Monday, October 30, 2006

A Public Enemy

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 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< sic -- I think he really means "mitigate"> against their deportation. But surely if they aren't deported and conduct acts of terrorism, their victims' rights have been violated by the failure to deport.

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.

Friday, October 27, 2006


Some television programmes are not by Russell T Davies.
Channel 4 decided that it would be a good idea to promote Peter Morgan's drama about the life of Lord Longford by taking out full-page adverts in the broadsheets depicting Myra Hindley as a saint. Possibly even as the Virgin Mary. It makes one want to experiment with using the words "prophet", "Denmark" and "cartoons" in various combinations.
The advertisement carries the strapline "What did he see in her?" which makes me think that Channel 4 got cold feet before transmitting the film. The halo'd face in the montage is that of Hindley herself, not actress Samantha Morton. It's the police mugshut, of course: assume I'd written a sentence including the words "peroxide" and "iconic" in this space. In the film, Lord Longford doesn't recognise Myra when he first visits her in prison, because she no longer looks like that picture. (Her hair turned red while she was on remand, which some people said indicated that she had no remorse. "I wasn't aware of any correlation between hair colouring and contrition" says Longford.) There seems to be no connection between the ordinary, rather pleasant woman who Longford gets to known and the woman in the picture. The film spends an intelligent and un-sensational couple of hours speculating about what the connection might have been. But there are some powerful people who think that even attempting to understand Myra Hindley is the equivalent of condoning what she did. To avoid being accused of supportiing child murder, the publicity material turns the film on its head, and pretends that it is Lord Longford, not Myra Hindley, who requires "explanation". No sane person could have visited such a monster, let alone called for her parole. So he must have had some ulterior motive. Perhaps he believed that she was a saint. Perhaps he "saw something in her."
The film itself only flirts with this explanation, briefly, and puts it into the mouth of Ian Brady, who says directly that Longford is sexually attracted to the murderess. This seemed to be a slightly heavy-handed intervention from the dramatist, pointing up a possible symmetry. If Longford fancied Myra, then we would have a woman who was only ever loved by two people: one of whom embodied most of what we understand by "evil", and the other was about as close to "good" as anyone you are ever likely to meet. (Who was it who, when asked how they imagined the Christian God, said they thought he must be something like Lord Longford?) But what comes through in the rest of the film is that Longford doesn't really need to be "explained". He was a Christian, possibly a slightly naive one. He thought that loving outcasts and visiting prisoners was part of his Christian duty. He didn't, in that sense, see anything in her -- he aoffers to help the psychotic Brady as well, but Brady won't let him.

Isn't agape by definition love for the un-lovable?
The remarkable thing about the film–apart from Jim Broadbent's astonishingly convincing impersonation of Lord Longford himself–is the way that it presents a complex argument, but nevertheless comes out feeling like drama, not editorial.

The drama follows two trajectories: on the one hand, the relationship between Lord Longford and his wife. She initially opposes his Hindley campaign and persuades him to give it up and concentrate on pornography instead. But having studied the case, she suddenly comes over to his side and recites, over Christmas dinner, a whole series of arguments in favour of Hindley's release which hadn't previously occurred to her husband. ("How much do you know about sado-masochistic relationships?") But this doesn't feel like a speech in a debating society: it feels like an old married couple who have quarrelled having a genuinely touching reconciliation scene. Similarly, a delicately balanced debate about porn–the Lord thinks it is very dangerous, the Lady that it's essentially harmless–comes across as a masterpiece of understated comedy because it takes the form of two old posh people in bed together surrounded by copies of Fiesta and Playboy.
The other strand of the story is, obviously, Longford's relationship with Hindley. The film's thesis is that Hindley deceived him. She finally scuppers her only chance of parole by admitting to two further murders. This means that she not only lied to Lord Longford but that, presumably, she didn't make a full confession to her priest and therefore her return to the Catholic Church is suspect at best. But the film also argues that Longford wilfully allowed himself to be deceived. Early in the story, an anonymous benefactor sends him a cassette tape labelled "The bitch should rot in hell", which he puts in a drawer and doesn't listen to. We all know what "tape" means in the context of a story about the Moors murders. I assume that this is a dramatic device, but the point is a valid one: Longford could have gained access to those terrible recordings but he chose not to; he was therefore able to continue to believe that Hindley was only an accessory to the crime–guilty of murder in they eyes of the law, but not evil in the way that Brady was.
I was rather concerned that we were going to be asked to draw the conclusion that "forgiveness" implies minimizing or condoning sin: that Longford forgave Myra because he didn't think that she was as bad as everyone said she was, and that he gave up on her when he discovered that in fact she was even worse. But the film actually draws a much more interesting and challenging conclusion. Because Myra has ruined Longford's good name by allowing him to campaign for her release on false premises, he finds that he has to forgive her for something that she has done to him--not merely an abstract crime against strangers.
The film concludes with another rather writerly scene in which the aging Longford and the terminally ill Myra meet for the last time in an open prison. He thinks that he has grown spiritually by being forced to learn to love and forgive this sinner; she still remembers her terrible crimes and claims that evil can be a spiritual experience as well.
The film doesn't ultimately "explain" Myra Hindley. We are allowed to consider the possibilities that she is a sinner who repenteth; and a sinner who is unable completely to repenteth or that she is a weak woman temporarily turned into a monster under the influence of a psychopath. Perhaps the most convincing theory is the one put into Brady's mouth: Hindley is literally an "hysteric", one who takes on the attributes that she thinks the person she is with wants her to have: a butch lesbian for her prison guard; a good catholic for Lord Longford; a sadist for her psychotic boyfriend. The one possibility that is not considered is that she is simply an evil figure with an evil haircut who a naive philanthropist mistook for a saint.
For me, the film was summed up by an unintentional irony in the casting department. When Hindley's accomplice first walks onto the set, we see, not the iconic face of Ian Brady, but the familiar, staring, but un-augmented features of Andy Serkis. Longford could have been mistaken for an old wizard, come to that.
Deserve to die? I dare say he does....

