Saturday, December 11, 2004
Looks like we got ourselves a lynchin'...
There is a disturbing link between two apparently unrelated stories; the controversy over the right of householders to defend themselves against burglars, and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy's appearance in a Christmas edition of Eastenders.
The controversy over burglars has been manufactured. To listen to some right-wing politicians and tabloid newspapers in recent weeks, you would think there has been a plague of injustice, with householders being sued left, right and centre for assaulting burglars. But when, on BBC TV's Question Time last week, UKIP MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk was challenged by Lib Dem MP Matthew Taylor to list any actual cases of injustice against householders, he was unable to think of any.
This controversy arose in 1999, when farmer Tony Martin was convicted of murder (later reduced to manslaughter on appeal) for shooting an intruder at his farmhouse. Yet even the legal reforms currently advocated by the Tories would not have protected Martin, who was not strictly speaking defending himself. He had in fact shot a 16-year old burglar in the back when the burglar was running away.
The present law allows householders to use "reasonable force" and, in practice, is adequate in most cases. Given that there is not a real problem, why is the issue becoming so prominent? The easy answer is to say that the Tory politicians promoting legal reform are indulging in populism. This is true but is not a complete explanation.
Advocates of reform are, in effect, promoting lynch law. We can see this as all of a piece with the tabloids' recent 'naming and shaming' campaign against paedophiles. And it forms part of a broader picture, in which it would seem that the right-wing tabloids, notably the Daily Mail and the Sun, want to dismantle what might be broadly termed the liberal democratic settlement. By this settlement, I mean the informal agreement across the political spectrum that governs our political and legal system - a shared belief in representative democracy, reason, fairness, rational argument and due process.
These tabloids are undermining democracy through incessant campaigns to promote lynch law over due process; to promote intolerance over understanding; to promote gut reaction and finger-stabbing certainties over deliberation and analysis; and to suggest that all people in public life are corrupt.
What do the tabloids really want? My guess is some form of populist oligarchy, perhaps a British version of Silvio Berlusconi - a media mogul who is also prime minister must be their idea of a wet dream.
How does this relate to Charles Kennedy's forthcoming guest appearance on Eastenders? The problem with such media appearances is that they are an attempt by politicians to finesse populism. Through the self-abasement endured in such appearances, they calculate, they can restore their reputations.
At best, this is a high-risk strategy (for example, Neil Kinnock must now regret attempting to chair the satirical TV game show Have I Got News For You a week ago, after the mauling he received from Ian Hislop and Will Self).
But even when such media appearances pay off tactically, in the end they serve only to debase democracy. Populism presents the greatest danger to democracy because it is such an easy route for the unscrupulous to take. Responsible politicians should demonstrate their worth by standing up to populism, not pandering to it.