On justice

We all have our pet peeves – the things that stir us up, that light that ‘fire in the belly’ and get us going. For some it’s about family, for others it’s about a particular belief, mindset or ideology. For me it’s about ‘justice’.

For some justice is synonymous with vengeance. They follow, to some degree or another, the old ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ standard of the bronze age shepherd. For them justice is both simplistic and obvious. Theirs is the ‘two wrongs make a right’ approach that most of us grow out of before we leave the schoolyard. That’s not my type of justice.

Others acknowledge the complexity of determining right from wrong in a world that contains so much more grey than simple ‘black and white’. They accept that justice is complex and often difficult to define. I have to admit, that seems like a very good starting place. But then they go and spoil things by demanding that the victims of crime, the very people least likely to be objective, get to determine the most appropriate punishments. They’re the same people whose only real (and particularly unimaginative) contribution to debates about crime is to state….

“You wouldn’t say that if it was your…. (mother, father, son, daughter, home, money etc.)”

And of course, they’re right. I’d most probably want someone’s head on a plate, not because that’d be the right thing to do but because I’m human, I’m emotionally driven (as are we all) and sometimes I can be irrational (as can we all). But I still shouldn’t be able to mete out judgement or take the law into my own hands.

The hallmark of a civilised society is that punishment is taken out of the hands of the individual and placed into the hands of the state.

Still others seem happy with the idea of a state controlled judiciary until it comes to the sentencing of offenders. Then their true colours tend to show. Then they become so similar to the ‘let the victims decide’ contingent that it’s hard to tell them apart.

These are the people who, with little or no knowledge of the often complex court proceedings and mitigating factors insist, as though through automatic reflex, that the sentence is too lenient. These are the people who complain loudly and incessantly that the convicted murderer ‘could be out in ten years’ without ever pausing to imagine just what ten years incarceration might be like. They’re the people who prefer emotional vengeance to rational justice and their lack of a sense of proportion shows all too well. They’re not interested in positive intervention to effect positive change. They simply want another person to suffer. In that respect, despite the apparent veneer of social awareness, they’re no more advanced than the ‘eye for an eye’ brigade.

These are the unthinking, uncaring individuals, the vengeful defenders of people they’ll never meet against people they’ll never understand. These are the easily led, the tories target voters who faithfully fail to notice the damage that ‘Boris’ bastards’ are doing to our country so long as they can be distracted by a juicy crime story or a made up threat from foreigners fleeing persecution or warfare in distant lands. These are the people who think populist emotionality can substitute for paying political attention and the likes of Patel, Gove and Sunak are more than happy to play along. Let’s face it, Johnson and his cronies will play any game at all if it’ll let them hang on to a little bit more power for a little bit more time.

By pandering to the lowest common denominator of our basest instincts, of tribalism and of vengeful hatred they can persuade the people to give away all their rights under the pretence of stealing them from someone else. It’s not me they’re after, it’s them others! 

But the changes to our justice system that made it into law last week in Parliament affect us all – not just the few foreigners and criminals targeted by the populists.

Ironically enough, populist fervour leads to a government so buoyed up by nastiness that it can literally do anything it likes. So last week we lost the right to protest, the right to free expression and even the right to save drowning people without facing prison if they happen not to be British.

We lost the right to fair trial with several crimes being defined and people found guilty and sentenced not by judicial process, not by a court or a jury but by the Home Secretary, personally.

We lost the right to scrutinise and censure politicians when they break the law. Judicial review can now only go ahead with the consent of the very government the system aims to scrutinise. In short, they can now do pretty much whatever they like and, short of revolution or some other form of insurrection, there’s very little we can do to prevent it.

This crop of tories – the truly nasty party representatives – have taken principles of fairness, of justice, of democracy and of hope and turned them into rules intended to benefit themselves and their cronies at the top of the financial tree at our expense. They allow energy companies to make vast profits while many Brits are unable to heat their homes. They allow sewage companies to dump raw effluent into our waterways – waterways only recently clean again thanks to EU regulations – you know – the ‘red tape’ we were all told to dislike so much. That’s the same red tape that’s been removed as we lose employment protections with no effective recourse to law and extremely limited access to legal aid. And all because decent people were conned into voting for a pack of vicious hyenas.

Personally I tend to lean toward utilitarianism – the philosophical approach that seeks to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. That doesn’t make me ‘soft’ or ‘naive’, by the way. I absolutely believe that society has both the right and the duty to protect itself. Sometimes that means long sentences – even life and that’s OK by me. But often it means something quite different. Often it means understanding, compassion and education. Often it means rehabilitation. What it most certainly does not mean and cannot, must not mean is the gratuitous inflicting of suffering. Justice must be purposeful and devoid of emotional bias. And it can never be right that the person under scrutiny is the very person deciding whether or not the trial can go ahead. Guilt and sentencing should never be decided by a politician with an axe to grind and nobody should ever be sent to prison for saving a human being from drowning. What inhuman monster came up with that idea?