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Let's play a game, Let's imagine that the TARDIS materialized in Cardiff shortly after a big meteor fell in the city. Let's imagine that, trapped in this meteor, was a big green gaseous alien that has no escaped and has possessed one of the citizens. The Doctor would feel right at home; pretty much the same thing happened in 'Spearhead From Space'. Let's further pretend that the person who is possessed by the gaseous monster is now killing other members of the public. The Doctor would take this in his stride. That's what these aliens do. But now suppose that the Doctor confronts the alien, possibly at the end of episode 3, and discovers that it isn't a psychic vampire and it doesn't feed on negative emotional energy: in fact, it deliberately came to earth because humans have the best sex in the universe and it feeds off, and I quote, orgasmic energy. It has to fuck, and fuck rather brutally, to survive.
Of course, you can't: because the Doctor is essentially a character from children's TV, and as such, he can't talk about rape or sex or orgasms, any more than Bagpuss can say 'bum' or the Famous Five can worry about whose going to dig the latrine. Advanced students might like to envisage a scenario in which, in order to save the life of the monster's mortal host, Rose volunteers to be possessed by the fuck-monster, with the idea that the monster can then gouge itself on the Doctor's Time Lord libido. Oh, and by the way -- imagine that the final scene takes place in a sperm bank, because merely being in the same building as so much masturbation can somehow sustain the monster. Sarah-Jane, thou shouldest be living at this hour.
But now, flip it round. Imagine that you are watching a serious, grown up, post-9PM realistic cop show, with a tough police-lady who says 'shit' but gets emotionally involved her cases. Suppose that she is investigating a violent series of sexual murders; and imagine that the surprise twist is that they are not being committed by a pervert or a serial killer, but by a woman who has been possessed by an alien that escapde from a meteor and which feeds off men's orgasms. You would, I assume, expect the realistic heroine to be quite surprised and skeptical about this revelation; and you would also, I assume, expect her to ask exactly how a pool of green gas can control someone's mind, and what orgasmic energy is exactly and whether it's actual copulation or mere proximity that the thing needs. You'd probably regard the situation as so ludicrous that your belief in the heroine and her world would evaporate: to avoid this, you'd want some explanations which made some kind of logical sense.
And there, I am afraid, is the problem. Doctor Who wears its silliness on its sleeve; it's about a time traveling phone box, for goodness sake. It's filled with alien menaces whose only real motivation is there need to be alien menaces, I mean, really, if you were Dalek Emperor couldn't you have thought of a way of taking over the universe that didn't involve game-shows? The flip-side of this silliness is a fundamental innocence: the hero is a child-man who somehow guarantees that while there may be evil and horror they'll be nothing sordid or nasty. The innocence somehow justifies the stupidity. Doctor Who anagramatized has thrown out the innocence which covered Doctor Who's many sins; but it makes no attempt to be serious adult drama in its own right. On the surface, it is full of post-watershed nastiness: monsters who fuck you to death; scientists who explode rate; people who really bleed when they are attacked; goblins who live in the sewers and eat shit. But take all this away, and what you left with is a Doctor Who monster; indeed, a Russel Davies era Doctor Who monster: a walking plot device whose powers and motivations are defined largely by what would make a cool scene. It isn't convincing as 'Doctor Who for grown ups'; but it doesn't really work as 'sci-fi cop show', either.
The specific reference to Doctor Who stick out like a sore thumb, or, more precisely, like a severed hand. In the middle of a sequence of bars and mean streets and police men who swear, Captain Jack suddenly asks Gwen if she remembers the afternoon when Earth was invaded by the Cybermen. Even pronouncing the word 'Cybermen' in this context feels ludicrously incongruous, you rather expect Gwen to reply 'Weren't they villains in an old black and white TV show that was canceled before I was even born.' A 'spin-off' happens when someone looks at an already existing TV series and says 'I reckon that the snooty psychiatrist could probably sustain a series of his own.' Torchwood is not, in that sense, a spin-off: it's an independently conceived series that happens to have been heavily promoted in Doctor Who. In fact, the Torchwood that appeared in 'Army of Ghosts' and this Torchwood seem fairly unrelated: the one was a shiny, quasi-governmental secret organization with hundreds of employees, a bad attitude, and misplaced loyalty to the British Empire. This one is a ramshackle, slightly chaotic organization with six employees and access to a huge amount of alien technology but a lax attitude to using it. Doubtless, the relationship between the two organization will be explored in future episodes, but it's very clear that this series could have been launched without the build up in Doctor Who and it would have been little different.
Episode 1 is largely about the attempts of the viewpoint character WPC Gwen Cooper to find out what Torchwood is, and in particular, to find out about Jack Harkness. When she catches up with him, she's being menaced by one of the shit eating goblins in a car park: almost the first thing he does is order her to run away. She keeps asking him who he really is, but he gives her very evasive answers. At the end of the first episode, he asks her to work for him, and she agrees. By the end of episode 2, it's clear that they have a bit of thing going. Jack is very aware that he is out of his time and has no long term relationships, and positively encourages Gwen to have an ordinary life. To which all one can say is: Jack Harkness is not, and shouldn't try to be, a substitute Doctor, and Gwen Cooper is a very poor apology for Billie Piper.
All we've had so far is two episodes; one which establishes character and premise and another which establishes adult credentials and tries to creep out any asexual fanboys who have tuned in by mistake. The acting is competent; and while I think it's rather a bore that since Buffy, all characters are obliged to communicate in wisecracks, some of the one-liners are fairly good. John Barrowman keeps the camp thing within reasonable limits. It certainly deserves to be allowed few more episodes to settle in: I just hope that no more of them read like rejected scenarios for 1970s porn flicks.


