Westminster’s plague of lawyers

George Monbiot: A glut of barristers at Westminster has led to a crackdown on dissent

This was in today’s Guardian (also find it, with references, here at George Monbiot’s own archive). The context is the injunction against the people of an Oxfordshire village forbidding them from protesting against the replacement of a local lake with a waste dump for a nearby power station; he observes that the law criminalising harrassment, passed in the last days of the Major government, has often been used against peaceful protestors.

He puts it down to lawyers, who have a fondness for laws due to making their living from them, being elected to Parliament and into government. (I did a double-take on reading Margaret Thatcher’s name in Monbiot’s list of lawyer-politicians; it’s a common myth that Thatcher was a chemist. Her first degree was in chemistry, but in the 1950s she learned and practised law, according to her official biography, specialising in taxation.) But I’m not so sure. Something I’ve noticed during the time I’ve been politically conscious is that laws are passed, sometimes erasing rights held for centuries, on the basis of hysterical press campaigns screaming that guilty people were going free because they had too many rights. In the case of the right to silence (i.e. the right not to answer questions in police stations without anyone having the right to make a negative ‘inference’), I remember an outcry over a couple who got away, supposedly, with murdering a child in their care by refusing to answer police questions. In the case of the harrassment laws, what gave rise to these laws were an outcry about stalking, usually of women by jealous ex-lovers or would-be lovers.

I vividly remember discussing the right to silence with my mother, years before there was any talk of effectively removing it. I gave the usual “if you’ve nothing to hide …” objection, and her reply was, “on the night of the robbery, you could have been having an affair with your best friend’s wife”. If you’ve something to hide, it’s not necessarily guilt in the matter to hand - but all this was lost in the hysteria that gave rise to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order act, much as a lot of people didn’t consider that an anti-stalking law would turn into a latter-day riot act or sedition law.

My theory is simply that freedom is no longer regarded as a valid objection to laws curtailing it: “getting the job done” comes before anyone’s rights or liberties. Of course, “freedom” might be the rallying cry of those seeking to invade foreign countries to overthrow inconvenient dictators, but the rights of people who look guilty (even if they actually aren’t), have opinions the majority finds distasteful, or belong to the same religion as a small but well-funded terrorist organisation, simply don’t look good on a headline and thus are not fashionable. Both this government and the one before it have a record of running scared from the press (the foreign prisoner scandal being a classic example) and sticking the boot into people in search of sympathetic headlines. The value of freedom seems to have been forgotten in British political culture, the fight against fascism seemingly an ever more dim and distant memory.

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