And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.
If we can believe Peter Mandelson–I know, but just suppose–the New Labour Project was set up in direct response to the murder of James Bulger. According to Mandelson's 1994 book The Blair Revolution, Tony felt that the murder of a small child by two slightly bigger children was 'the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name'. He set up New Labour in order to sort things out. (See this article, and also this one.)
If Blair had been correct in thinking that this 'Orrible Murder was the symptom of a social sickness, then he would have been quite correct to start looking for a social cure. If kids are really killing kids because Society is falling apart, then it would probably be a good idea to start putting it back together again. This would have been a better approach than that of Judge Justice Morland (who thought that the murder was caused by violent videos); the Tory Party (who thought that it was caused by something they called 'wickedness') or the tabloids (who thought that the best idea would be to hang a couple of ten-year-olds: something that even that nice George Bush would blanch at). But it was never clear what social ill was being manifested or what Blair proposed to do about it.
In a speech entitled 'Our Nations Future' given earlier this year in Bristol, Tony confirmed that it was the problem of Law and Order which gave birth to New Labour. In opposition, he specifically asked John Smith to make him Shadow Home Secretary because he 'wanted to change radically the Labour party's stance on (crime)'. He thought that a sinister organization called the 'political and legal establishment' was out of touch with The Public on this issue and that it was his job to change things so that The Public got what it wanted. Never mind education, education and education: Tony's top three priorities were crime, crime, crime and punishment, punishment, punishment.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, which is not a phrase I often use, the lecture starts out by attempting a sophisticated analysis of the problem. There are, he says, more criminals than there were in the olden days and the police are less good at catching them than they used to be. Blair says that the reasons for this are very complex which is what you always say if you are going to propose ridiculously simplistic answers. It seems that, once upon a time, we all lived in things called 'Communities'. These Communities were very good at passing on moral values and very good at informally controlling people's behavior. As a result of social change these Communities no longer exist, so it follows that there is more crime.
The Communities of the Britain before the Second World War are relics to us now. The men worked in settled industrial occupations. Women were usually at home. Social classes were fixed and defining of identity. People grew up, went to school and moved into work in their immediate environs.
Geographical and social mobility has loosened the ties of home. The family structure has changed. The divorce rate increased rapidly. Single person households are now common. The demography changed: the high-crime category of young men between 15 and 24 expanded. The disciplines of informal control - imposed in the family and in schools - are less tight than they were....
This is a disconcertingly Old Labour–even Marxist–way of looking at things. The old economy caused people to assume relatively stable and inflexible social roles. Men spent their whole lives down a coal mine while their wives stayed at home and raised the next generation of miners and miners' wives. This tended to produce prosperous coal-mines which was good for both the miners and the mine-owners. These families grouped themselves together and formed Communities and these Communities were very good at regulating themselves–ergo, hardly any crime. But then, one Thursday, the economy changed. It decided that it no longer needed a labour-force of big, strong miners; but a relatively small number of highly skilled people and a large number of relatively unskilled workers. So Daddies started to move around the country to find jobs that matched their skills, Mummies got on their bikes and looked for work (often low paid unskilled work) and Children left home in order to go to college and learn new skills. As a result, the old Communities went away, and were replaced by new kinds of social networks. These new networks are less good at controlling naughty people than the old ones were. In summary: there is more crime, but society is to blame.
If you accepted this analysis, then one of two things would follow. You might decide to have a go at rebuilding Communities, since they worked so well in the past. You'd encourage people to get married and to have large families. Encourage married people to stay together; get rid of silly ideas like gay marriage and no-fault divorce. Provide mothers (or fathers, but in practice mothers) with financial and social incentives to be full time home-makers. Give employers and employees incentives to stay in the same job for a long time. Manipulate the housing market so that people can afford to live near their workplace; and so that one-income households can afford a mortgage. Have more small, local, community schools; and fewer large specialist schools. Only let the very clever go to university. And bingo–stable Communities, well behaved, well-fed, thin children, no crime and spinsters cycling to Holy Communion across cricket pitches.