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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fight! Fight! Fight!

"Dawkins seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms."

" For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is."

Reader, I Adapted Him

'What are we going to do this season that will convince the punters that the licence fee is good value for money?'

'You mean apart from the hippos?'

'I was thinking maybe one of those costume dramas with ladies in bonnets and wild, uncontrollable men with wild, uncontrollable hair.'

'Good call. They go down well with broadsheets and foreigners.'

'I thought maybe Jane Eyre?'

'OK, I'll nip down to Smiths and pick up a 99p classic. What did she write?'


'Er, guys, I think we have a problem. I was expecting chick lit. Wild eyed hunks on the moor singing it's me, I'm cathee, I've come home.'

'I think that's a different one.'

'But it's all about religion, and growing up, and education, and psychology, and scenery.'

'Well, cut it.'

'All of it?'

'Well, the religion and the psychology. It worked for Peter Jackson. But leave in the scenery We need an excuse for a location shoot or the punters won't believe it was expensive. But drop the education and cut straight to the bonking.'

'There isn't any bonking.'

'I thought you said it was a costume drama?'

'I thought you said it was a prestige literary adaptation.'

'Well invent some. You are a writer after all.'

'Sex? In Jane Eyre? Is it okay if they keep their clothes on?'

'Only if it's artistically necessary. Are there any bonnets?'

'Oh yes. Lot's and lots of bonnets.'

'Bonnets are good. I suppose there is no way you can work in a hippo?'

