the perpertrators of these crimes is that they are loners. They do not come from integrated and loving families; they have chips on their shoulders because they feel themselves neglected and unwanted. Their parents, in pursuit of notions of equality and a right to continue the hedonistic lifestyle of youth, even after they have ‘committed’ and produced children, do not want to be burdened with the sacrifices of parenthood. Forget the cover which hatred of the outsider provides – in this case Muslims. If they didn’t exist it would be the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, or other such minority groups. The loner has to have something to hang his grievances on.
One factor which distinguishes this atrocity from the others is that the killer had no wish to kill himself. For a start – with his warped thinking – he believes he is acting in a righteous cause and need have no bad conscience. To him, the end justifies the means or, as Stalin put it: ‘A single death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.’ And in that respect he is no different from the Jehadists. What’s more, he is young and will, due to Norway’s 21-year maximum jail term, be walking the streets again in his early fifties (during this time he will be enjoying some of the cushiest prison conditions in the entire world). Also what is different is that he has left us a veritable mountain of his private thoughts via the internet. He has spent years cataloguing everything. His ‘manifesto’ alone runs to an astonishing 1,430 pages, the majority of which will no doubt be rambling nonsense. We shall further have a chance to analyse his twisted logic in minute detail in one-to-ones during the months and years ahead.
What this sad and tragic tale seems to say to me is that government policies throughout the developed world must be skewed to resurrect the values associated with strong and stable families. Parents must be brought to understand that if they produce children they must stand by them; that they must make sacrifices to ensure that they have happy memories of their childhood to draw on and to know that they were loved and cherished. It is a bitter harvest indeed that we are reaping as a result of the decades following the fifties, when adults were free to be as promiscuous as they pleased – thank you, pill – and to pursue a ‘me, me lifestyle’. And don’t tell these people about duties; they only want to hear about rights.
The Strauss-Kahn affair highlights the amazing disconnect between a clever man of vaulting ambition and the predatory forces of sexuality. We see it again and again across all nations. How, we ask ourselves, do the individuals concerned not see the enormity of the risks they run? Strauss-Kahn was favourite to be the next president of France. His fall from grace is epic, with the dimensions of a Shakespearian or even Greek tragedy. Is it that hubris, driven by a sense of power or wealth, causes these people to think that lesser mortals would not dare to challenge their God-like status? What is important is that we the people show them that justice is blind to such considerations. Equally, we cannot allow those who encourage us to believe in their probity and often use it to advance their career, then run off to the judiciary crying foul and get that over-mighty body to issue a gagging order when, of their own stupidity, things go wrong.
If you want to be placed on a pedestal and be seen as a role model, then you must not disappoint the legions—of the young in particular—by being seen to have feet of clay and be a hypocrite. You have to lead by example. We must act urgently to prevent judges drawing a veil of secrecy over the activities of the rich and famous who wish to have it both ways. Those loosely drafted provisions of the Human Rights Act which have allowed judges, who themselves have been shown to be not above sexual indiscretions, to interpret it in the way they wish.