On the other hand, you might think that if the economy has produced a high-crime society, then it's the economy which is broken. Maybe it is more profitable for companies to be able to hire and fire at will; but it's better for society if citizens have a job for life. So don't blame 'society' for crime; blame capitalism. If you took this view, then you would probably storm the winter palace and assassinate the Tsar, which I don't necessarily recommend.
Of course, Tony rejects both these propositions. Tony is looking for a third...er...some other alternative. Tony admits that the old Communities were stifling. Tony is a social liberal. Tony thinks that letting mothers have jobs (for example, in law firms) is a Good Thing. Tony believes in prosperity. Tony wants the sort of safety and decency that Communities provided. But he doesn't want the sort of economy which produced Communities.
Tony's solution is simple: the role of the Community must be taken over by the state.
That is why our anti-social behaviour legislation, for example, has proved so popular - because it is manifestly on the side of the decencies of the majority. It deliberately echoes some of the moral categories - shame, for example - that were once enforced informally.
Blair envisages a world where formal punishments, enforced by the State, replace informal sanctions, enforced by the Community. In the Olden Days, if I walked around my garden naked or played my gramophone too loudly then the Community twitched its curtains disapprovingly. In Modern Times, some individual neighbor will complain to the State, and the State will impose an Anti-Social-Behaviour order on me. Blair says that ASBOs are a formal reflection of what the Community used to do informally. Maybe: but if you breach your ASBO, then it's the state that comes along and very formally sends you to jail.
So: our options appear to be a sort of Stalinism-lite, where the State dishes out criminal sanctions for things which are not in themselves crimes; or else a return to a Camberwick Green world of house-wives, churches, social disapproval and clips-round-the-ear. If these are really the options, then I chose the Good Old Days. We know (because Tony says so) that Communities did a good job of preventing crime. We don't know that the state will do an equally good job. Its record on the Millennium Dome and the NHS doesn't exactly fill one with confidence.
Of course, I don't really think that these are the only choices available, because I'm not persuaded by Blair's theory of Community. I see at least three reasons to reject his analysis.
1: Has crime really been increasing consistently since 1945?
Blair wants us to believe that crime is a little local difficulty which has arisen as the result of specific circumstances at the end of the 20th century. This requires us to accept a set of magic numbers:
As the 20th Century opened the number of crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales per head of population were at its lowest since the first statistics were published in 1857.
By 1997 the number of crimes recorded by the police was 57 times greater than in 1900. Even allowing for population growth it was 29 times higher. Theft had risen from 2 offenses per 1,000 people in 1901 to 55.7 in 1992.
Over the past 50 years, the detection rate almost halved. 47% of all crimes were detected in 1951 but only 26% in 2004/5. Conviction rates fell too, to 74% in 2004/5 from 96% in 1951.
Does he seriously believe that figures from 1951, or 1900, or even 1857 can be uncritically compared with those of today? Does he believe that there are things called 'crime figures' which unproblematically tell us how much crime is happening? Hasn't he done 'O' level sociology? If everyone is worried about dangerous dogs; then the police go looking for dangerous dogs; and therefore they find more dangerous dogs; so the 'rate' of dog related crime goes 'up'. This doesn't tell us how many rottweilers there are on the streets. If you redefine wife-beating as criminal assault (rather than a private matter) then the number of criminal assaults goes 'up'. If the police are good at dealing with domestic abuse, then women are more inclined to report violent spouses, and the figures get even higher. It may be that there are 57 times as many varieties of crime as there were when Queen Victoria was on the throne; but these figures by themselves aren't enough to establish this.
2: Is the supposed increase in crime really due to the decline in Communities?