First person narratives aren't easy things to turn into dramas. Jane Eyre is all about Jane's mind and how it develops; it's full of thoughts, subjective impressions, and enormously long sentences. ('And then my mind made its first earnest effort to comprehend what had been infused into it concerning heaven and hell; and for the the first time it recoiled baffled; and for the the first time glancing behind, on each side, and before it, it saw all round an unfathomed gulf: it felt the one point where it stood -- the present; all the rest was formless cloud and vacant depth; and it shuddered at the thought of tottering, plunging amid that chaos.') It is a mark of how much Ruth Wilson will deserve her BAFTA that she manages to suggest the existence of these kinds of inner depths in a script which, of necessity, limits her to spending most of the first two episodes not saying much more than 'Yes Sir,' and 'No Sir'. Toby Stevens is neither sexy enough nor enough of a bastard to really succeed in being the sexiest bastard in literature, but he had a damn good try. The film starts to sparkle whenever the two of them have an extended scene together. And although it is never tricksy, there are some nice visual touches: I particularly liked the way in which we see Jane and Rochester's faces in profile, her's superimposed over his, the first time he announces that 'you and I are one.' The central episodes, where Jane is the governess at Thornfield made gripping TV, although they did stress the 'Gothic' aspect of the story rather too much for my taste. Jane's wedding is carried of brilliantly; what sticks in the mind is not the high melodrama of the lawyer at the back of the church saying 'There is an impediment!' but Rochester looking at Jane in awe and saying 'How could I have imagined you would have looked better in that gaudy veil!' The use of flashbacks to bring those of us who haven't been watching The Wide Sargasso Sea up to speed with the mad-woman in the attic are also a good idea in theory, although they tend to underline the fact that Rochester can't really be imagined in any context apart from his rambling Gothic mansion. So, all in all, a jolly good piece of Sunday night TV of the kind they don't make any more. What it wasn't, of course, was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre concludes with Jane receiving a letter from her former suitor Rev. St. John Rivers, who has gone to be a missionary in India (as opposed to Africa, incidentally.) He's very ill; but he knew when he went that the climate would probably kill him. ' "My master,"he says "Has forewarned me. Daily He announces more distinctly 'Surely I come quickly!' and hourly I more eagerly respond, 'Amen; even so, come, Lord Jesus.' " ' The last line of Jane Eyre is the same as the last line of the Bible. St. John is quoting St. John. This is important at all sorts of levels. Rochester is the most important person in Jane's life, but he's not the be-all and end-all of her world: when she concludes her 'autobiography', she has higher things than romance on her mind. The story has partly been about Jane's spiritual growth: it starts with her at the mercy of some thoroughly nasty Christians; but it ends with her thinking about a thoroughly good one.

The BBC's version ends with Jane and Rochester entertaining some kind of family gathering, possibly the christening of their second child. They form up into a family group, and the final image of the film is a photograph in a floral frame. (Quite who was taking snapshots in 1847 is open to question: perhaps they held the pose for a week or so while someone did an oil painting.) Granted, this is an attempt to deal with the four most un-adaptable words in English Literature; but it's clear that we are being told that they all lived happily ever after. The book leaves us wondering, as Jane is presumably wondering, whether she did the write thing to follow her heart back to Thornfield rather than follow her head and become a clergyman's wife. In the TV series, the question is not even on the table: all stories end with weddings and if it comes to a choice between God and Toby Stevens, there's no contest. The idea that 'spiritual and religious development' could be one strand of a novel that is also about lurve is clearly not something which TV audiences could deal with. So out goes. So out goes most of the Lowood section (about a quarter of the book) and out goes much of the relationship with St. John.

We know that Jane is never going to go to Africa with Rivers, because she spends all the time that she is with him having flashbacks about Rochester, rendering the sci-fi climax, in which she is summonsed back to Thornfield by telepathy, rather gratuitous. At one level, these flashbacks are a rather elegant bit of TV narration. We jump straight from the revelation of the madwoman in the attic to Jane's being found wandering on the moor by Rivers and his sisters. The flashbacks gradually fill in the details of what happened in between, but also serve to keep Toby Stevens present on the screen when he is absent from the plot, and thus, to prevent the distaff contingent switching to channel 5.

On what would have been their wedding night, Rochester goes to Jane's bedchamber and begs her to run away with him to Italy. Jane is lying on her back; Rochester is lying on Jane, in what Rev. Rivers would presumably not have called the missionary position. It is in this position that he suggests that they could live as brother and sister, so she would not have to live in sin. I think Jane would probably have regarded miming intercourse with a man she didn't think she could legally marry as quite sinful enough, thank you very much. In case we have missed the point, when she goes back to Rochester after the fire, they end up lying on top of each other on the grass, decently clad but with their legs most indecorously intertwined.

Adapting a 19th century book and expecting the characters to adopt 21st century attitudes is precisely like going on holiday to Spain and insisting on drinking fish and chips and Courage best. There may have been a time when the BBC adapted Great Books in the hope that the Unwashed Masses who hadn't read them would be encouraged to discover the wonderful world of reading; or else they did radical reworkings of the classic to challenge and titillate the people who had. Now, it's just a matter of scouring old books for period love stories. Historical tourism.

Meanwhile, if you are the sort of person who finds themselves compelled to look at road accidents, then the BBCs other high-profile costume drama has not yet been removed from its prime time Saturday evening spot.

I think I probably first met Robin Hood in a Christmas production of Babes in the Wood . Then the BBC did The Legend of Robin Hood as one of their Sunday tea-time classic serials, my lady this and my lady that, earnest, historical and probably filmed in a quarry. I've also seen Basil Rathbone trying to conceal the fact that he is an accomplished fencer and Errol Flynn isn't; and Michael Praed pretending that if he goes on and on about Herne the Hunter, no one will notice his girly haircut. But these are all travesties. We all know the canonical version of the story, the one against which all others are judged. It's the one where Robin is a fox, Little John is a bear and Friar Tuck is a badger. In terms of seriousness, conviction and authenticity, it knocks the BBCs present offering into a cocked hat. With a feather on it.