However the real purpose of this post is to make one, simple point. Justice, as determined by the state, must be in response to actions and behaviours. It has nothing to do with prejudicial assumptions about nationality, heritage, skin colour, sexual orientation, poverty, dependency, political affiliation, wealth or place of birth.

Perhaps some of those unthinking supporters of our far right, nationalist government would do well to remember that.

Conservative constitutional con continues

That just might be my most alliterative title ever. Con, con, con, con. But is it accurate?

Well, sadly… yes… it’s absolutely accurate and the Cabinet Meets After Reshuffle In Londonpotential ramifications for our government, our courts, our parliament and our rights are way scarier than many innocent, unsuspecting voters, including Tory voters, have hitherto imagined. But don’t just take my word for it… Read on whilst I lay out my case and then judge for yourselves.

British governance has for many centuries been a balance, a constitutional push and pull process between parliament (the Lords and the commons), the Government (the Prime Minister and the cabinet) and the judiciary (the legal system, especially senior courts like the Lords and more recently the Supreme court).

It has always been clear that…

• The government sets out proposals
• Parliament scrutinises those proposals and makes amendments or even rejects them as it sees fit
• The courts ensure that laws are legal (based upon the laws already laid down by parliament).
• Some issues clearly fall within the court’s remit but most matters are for parliament to decide – not the courts and not the government.

That balance works and generally prevents the government from acting unlawfully or stupidly for populist reasons.

One of the most important duties of the court system is to uphold parliament’s right to scrutiny and to make decisions. To acknowledge when a decision is not theirs to make and pass it back to the appropriate body – Parliament. I assume that even the most ardent Brexiter would have no problem with that statement. Here it is again, for clarity…

Senior judges are expected to protect parliament’s right and opportunity to scrutinise government proposals.

Fair enough?

So what’s all this about the courts overstepping the mark?
Why do we need constitutional reform?
Why do we need people with a proven track record of disregarding the law, human rights and the will of Parliament to change the rules that have maintained our democratic balance for generations?

Suella Braverman attorney generalBoris Johnson claims that the courts made political decisions when they twice ruled against the government over Brexit. The newly appointed Attorney General, Suella Braverman, writing in ‘Conservative Home’ opined…

“People we elect must take back control from people we don’t. Who include the judges.”

But let’s look at what she actually meant. In the article she commented upon only two cases, the Supreme Court rulings over Article 50 in 2017 and Parliamentary prorogation in 2019. So let’s be clear…

1. First – the courts ruled that Brexit was a decision for Parliament, not for the PM alone. This is entirely in keeping with the legal duty of ensuring that Parliament gets to scrutinise government.
2. Second – the court ruled that it was unlawful to prevent Parliament from scrutinising the Withdrawal bill by proroguing it without any other, pressing reason and no actual plan. Once again the judgement was intended to uphold Parliament’s right to represent the people who voted it into office.

Remember what we said earlier…

Senior judges are expected to protect parliament’s right and opportunity to scrutinise government proposals.

That’s exactly what the Supreme court did. So no harm done. Except that Boris and his handler, Dominic Cummings were furious. In fact, it is widely known that this whole constitutional review is the result of Cummings intention to…

Get the judges sorted

Perhaps that’s why Suella Braverman has become Attorney general in the first place. It’s clear that for all her legal experience (which is considerable) she is quite prepared to rob the Supreme court of its ability to protect Parliament’s rights. It’s equally clear that she dislikes the Human rights act. In fact, in the same article she misrepresents both the actions of the Supreme court and the HRA. It’s almost as though this experienced lawyer doesn’t understand the law – or is deliberately misleading people to justify an unwarranted coup as part of Johnson’s growing infrastructure of dictatorship.

And she, along with Michael Gove is taking a lead role in the whole review.

So, to summarize:

suella braverman 2The court has upheld parliament’s right to scrutinise and make decisions;
Therefore the government is to remove the court’s powers because;
Boris apparently want to maintain Parliament’s right to scrutinise and make decisions;
Along the way Boris will move a little closer to dictator status and our human rights will be thrown under the bus.

Good, innit?

A little history: Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus crucifiedThe Nazarene (0-33) seems to have been an extreme lefty by today’s measures. He preached against greed (many of his followers conveniently ignore that bit) and recommended compassion instead. He even got a bit ‘fighty’ with the capitalist pigs in the Temple grounds.