Blair doesn't provide any actual evidence that this is the case. He asserts that Communities are uniquely good at passing on moral values and informally controlling bad behavior. He asserts that crime has increased; he asserts that this has happened at the same time as the decline in Community; and asks us to accept on trust that the one caused the other.
3: Blair's concept of The Public radically contradicts the central premise of his argument.
Why do we need to rethink our approach to law and order? For the benefit of The Public.
Why do we need to adopt a specific set of Blairite policies? Because The Public want us to.
Who are The Public? Blair doesn't understand the phrase to mean 'Society' or 'All of Us': Rather:
By the public....I mean ordinary, decent law-abiding folk...
The public are anxious for a perfectly good reason: they think they play fair and play by the rules and they see too many people who don't, getting away with it.
The Public are, in fact, our old friends Hardwor-Kingfamilies. In Blairspeak, 'Public', 'Majority' and 'Law-abiding' have become more or less synonymous:
...the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too.
....the rights of the law-abiding majority
....make protection of the law-abiding public the priority
....reclaim the street for the law-abiding majority
But surely this blows the whole theory of the social origins of crime out of the water. If Blair's analysis were correct, we would expect practically everyone to be criminals and hardly anyone to be decent–because the mechanism which restrained crime and perpetuated decency no longer exists. If in 1992 we had reached the point where society was no longer worthy of the name, then we would have expected the bodies of murdered toddlers to be piled up in the street. Despite what you may have read in the Daily Mail, this never happened. The majority of the population is Decent. The majority of the population obeys, or at any rate abides, the Law. It follows that the role of Communities was, at best, marginal. Raise people in Communities, and everybody is decent and law-abiding. Take Communities away, and nearly everybody is decent and law-abiding. But if not from Communities, then where is the public getting all this decency? Surely Tony should be dedicating his resources to finding out?
So: the world can be split up neatly into two groups–the law-abiding majority and the law-breaking minority. Blair thinks that the rights of these groups are always and necessarily in conflict; that liberals since the Victorian era have been taking rights away from Lawkeepers and giving them to Lawbreakers; that the system is now hopelessly biased towards bad people, and it's the job of New Labour to redress the balance. This concept of 'rebalancing' is absolutely central to Blair's thinking. For example, with regard to the rights of ordinary decent criminals:
Here is the point. Each time someone is the victim of anti-social behavior, of drug related crime; each time an illegal immigrant enters the country or a perpetrator of organized fraud or crime walks free, someone else's liberties are contravened, often directly, sometimes as part of wider society. It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict; and every day we don't resolve it, by rebalancing the system, the consequence is not abstract, it is out there, very real on our streets (My italics).
And with regards to the rights of people with dark coloured skin and veils:
At present, we can't deport people from Britain even if we suspect them of plotting terrorism unless we are sure that, if deported, they won't suffer abuse on their return home...I agree the human rights of these individuals, if considered absolute, would militate<
Or, in summary:
This is not an argument about whether we respect civil liberties or not; but whose take priority. It is not about choosing hard line policies over an individual's human rights. It's about which human rights prevail.
At the Labour Party Rally in Manchester, Tony's unhinged Home Secretary said that this theory of re-balancing was self-evident and not open to discussion .
It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people. It's wrong. Full stop. No ifs. No buts. It's just plain wrong.<my italics>
People only ever say this about propositions which they know to be nonsense.
What Tony is attempting to do is fool us with the oldest political conjuring trick in the book. Anyone can learn it. It goes like this.
A: Pick a concept. Any concept you like. Shuffle it.
B: Pick a second concept, completely unrelated to the first one.
C: State in a clear, confident voice that Concept A and Concept B are examples of the same kind of thing. Try to imply that only a fool would doubt this. (Advanced students may like to try actually believing it themselves: it's much easier to convince an audience that black is white if you have first convinced yourself of it. Blair is a past master of doublethink: that's why he is such a successful politician.)