Robin himself is probably the most interesting thing in the new series. In a Saturday teatime sort of way, he's trying to be a rounded character. We're in the version of the story where Robin is not a mere yeoman, but the Earl of Huntingdon. (He's also referred to as Robin of Locksly, which suggests that the writers have been studying some of the more obscure Greenwood ballads. Or watching DVDs of Robin of Sherwood.) He's only recently returned to England; and something very bad happened to him in the Time War, sorry, did I say Time War, I meant Crusades, although so far we haven't found out exactly what. His peasants love him, and he loves them: the reason he steals from the bad and gives to the good is that he still feels some responsibility to his peasants even now he's lost his lands. He very specifically robs the rich to feed the poor: he hasn't been back in England five minutes before he's inviting them to a slap-up feast in Huntingdon manor. He likes to leave gifts for the peasants in surprising ways and then watch the look on their faces when they find them, making me wonder if the writers had possibly confused him with Father Christmas. He likes the thanks and the adulation of the peasants, either because he is a glory hound, or because he has a neurotic need to be loved. (Clue: Answer B will turn out to be correct, probably because he lost someone dear to him in the Holy Land.)

Oh, and he's a pacifist, presumably due to his bad experience in Iraq, sorry, did I say Iraq, I meant Jerusalem. I think that he must have been designed in one of those role-playing games where you get extra skill points if you accept a big disadvantage. Robin has put all his skill points into Archery (he uses a Saracen bendy bow, not an English longbow, which arguably misses the point). He can do anything he likes with his arrows. He's forever shooting the ropes off innocent men on the gallows and shooting down arrows in flight which are about to kill innocent people, and firing six arrows at once which all miraculously go exactly where he meant them to. Most of this happens in slow motion, which presumably makes it a bit easier for him. But like the Green Arrow in the 1970s he has a Code Against Killing. So in episode 1, when the Sheriff is about to cut off Alan Adale's hand, Robin fires off five arrows with pin point accuracy, one between each of Alan's fingers; but then has to run away from the Sheriff's men because he isn't allowed to fire at anyone.

Robin has a sidekick who calls him Master and is devoted to him. His name is Much, but we don't find out if he is a Miller, or indeed if he has a son. I think he may turn out to be a gardener. Once Robin has run away into Sherwood, he finds a ready made troupe of moderately cheerful men. They are led by John, who is very big, but isn't called Little John. (John Little has a little son called Little John: it is obviously much funnier for a little person to be called 'little' than a big person.) Alan Adale shows no sign of being a singer. There are a whole brood of Scarlets, one of them called Will, but he doesn't appear to be a tough guy, or indeed, anything else. Friar Tuck is missing altogether. If we can believe the Daily Express this is because the political correctness brigade thought the character was disrespectful to fat people. But we can't. (In the canonical version, Tuck the badger was not especially over-weight. He lived in a church with some church mice, which suggests a limited understanding of the concept of mendicant orders. But then, since the Franciscans were founded in 1209 and the Dominicans in 1215, there were presumably not a whole lot of Friars in England at the time of Prince John's regency (1190-1194). I digress.)

So far, so harmless. It is certainly uncontaminated by originality, but it slips down easily enough on a Saturday evening. But where the canonical version treated Robin as a a serious heroic character, producer Dominic Minghella can't get it out of his head that what we are watching is a pantomime. This is understandable: if you are an Actor the Sheriff of Nottingham is not so much a nasty character in a medieval romance, but a camp role where the main objective is to get the kiddies to say 'Boo' and 'He's behind you.' Keith Allen can't decide whether he is meant to be playing a slimy politician -- he's rather good when trying to convince the peasants that Robin isn't out for their best interests -- or a pointlessly nasty nastyperson, joking about torture and killing ickle budgies to work off his anger. There is no rapport between this Robin and this Sheriff, because Robin is a dead-pan romantic hero while the Sheriff is camp comedy relief. Guy of Gisborn turns up dressed in biker leathers, and plays the role as a cop-show thug. Three main characters from three different series.

Along comes Marian, who may or may not be a maid. In the canonical version, as in Errol Flynn's, she is a noble lady who lives in the castle and is wooed by the courtly Robin. In Ror-or-or-bin, the Hooded-Man she is pretty much just a female merry man. Here, she is introduced as the ex-Sheriff's daughter, Rob's old flame, who isn't quite sure if she wants to pick up the relationship again. In episode 2 she does the obligatory 'I can help you out of the prison cell' routine, suggesting she just wants to be medieval-drama-lady. Would that she had remained so.

