A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

From one extreme to another…

In Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order on September 14, 2010 at 11:46 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

I would like to take a brief ideological break at this juncture, and shift the focus of my critique of the anarchist position to look at the far more common presence of authoritarianism.

We could start with the death penalty. This is one of the frequently cited areas where politicians supposedly part ways with public opinion, although given that ‘evidence’ for this often takes the form of polls run in the wake of sensational crimes, I have my doubts. Nevertheless, it is certainly clear that public opinion on the subject is far less consensual than political opinion, where support is largely confined to the fringes.

Why is this, you may ask? I suspect that is an answer which has its roots in many factors, not least including the “grey wash” created by our electoral system. One I’d like to think has most influence is that the more informed you are on a subject, the less likely your opinion is to flip-flop.

And in most cases, opinion polling shows far more evidence of flip-flopping than it does anything meaningful. In the run up to the election, it was established fairly firmly that the public were in favour of spending cuts — unless it affected health, of course. Or education. Or pensions. And against tax rises. But we shouldn’t let those dastardly bankers get off lightly, better slap a couple of hundred extra taxes on them before you touch my darling child’s trust fund. And in favour of balanced budgeting. And in favour of the Tories’ line on immigration. But in favour of Labour’s policy.

Apart from illustrating my scepticism of the “great unwashed masses”, I hope this might demonstrate how the existence of a “political class” might not necessarily be a bad thing. Certainly, given that government is supposed to “amplify all of the factors that can cause immoral behaviour”, I see a surprising lack of evidence for this in the criminal justice system here, which has been slow to respond to public opinion.

But unfortunately not slow enough. Although the death penalty has no serious chance of being reintroduced, the public’s attitude towards crime in general has influenced the political sphere, and entirely too much so. The second term of the Blair government not only allowed for the first infringement to a criminal trial by jury for centuries, but according to the Director of Public Prosecutions of the time, Ken MacDonald, Blair himself suggested diluting the burden of proof for the most serious offences*. Blair was worried about the impatience of the “middle classes” at a criminal justice system which was perceived to be slow to deal with criminals.

And if you take the view that this is merely government perverting the substance of public opinion and not representing it, ask yourself this: why so little outrage? Why so little unease? A few academics write worried letters, and the country (or rather more accurately, the media) moves on, as if it was only of passing interest.

The simple fact is that “innocent until proven guilty” may sound like a principle that everyone believes in, but in reality it tends to be far less certain than many of us would like. Just witness the attitude towards “terror suspects”. Every time the government is unable to deport a terror suspect, many wax lyrical of the “outrageous” Human Rights Act “perverting” the course of justice. However, hardly any appear to think of mentally adding a question mark to their thoughts when they read “terror suspect”. Do they know the suspect is guilty? Are they certain he has committed a crime? If not, why are they willing for them to be treated however the State pleases?

Despite a veneer of outward belief in the principles of justice, many people think that the State can, more than ever before, be sure that someone has committed a crime. Who hasn’t heard the “DNA evidence” chestnut, used to justify such views? The very example of DNA evidence is another excellent illustration of areas where the public, not just the government, are generally out of touch with the facts. The reliability of DNA evidence is far more disputable than many realise or would like to admit. According to a recent New Scientist article, in an example case, different methods generated different probabilities of error, ranging from 1 in 3, to 1 in 95,000! But if you speak to many you would think it was crowning proof of the need for a death penality.

So criminal justice is perhaps the core of my belief in the State — not because I particularly endorse violence but because I wish to limit it. There is simply no evidence in this field that people would exercise power any less savagely privately than public servants do publicly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

* Taken from a seminar in the Compass Conference 2010, “Why has the left become so illiberal?”. Further details can be found here: http://www.designtoday.info/aziziye/?p=670

  1. Interesting as always David.

    With regards to your flip-flopping hypotheses, it may surprise you to know that in some ways the more educated or well informed “flip-flop” more than the regular layman. There’s been a study I listened to of a morality questionnaire, given to two groups of people – normal people, and philosophers. Theoretically, if you’re given the same questions in the different orders, it shouldn’t make any difference to your answers. However, the philosophers answers differed much more variedly depending on the order the questions were put in than for normal people. The conclusion was that normal people are much happier to accept contradictions within their own thinking than philosophers, or the “elite” are – thus, you may find the more informed you are, the more you will “flip” because you’ll want to be consistent (unlike normal people).

    I totally agree with your sentiments about the deportation of terror suspects, as if the mere fact that they are suspected automates their deportation to their country of origin. I am, as always, disgusted by the media and their brazen preconceptions and ignorant thoughts on their view of the world.

    Also, with regards to your last point on the public servants, or indeed the civil service, I do remember reading an interesting article about a book in response to an ongoing argument about how necessary a tool bureaucracy was for the systematic extermination of peoples, such as the Jews under Hitler, or millions under Stalin. It makes me wonder whether, although public servants might not have “savage” brutality, is that lack of quality any better than the cold, calculating brutality that replaces it from the dehumanising processes associated with bureaucracy and the reduction of human ‘realness’ through loss of face to face interaction into nothing more than a statistic or a file on a computer? Anyway.

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