D: Taking care not to let anyone see that you have a syllogism up your sleeve, pull a rabbit out of your political hat and say 'Since you are Vegetarian, how can you possibly support Proportional Representation?' or 'How can a country which has abolished the Death Penalty possibly retain a Television License?'
E: Run away before anyone notices that you are talking bollocks.
For practice, try pretending that 'global warming' and 'religious faith' are the same thing. Say that it follows that people who don't approve of religious indoctrination can't logically teach their children about environmental issues; or conversely that people who think that children ought to be encouraged to recycle must logically approve of compulsory prayer in schools. I actually heard a mentally handicapped American lady called Anne-something-or-other arguing precisely this on Newsnight a while back: Paxman was rather soft on her.
Or again: during the 1980s coal miner's strike, Neil Kinnock was asked to comment on an ugly outbreak of picket-line violence. He replied that he condemned all violence unreservedly, but that the most serious violence was that being inflicted on mining communities by the coal board management. Try to translate this into English: it comes out as nonsense ('If you are made redundant it is okay to punch a policeman.' 'A company which closes a business which is losing money should be charged with common assault') but he gambled that a pun around the word 'violence' would catch the audience off-guard.
Tony Blair's sleight of hand involves palming the word 'rights'. 'Rights' has a fairly clear legal meaning, A person with a permit has the 'right' to fish in this lake; a person without a permit doesn't have the 'right' to do so; if you are caught fishing without a license, then the person who owns the lake has the right to prosecute you. The state says that I have the right to a defense lawyer and the right to vote in elections. These rights mean something, because they are the kinds of rights which it is within the state's power to grant. I know how to assert them; if someone tries to take them away, I know what kind of redress I can seek.
But if I say 'I have the right not to be mugged'; 'I have the right not to me burgled' or 'I have the right not to be blown up by a loony with a rucksack full of Semtex' then the word 'right' is at best a figure of speech and at worst a pun. I don't have any right not to be murdered, because there is no-one on earth who can give me that right, and so far as I know, there isn't a murder-free nation in the world. What I have is a wish not be murdered; a hope that I will not be murdered; an aspiration not to be murdered; a desire to live in a society where my chance of being murdered is fairly low.
If you fall for the original misdirection then Blair's position is unanswerable. If there is indeed a pot which contains a finite number of rights, and if there are not enough rights to go around, then it is better to give most of the rights to good people and leave bad people to go hungry. But if you translate it back into English you find that what he has said is 'My aspiration to live in a safe society is more important than your right to a fair trial'; 'Public safety is more important than civil rights', 'Security is more important than freedom' 'The detention, internment, shooting, execution and torture of a small number of citizens–whether or not they have actually done anything–is a price well worth paying for the safety of the remainder'.
If the rights of bad people are always and necessarily at the expense of good people, then it follows that bad people have no rights whatsoever and there should be no limits on what a police officer can do in the name of the common good. If I am accused of a crime, the policeman should be quite free to beat me up until I confess: and if I say 'You are infringing my rights' he can legitimately reply 'What about the rights of the person whose grandmother's wedding ring you stole?' We would end up saying that we should be prepared to live in a society with no human or civil rights at all if that society offered 100% security. Accept Blair's theory of re-balancing, and you've accepted the principle that a police state with a crime rate of zero would be a desirable outcome.
Am I exaggerating? Blair helpfully provides a checklist of the kinds of rights which bad people currently enjoy but which they might not be able to enjoy for much longer.
Because we care, rightly, about people's civil liberties, we have, traditionally, set our face against summary powers; against changing the burden of proof in fighting crime; against curbing any of the procedures and rights used by defense lawyers; against sending people back to potentially dangerous countries; against any abrogation of the normal, full legal process. But....
1: In England, if you are accused of a crime, you can't be punished without being put on trial and having a chance to defend yourself. But in the Tonysphere if a policeman thinks you are doing something wrong, he may be able to punish you on the spot (presumably with a clip-round-the-ear). This is what 'summary powers' means.