And then we have our obligatory sacrifice to the great god Relevance. I understand, largely because I read it in the Guardian, that Robin-Hood-Robin-Hood-Riding-Through-the-Glen was written by victims of the 1950s anti-communist black-list and contained some subtle digs at McCarthyism. The new series is trying something similar apart from the 'subtle' part. In episode 1, we find out that some people think that Richard has got England involved in an unnecessary war, of dubious legality and morality, against Muslims, because he has much too close a relationship with the Pope. In episode 2, we discover that the Sheriff has introduced a system of indefinite detention without trial for outlaws, who are regarded as 'enemy combatants' for the duration of the war. And in episode 3, we find the slimy sheriff making a slimy speech trying to persuade the peasants that Robin is a bad thing. This goes on in the background while Robin is snogging Marian, so all we hear is 'terrorizing....terror...war on terror!' I want to die. More specifically, I want Dominic Minghella to die.

In Episode 3, we find out that while Robin was off killing Muslims there was another outlaw in Sherwood, who also stood up for the peasants, and who wears a mask. He's called 'The Nightwatchman'. As soon as this was mentioned, I started to repeat 'please don't let it turn out to be Marian; please don't let it turn out to be Marian' over and over again. I needn't have bothered: at the end of the episode, it turned out to be Marian. Are we really so unimaginative that the only alternative we can think of to the admittedly sexist 'courtly love' of the Elizabethan and Hollywood versions is to take the Rich But Fragile Maiden Who The Tough But Strangely Attractive Outlaw Worships From Afar and give her a sword, a bow, and for all I know, a willy?

The aforementioned 'night watchman' is wrongly suspected of having killed the Sheriff's bailiff. The Sheriff, because he is evil, tries to blame Robin for the murder, and, because he is very evil, arranges for a few more of his men to be killed so he can blame Robin for that as well. It turns out that the assassin was someone entirely different; and at the end of the episode, he succeeds in assassinating the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Except that, because the Sheriff is clever as well as evil, he had himself impersonated by a double while the assassin was on the loose.

'I shot the sheriff!' says Someone Entirely Different. 'No', replies Dick Dastardly 'You shot the deputy.' This would have been excruciatingly unfunny at any time; but it was made worse by the fact that they'd already made exactly the same joke in the title of the episode. I can only assume that it was written by a different Paul Cornell.

It makes me wonder. The opening sequence has a portentous march tune and over-done film style credits. Every new scene is introduced with a caption (accompanied by a silly 'twang' sound) which tells you where the scene is happening, even when you already know or it doesn't matter. The final scene is introduced by a graphic of a spinning archery target. This simply isn't how TV is made nowadays. The episodes end, not with a trailer for next week, but an advert for the BBC's on-line Robin Hood archery game, in which, get this, all the characters are represented as cardboard cut-outs. it possible that Robin Hood is not a drama that fails to take itself seriously; but a deliberate spoof which we have mistaken for straight drama because it is so achingly unfunny?

Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Oh dear. I just thought that there was something rather cute about discovering Daily Mail readers unselfconsciously drooling about corporal punishment. It would have been a bit like coming down to breakfast and finding a man in open-topped footwear ordering a plate of Alpen and a copy of the Guardian -- particularly if he himself didn't see the joke. I'm sorry if anyone got the impression that I had mistaken what was going on for an actual argument.

I suppose one could bash out a decent thousand words around 'This house believes that inflicting pain in the short term is no less humane than removing liberty in the long term.' We might wonder out loud whether society could have developed in such a way that traffic wardens issued tickets requiring the owners of badly parked cars to report to the police station and be beaten-up and where everyone thought that 'fines' were a bizarre idea. We might note rhetorically that in the early 1980s we decided that blowing teenager's limbs off on the Falkland Islands was the kind of violence we could happily put up with; but whacking their backsides on the Isle of Man wasn't. Before long someone would be saying 'Of course, there is no crime whatsoever in Malaysia' and 'I'd sooner have the slipper than detention any day' and I'd be forced to give them a clip-round-the-ear.

The flogging of criminals officially ended in England and Wales in 1948; in practice, it mostly went away after the Cadogan committee recommended it's abolition ten years earlier. Perhaps surprisingly, it had been abolished in the armed forces in the 19th century; even more surprisingly it hung around as a possible punishment for misbehaving prison inmates into the 1960s. But even in the 30s, it seems to have been primarily juveniles who were subjected to it; perhaps because the courts were inclined to regard them as naughty schoolboys rather than criminals. There was an attempt to reintroduce flogging in 1961, mainly remarkable because it was the only occasion when Mrs. Thatcher, who supported the idea, voted against the Conservative Party, who opposed it. Please note that I just resisted the temptation to use the phrase 'Conservative Party Whip.'

You really have to go back to the nineteenth century, if not the eighteenth, to find the lost Eden in which whipping was the normal punishment for criminals; or else look at liberal dystopias like Apartheid South Africa or modern day Singapore. The Mail readers who miss the good-old flogging days would be just as likely to lament a medieval Olden Times when we used to put shoplifters in the stocks. Before it was discovered that all dark-skinned people were terrorists, it was common enough to be told that those Arab-johnnies have got the right idea about chopping off the hands of thieves. It is therefore more than usually clear that 'bring back the cat' is not a political proposition, but a portmanteau icon representing a deferential, crime-free never-never land located before the Second World War. Even our beloved prime minister, who explicitly distances himself from what he calls the 'hang 'em and flog 'em brigade' thinks that the period before 1939 was relatively crime-free, and that the present high-crime rates are the result of specific social changes that have occurred since the war.

