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This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

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