2: In England, if you are put on trial, you are assumed to be innocent until you are proven guilty. In the Tonysphere, the state may decide to punish you because you can't prove that you are innocent. That is what 'changing the burden of proof' means.
3: In English trials you have the right to a legal expert to speak on your behalf, to cross-examine witnesses and to ensure that the law is fairly interpreted. (The state even pays his fee if you can't afford to.) But in the Tonysphere, obstacles are going to be put in the way of these legal experts, making it much harder for them to challenge and critique the evidence the state brings against you. That is what 'curbing the procedures and rights used by defense lawyers' means. (It follows that, under the new 'guilty until proven innocent' system (see point 1), it will be much harder to prove your innocence, and there will be many more innocent people in jail.)
4: In England we say that, even if the court decides that you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt, there is a limit to what the state can do to you. We can take away your property or your liberty, but we can't take away anything else. Under no circumstances will we kill you or torture you. But in the Tonysphere, there are no such guarantees. We aren't going to set up a Ministry of Torture. Not just yet, anyway. But if we put you on a plane to Bongo-Bongo-Land and they stick a hosepipe up your bottom, we'll, that's not our problem, is it? That's what 'sending people back to potentially dangerous countries' means. (Some of the people that we send to countries where they torture you will, in fact, be innocent: see point 3.)
5: In case all this wasn't clear enough, in the Tonysphere the whole idea of giving criminals trials before we punish them may be abolished, or at any rate, 'abrogated'.
Tony doesn't say that baddies are definitely going to lose any of these rights: he only says that they are not definitely going to keep them. He talks about 'civil liberties' as if they are rather esoteric–what was the word, 'airy-fairy'?–the kind of thing that only pedants and lawyers would worry about. But what he is in fact calling into question is the whole concept of proof. In England, we only punish you for crimes that we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that you did. 'Not Guilty' doesn't mean 'Definitely Innocent' but 'We failed to prove that your were definitely guilty'. 'Probably guilty' means the same as 'Innocent.' But in the Tonysphere, the mere fact that you have been accused of a crime may grounds for punishing you for it. This approach was very successfully piloted at Stockwell tube station last year.
Is this fanciful? At the beginning of the lecture, Tony talked about the way in which the Victorians started to improve the rights of criminals but gradually went too far, and that we need to take some rights away from these criminals and give them back to The Public. But as the argument develops the people from whom he wants to take away rights stop being criminals and become....'suspects'.
Why do we have to go to these extremes? It seems that it is a matter of historical inevitability.
It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict. <My emphasis>
So: the rights of those accused of crimes and the rights of Hardwor-Kingfamilies have not always been at odds: the conflict came into being when society changed. But in what possible way do the social changes that Blair has outlined imply the legal changes that he thinks we might need? Again, if you try to translate what he has written back into English, you end up with sheer nonsense:
'When there were Communities, we could afford to assume that people were innocent until proven guilty, but now that there are no Communities, we can't.'
'Summary powers are necessary because people do different jobs from their dads.'
'We may need to abrogate the normal trial process because there are lots of bachelor households.'
'We can't guarantee to protect people from torture, because many women go out to work.'
Ah, says Tony, but other things have changed apart from Communities:
Fixed Communities go. The nuclear family changes.(1) Mass migration is on the march Prosperity means most people have something worth stealing. Drugs means more people are prepared to steal. Organized crime which traffics in drugs and people make money. Violence, often of a qualitatively as well as quantitatively different sort than anything before, accompanies it. Then there is the advent of this new phenomenon of global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam.
But how do any of these circumstances lead to the changes in the law he proposes? How do you get from 'the nuclear family changes' to 'the police should be able to punish you without bothering with a trial'? Or from 'It is profitable to sell drugs' to 'Maybe we'll change the burden of proof'?