It was understandable that the people who voted in Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 might have regarded the Cane, the Birch, the Noose and Winston Churchill as a symbol of a lost world where everything was simple and secure, if occassionally painful. Most of them spent their teenaged years in a world where these things were a reality. (They also remembered a time before many Indians and Afro-Carribeans had settled in the UK.) But it's harder to see why the mythology of a post-Blitz loss of innocence persists at a time when no-one without a bus-pass can possibly remember the War.

If, having said all that, anyone still thinks the question is worth asking, then I would say that deliberately hurting naughty people is a good idea if you believe the following:

1: The sole or main purpose of courts is to deliver Justice.

2: The purpose of Justice is to restore a state of equilibrium by making a criminal suffer to a degree comparable to his victim. This process directly benefits the victim: if the criminal doesn't suffer, the victim is harmed. While it may have various utilitarian side-effects, the punishment of criminals is therefore an end in itself. (It follows that concept of 'rehabilitation' is a denial of natural justice. If a thief learns a trade while he is in jail, and as a result gives up stealing and spends the rest of his life earning an honest living then he has benefited from his crime and been rewarded for his wrongdoing – particularly if the victim doesn't also get free woodwork lessons.)

3: Therefore, the only or main purpose of prisons is to punish criminals by keeping them in disagreeable conditions for long periods.

4: In practice, prisons are comfortable, not to say luxurious institutions. Therefore in nearly all cases, 'natural justice' does not occur: a murderer who spends 30 years in a prison can be said to have 'got off scott free'. On a personal note, I should mention that I went to Bognor Regis on three occasions and Clacton on Sea twice, and that prison is not in fact very much like a holiday camp at all.

If you accept these superstitions, then whipping must indeed seem very attractive. It's the only thing a court can sentence someone to which is purely punitive; and therefore, delivers the maximum quantity of natural justice. If you don't, then it was a silly and pointless form of brutality for brutality's sake, to be regarded roughly at the same level as putting the brick on trial because it fell on the King's toe. Even to ask the question 'Could flogging ever have a place in the modern criminal justice system' is to move the discussion onto non-rational territory.

And so it goes on. A bread-shop in Birmingham has started calling their spicy anthropomorphic cookies 'ginger people'. Readers will be very surprised to learn that Angry Customer Darren Ellis thinks that this is 'political correctness gone mad.' Angry Store Manager Who Refuses To Be Named doesn't like the fact that he 'has to tell children they can't have a gingerbread man, they can only have a ginger person.' When was the last time you went into a cake shop and asked for 'one of those iced buns with a cherry on the top' only to be told 'we don't sell iced buns with a cherry on the top; come back in again and ask for a Belgian.'i

It's certainly something gone mad.

But this story was forced off the cover of Tuesday's Express by an even more important one..


BRITONS gave overwhelming backing last night to a call for a ban on full-face Muslim veils.

Ninety-eight percent of Daily Express readers agreed that a restriction would help to safeguard racial harmony and improve communication.

If this seems a bit familiar, that's because this is exactly the same story that they ran last Saturday: the same use of 'Briton' to mean 'Daily Express readers who could be bothered to shell out 50p on our premium rate phone-line'; the same insinuation that 'Muslims' and 'Britons' are two different sets of people; the same name-checking of Jack Straw.

The story continues on page 6 under the headline Why object to tackling extremism? (I can think of all sorts of answers to this question. 'Dunno. Who does object?' 'What does the wearing of funny clothes have to do with extremism?') But on the same page there is a separate, and much more disturbing story.

There is in Yorkshire a private Muslim school, imaginatively called The Institute of Islamic Education. It was recently visited by the schools inspectors, who gave it rather a bad write up. The Express lingers over this Offsted report for three columns, rehearsing such juicy details as:

Parts of the school building, including the dining room and boarders toilets, were dirty,


Teachers showed limited understand of pupils aptitudes and prior attainments

Surprisingly enough, the inspectors also thought that this religious school was placing too much emphasis on religion. Or, as the Express puts it:

Inspectors who visited the school, which stands just yards from the former home of 7/7 suicide bomber Sidique Khan concluded that the emphasis on Islamic teaching came at the expense of secular studies.

So why, despite this rather desperate attempt to link the story with terrorism is item illustrated with – see if you can guess – a picture of a woman wearing a niqab? Well, that's the clever bit. You will be aware that Mrs Alshah Azmi recently got herself into an altercation with her employers. She teachers English-as-a-second-language at a state school; her employers says that she can't do this wearing a veil because it means that the non-English-speaking kids can't see her lips; she says that she can teach perfectly well; she's taken them to a tribunal to settle the issue. If not for Jack Straw it's hard to believe that this trivial story would have been front page news for a week.

