Saturday, September 10, 2016

Caught in the Act: Punishers and Moonlighters (1990)

The Caught in the Act column from the March 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

One thing to be said about the governments latest plans for the reform of what is still called Criminal Justice is that they are not designed around any nonsense about eliminating crime. This is something of a historical curiosity since all such reforms in the recent past have pretended to be moving towards a discovery of the key to the understanding, treatment and cure of crime. The White Paper Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public puts a simpler and perhaps more popular case: some criminals must be punished more severely while many of the rest can be punished more cheaply. Whatever effect these plans may have on the criminal statistics (where all progress or stagnation in the "fight against crime" is mistakenly measured) they are sure to give a thrill of satisfaction to the more seriously haunted sections of the Tory Party, whose appetite for savage vengeance would be sorely frustrated if crime were ever to disappear.

Although he came too recently to the job of Home Secretary to take any significant part in preparing the White Paper, David Waddington is likely to heartily approve of the main drift of what it proposes. Waddington is already in the tradition of Tory Home Secretaries—Leon Brittan was a recent example—who appear to be living in a different age. Brittan was like a Dickensian workhouse master while Waddington's looks, voice and arrogance are reminiscent of an eighteenth century magistrate reading the Riot Act to starving peasants before unleashing the dragoons to teach them that while it is permissable to be poor they are not allowed to protest about it. A QC who was a Crown Court Recorder, he is not abashed to parade his philosophy that anyone who goes outside capitalism's laws, with their plentiful licence for legal theft and disorder, to do a bit of the illegal sort, has got it coming to them. Waddington remains an obdurate supporter of the death penalty: he would have been in favour of hanging the Guildford Four and all the other people whose conviction for murder was later discredited. His proposals for reform of the criminal law display a similar disregard for evidence and logic.

The White Paper originates in the fact that putting offenders in prison is ineffectual and—the most persuasive argument of all—very expensive. The answer to this problem is to legalise a new range of penalties to enable courts to deal with offenders in other ways whenever possible. It is then assumed that the courts will not be attracted to the new penalties unless they are not only tough but are seen to be tough by the average reader of the Sun. There is very little evidence to support this case.

But popular attitudes to crime, which help to determine how many people vote, are not normally based on uncomfortable reality. As anyone who has been burgled or assaulted will tell you, crime is an emotive business and if you are one of its victims you are likely to be interested in revenge before any criminological niceties. Except that in the case of the Tory hangers and floggers it is not necessary to be a victim to be motivated by vengeful lusts. That is why the proposals in the White Paper are likely to become written into law in the near future.

Whatever this does to the courts and the criminals it is not likely to harm the reputation of the likely author of the proposals, who has watched over them practically since their inception. John Patten is a Minister of State at the Home Office, a man whose ambition is as plain as his bouffant hair style. Viewers of the Commons proceedings may already have noticed him out of concern for the fact that, as he sits behind David Waddington. he seems to suffer from an uncontrollable tic. In fact it is even more serious. Patten is nodding vigorously at everything his boss says, uncaring that as Waddington has his back to him his displays of devotion go unnoticed.

Let us hope, for the sake of his friends and family (he lists his only recreation in Who's Who as "talking to my wife") that Patten realises, as he struggles up the rungs of power, that the Tory political machine can be excessively ruthless. There is no more instructive example of this than the sad case of Nigel Lawson who. as far as is known, was never caught out nodding in agreement with anyone apart from himself. For those with a defective memory and for the more dangerously sycophantic Thatcherites we should explain that Lawson was once Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the job for a long time and was widely praised as the man responsible single-handedly for a miraculous revival of the British economy and so for enabling the Tones to win a couple of General Elections. Such was the reverence in which Lawson was held that he was said to be the one minister Thatcher dare not sack, so he helped her out by resigning.

And what has happened since then? In a propaganda feast of startling skill and audacity the Tories have undermined Lawson's reputation as the miracle man. They have been unstinting in their efforts to publicise the fact that British capitalism is not in miraculous ascendant but declining into one of its periodic crises—that prices are rising too fast; that the balance of payments is badly out of true (or what the British capitalist class regard as true): that the unions are beginning to flex their muscles again . . .  Let us give thanks, runs the message, that the Treasury is no longer in the hands of that overweight buffoon with the untidy hair and the ready sneer and is instead run by nice, trim Mr. Major who can be trusted to really work the economic miracle and who will at least not argue with Margaret Thatcher.

Those who so recently clamoured to praise Lawson now eagerly bury him. As he nurses his bruised reputation he may take consolation in the fact that, like so many other discarded Tory Ministers, he has got himself a couple of well-paid jobs on the side. In case Lawson's constituents in Blaby have forgotten, he already has a job which is supposed to demand all his time— he is their Member of Parliament. His new job with an off-shoot of Barclays Bank is a two- day-a-week commitment but that does not mean the ex-economic wizard will miraculously be putting in a nine-day week. He will, in words familiar to the Sun reader, be moonlighting except that it should be called sunlighting because he will be at the Bank during the day when he should be on the benches of the Commons nodding like John Patten at his leader s words.

Moonlighting is something which Tory Ministers have been pretty scathing about in the past—at least when it involved the sort of extension of their working day when many workers have to resort to m order to bump up their wages. Norman Tebbit once got very annoyed about the alleged (not an inappropriate word since he regarded it as akin to a crime) moonlighting of a group of workers who were pressing for more pay a bit too effectively for Normans comfort. Tebbit argued that it was dishonest to pretend that the miserable pay they got for their basic job was all those workers had to exist on. This was a typical Tebbit blunder, in the class of his reminiscences about his cycling father, because the workers were nurses. When he left the government Tebbit was immediately moonlighting himself, accepting so many directorships that he couldn't possibly do a proper job in all of them let alone be a full-time MP as well. Of course he was only doing what other Tory ex-ministers had done, like John Nott, Jim Prior and Francis Pym for example. Like them, he was only being as hypocritical as he needed to be as an administrator of the capitalist system. 

Which brings us back to Nigel Lawson, John Patten and David Waddington. All of them claim to be reformers, to apply radical change to sweep away problems which have festered for too long. Lawson said he would bring about a fundamental change in the system of taxation and had been chipping away at it for some time, which impressed workers who mistakenly believe that taxation is a concern of theirs. Waddington and Patten are proposing changes in criminal law the like of which have not been contemplated for some forty years, which may impress workers who are deluded that they have something to gain from the states protection of property rights.

But effective, pre-designed reform is not possible unless the reformers have some control over what they are trying to change. As the Tory machine is now at pains to point out, Lawson had no real control of the economy of British capitalism. The history of crime and the laws made in response to it (if it should not be the other way round) indicate that this problem, typical of the social consequences of capitalism's class society, is also uncontrolled and uncontrollable. This might be seen as an amusing, trivial game except that it is always the same people who are the losers and who are punished by the law for being so.

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