Some of what he says is literally nonsensical. Translated into English, does 'violence of a quantitatively different sort' mean 'There is more violence'? Then why not say that? And does 'violence of a qualitatively different sort' mean anything at all? Is he saying that someone has invented a new kind of violence? How? We have a problem with young men threatening each other with knives; but twenty five years ago, they threatened each other with broken bottles. We have a serious problem with terrorists who say they are Muslims blowing up people on buses, but twenty five years ago, we had terrorists who said they were Catholics blowing up people in shopping centers. What's qualitatively different?
We started out listening to a grown-up argument about how a change in society may require a new approach to law and order. But we've slipped back into familiar Tony territory. Strings of words with no semantic content. Phrases which sound like arguments, but which are actually slogans. Short sentences. No verbs. I am the egg-man. They are the egg-men. Goo-goo-goo-joob. Goo-goo-goo-joob.
Is it the job of a politician to give the public what they say they want, or what they really do want? (2). It's Tony Blair's inability to answer this question that has made his government such a waste of space.
Perhaps the Public say that they want more bobbies-on-the-beat: but what they actually want is to walk home without being mugged. They just happen to think–erroneously, for the sake of argument–that if there were lots of constables on the streets, they would be safe from muggers. So, do you spend your money on things that would (for the sake of argument) prevent muggings–CCTV cameras, karate lessons for old ladies, free PlayStations for unemployed youngsters? Or do you say that if the Public wants P.C McGarry Number 452, then that's what you should provide?
The Public certainly says that its want 'Justice', which equates to 'Punishment', criminals getting what they deserve. Blair goes so far as to say that the criminal justice system is a public service, dispensing a commodity called 'justice'. I submit that what the Public actually wants is for there to be not very much crime: they just happen to think that the best way of getting rid of it is to be tough on it.
Blair's conclusion, that rights should be taken away from bad people, or anyone we think might be a bad person, and redistributed to good people, does not in any way follow from his premise, that crime is the result of community breakdown. This is because he had decided on the answe before he had asked the the question.(3) He appears to believe that crime is a social problem with a social solution; but he believes that, as an Out Of Touch Member of the Political And Legal Establishment, it is his duty to give The Public what they want. Or else he thinks that it is expedient to throw the mob a bone in order to get their votes. It is even possible that he sincerely believes that The Public is always right. At any rate he pretends that he thinks that the solution to crime lies in sending more criminals to prison (along with a few innocents who accidentally get caught in the net.) This is why he has to talk nonsense. He knows that his conclusions don't follow from his premises, but he has to pretend that they do.
If crime is a social illness, then the solution is to cure it. If crime is a caused by bad people, then the solution is to arrest them. In this case, there really isn't any third way.
The majority is never right. Never, I tell you!...Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population—the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it’s the fools, no matter where you go in this world, it’s the fools that form the overwhelming majority.–Henrik Ibsen, 'A Public Enemy'
(1) He doesn't really mean 'The nuclear family changes'. The 'nuclear family' means 'a household consisting of two parents and several children', as opposed to 'the extended family', which means 'a household consisting of parents, children, and one or more sets of in-laws'. What Blair means that set-ups other than the nuclear family are becoming more common. He presumably thinks that children raised in non-nuclear families (two sets of divorced parents, a single parent, a gay couples, a hired nanny) are less likely to be 'decent' than those raised in the traditional 20th century way. It could be that 'the nuclear family changes' is a slip of the tongue for 'society changes and fewer and fewer people live in nuclear families'. But I suspect that 'nuclear' is a null-word that has attached itself to 'family' (like gratuitous swearing; bogus asylum seeker; vast majority; hard-working family and New Labour) and that Blair means and understands nothing by it.
(2) This is a different question from the one about whether you should give people what they ought to want–e.g thin children–or what they actually want–e.g beefburgers and chips.
(3): Of course, he has used this approach very succesfully in his foriegn policy. He decided that the answer was "War with Iraq", and then tried to work out what the question was.