Surprisingly enough, this Muslim teacher has a father (Dr Mohammed Mulk) who is also a Muslim and a teacher. It has 'emerged', as these things do, that he a headteacher at the Yorkshire school with the dirty loos.

So, the non-story about the school report appears under the headline

Veiled protest woman in link to 'radical' school

There is a clever ambiguity in this Azmi is certainly a woman, and she sometimes wears a veil. This undoubtedly makes her a 'veiled woman'. She is protesting about the fact that she has been asked to take it off. This arguably makes her a 'protest woman'. So she could be called a 'Veiled protest-woman': a woman in a veil who is protesting about something. However, the lack of punctuation will cause many readers to suppose that she is also a 'veiled-protest woman', a woman who is wearing a veil in order to make a protest. The headline is implying that she is covering her face in order to make a political point; which is clearly not true.

The 'radical' bit is also rather fun. Despite the quotation marks, no-one appears to have described Dr. Mulik's school as 'radical'. The closest we come is a claim that the school forbids pupils from reading British newspapers or TV stations. But the word 'radical' is code for 'bad Muslim'. Earlier in the week we discovered that we may have to spy on Islamic students in case the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Union 'radicalises' them -- that is, turns them into terrorists. The Express wants us to think that the dirty toilet school is a school for terrorists (a terrorist once lived in a street near by, which proves it) even though no-one has actually said so.

So. A picture of a veil; a headline about a radical school which is linked, quite spuriously, with the London bombings, above a separate headline about extremists. The message is clear. Radicals, Muslims, veils, extremists, terrorists. They go together like cake shops and the political correctness brigade.

In between Veiled protest woman and Tackling extremists there are a few hundred words about the incredibly unimportant case of Miss Nadia Eweida, the airline employee who was asked to remove her cross and suspended from work when she refused. The interesting thing about this story is that it has become enmeshed in the racist narrative about veils. Jack Straw's original incendiary remarks were not about religion. He was ostensibly saying that face-covering was an intrinsically bad idea despite the fact that it was a religious symbol. But everyone seems to think that this is somehow related to the claim that Christian air-stewardesses and news-readers are being prevented from wearing their crosses because they are religious symbols.

This is a pretty important distinction. So far as I know, no-one has ever suggested that 'this is part of my religion' can be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card which over-rides all other considerations. If performing unnecessary surgery on children is a bad idea then it's a bad idea regardless of the fact that your religion may require it. But those of us who are reflexive liberals would only play the 'bad idea' card over very serious matters. 'This is cruel and abusive' might be sufficient grounds to stop someone from practising their faith; 'This seems a bit strange to the rest of us' isn't. This is why, on the whole, we don't worry about Jews lopping bits off baby boys (seems a bit strange to those us us who were never snipped) but do worry a great deal about Somali traditions of 'circumcising' girls (intrinsically cruel). There will, of course, be borderline cases and grey areas. That's what the House of Lords is for

The French and the Dutch have made moves towards banning the public wearing of headscarfs because they are religious symbols even if the headwear itself is unexceptionable. (How this works in practice I don't know: could I argue in court that I was not wearing a bowler to represent my allegiance to the orangeman course but simply because I was an upper-class twit?) Jack Straw wants us to believe he has no problem with turbans, headscarfs or rosaries but would have objected to face-covering just as strongly if there had been a community of secular circus-clowns in his constituency. However, the fact the 'crucifix' story is being invoked alongside the 'veil' narrative shows that this is not how the Sun and the Express see it. 'They can wear their turbans and headscarfs,' they argue – 'So why can't we wear our crosses?' When they talk about 'the veil', they are talking about what they see as a symbol of Muslim-ness; and it's that they want to prohibit by law.

Why can't the politicians see that every time they say 'We should have a sensible debate about veils' a large proportion of the electorate will hear 'Muslims are terrorists with dirty lavatories'? What we need right now is not a debate, sensible or otherwise. We need Tony Blair and Jack Straw to stand up and say, very loudly 'Muslims are Britons. Muslim Britons sometimes dress in a way that some other Britons aren't used to. Just like some Britons wear kilts and some Britons have their tongues pierced. And if you find kilts, pierced tongues and veils a bit strange, then that's your problem, and you should try to get over it.' Why is that so hard?

The question in today's phone-in poll is 'Is Labour wrecking our great British army?' I can't wait to find out there answer to that one. Pass me a gingerperson.

iYou don't think that the confectioner had perhaps made biscuits in two shapes and made up a price tag marked 'ginger people' because he couldn't be bothered to write 'gingerbread men and gingerbread women', do you?