Like other socialists, he was especially unhappy with the usurers (like modern day bankers) whom he described as ‘thieves’. These were the money changers, the guys who took normal money in exchange for unsullied ‘Temple coin’ that could be used to purchase sacrificial lambs at Passover. The money-changers charged exorbitant rates – a bit like Wonga (which is linked to the Tory party, by the way) and so profited from the obligatory observance of the faithful. Jesus seems to have had a point there.

Jesus apparently hated inequality. He was the guy who said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He lived among the poor, helped the sick and the disabled and eschewed the tables of the wealthy whose oppressive ways simply maintained the suffering of their fellows.

Like many others before and since from Confucius, the Buddha and Lao Tzu to a host of Gurus and philosophers he recommended living by the Golden rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s why he fed those who were hungry and advocated help for the sick and those without shelter, the direct opposite of this present government’s actions. The tories have spent the last 10 years increasing homelessness, forcing people to use foodbanks to survive and denying sick and disabled people the resources they need. They’re even starving the NHS of funding in preparation for selling it off to private enterprise as a way of increasing personal profit through the suffering of others.

It’s amazing how many Tories profess to be Christians and yet ignore almost everything their Messiah said.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once remarked…

“I am confused as to which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don’t mix!”

To those non-religious Tories and others and others who either support oppressive Tory ideology or stand idly by and look the other way, the good Archbishop had this to say…

“When the Elephant stands on the mouse’s tail, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”

A little history: Marcus Aurelius

It may seem surprising to include  a long-dead Roman emperor in a history of democratic socialism but read on – all will become  clear.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was born on April 17th 121 and died on March 17th 180 aged 59 (almost). He was known as ‘The philosopher king’ both during and after his lifetime. He also has the honour of being hailed as the last of Rome’s ‘good’ emperors. Ever the diplomat he co-ruled the empire with Lucius Verus until Lucius’ died in 169. Marcus didn’t appoint a successor to Lucius and ruled alone for the last decade or so of his life.

Marcus Aurelius meditationsIt was during these latter years that he wrote his famous ‘Meditations’ – a collection of stoic principles originally intended for his own use but published after his death, much to the delight of later Stoics such as myself. Marcus contribution to Stoicism cannot be over-estimated. He shows us a marked contrast between the very highest and lowest ranks of society and yet the same problems (and solutions) remain.

Even as a child Marcus was attracted to philosophy. His mother even had to persuade him to sleep in his bed. The young Marcus had taken to sleeping on the floor after the manner of the Athenian Cynics such as Diogenes.  Marcus’ studies in Cynicism and Stoicism presumably helped him to cope with the grief he must have felt at the loss first of his father and then his mother early in his adolescence.

Marcus succeeded the emperor Antoninus Pius in 161 AD having been chosen by his adoptive father Hadrian (the previous emperor) in 138. The intervening years had been spent actively working in Roman politics and in studying Stoicism – an early fascination that he never tired of. It was presumably his Stoic devotion to duty and to the common good that led him to insist that he share the office of Emperor with Lucius, his adopted brother. That wasn’t the original plan and a lesser man may well have chosen to rule alone but Marcus was never one to let his ego get in the way of what he believed to be right. He considered Lucius essential to effective rule and stuck to his guns until the senate eventually agreed to his power-sharing plan.

Although significant in his day I don’t propose to say much about Marcus’ activities as emperor. That’s not what interests me here. Rather it’s his philosophy and writings that have earned him a place in this series. Written during the last few years of his life, whilst on military campaign in Germania, Marcus’ Meditations is one of the most accessible and useful introductions to Stoicism I’ve ever come across. It’s a book of its time, complete with all the references to Gods and the fates that we might expect from an ancient Pagan but that doesn’t detract from its simple brilliance.

Marcus Aurelius bust in the darkIt is Marcus’ insistence that all men are equal that earns him his place in this little history. He was quite simply the single most powerful man in his universe. He literally had the power of life and death in his hand, emperor of almost the entire known world with the opportunity to be a dictator and the disposition of an egalitarian. It may be only a short step too far to call him one of Europe’s earliest socialists, a man who thought little of rank and status when compared to the worth and dignity of all people, a ruler who despised injustice and who devoted his life as emperor to leaving the Empire a fairer and more just place than when he found it.

It is one of history’s greatest tragedies that Marcus’ successor, Commodus cared little for his predecessor’s high ideals and soon allowed most of Marcus’ achievements to crumble away. If only Commodus had continued in Marcus’ footsteps the world today might well have been a very different, fairer place.

If I remember rightly, Meditations was one of the first Stoic books I ever read – and I thank the long dead emperor for it from the bottom of my heart. Marcus Aurelius, the last ‘good emperor’ of Rome was instrumental in setting me on a path that has benefited me greatly in both emotional and intellectual terms. I cannot recommend his little book enough. You can download it for free here. Go on – it just might change your life!