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15 January 2000

Straw's laws

Bruno Waterfield listened to Jack Straw on liberty and liberalism

New Labour has met with opposition over its proposals to end the right of defendants to elect for trial by jury (Criminal Justice Mode of Trial Bill). In typical New Labour style the opposition has been greeted not with reasoned argument, but with baiting and insult. Lawyers concerned about justice for the innocent are 'BMW-driving, knee-jerk reactionaries'. Anybody else is 'woolly-minded', a signed up member of 'the forces of conservatism', or a 'liberal'. It should be of concern to anybody that 'liberal' today is a term of abuse.

Straw's speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research on 13 January aimed to give a definitive view on 'crime, liberty and liberalism'. 'Individual liberty', Straw said, 'can only flourish in a society free from fear; only when we have a truly safe society will we be able to have a fair society'. Central to this project is making the 'core business' of the criminal justice system more effective. Close links will be restored between the police and the prosecution; victims will be given more support (Victim Support has had its grant increased by 50 percent); the rules of cross-examination will be changed to protect the vulnerable; removing the right to elect for jury trial will save money, delays and increase effectiveness; new techniques and technology will enable the police to 'manipulate intelligence and bring offenders to book'. And the government's policies are working. The conviction rate is at its highest since 1980, up seven percent in the past year.

But does it follow that we can only have a free society if we have a safe society? Inflated public fears of crime (see 'Creating crimes to count') and distorted statistics, themselves products of government policies, feed the climate of fear and mistrust. Without a belief in liberty - that people can run their own lives without society descending into murder and mayhem - insecurity is the order of the day. Institutionalised mistrust and 'safety before liberty' are blank cheques for authoritarian politicians like Jack Straw. In such a climate it is unsurprising that the courts' 'core business' becomes to convict rather than to uphold the principle of innocence before guilt. When the government brags about increasing the number of people convicted it is clear that minimising cost or delays have little to do with the real rationale of the controversial proposals.

As a justification for government crime policy Straw charted a fundamental shift in perceptions of the criminal justice system - a change in perception driven, he pointed out, by many of the liberal critics of his proposals on jury trial. In the 1980s discussion of the criminal justice system was dominated by miscarriages of justice - the 'catching' and 'convicting' of innocent people - particularly the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. At the end of 1990s, discussion is dominated by the Lawrence case. Concerns - raised by liberals - are not about safeguarding the rights of the defendant but convicting the 'guilty' suspects. When it comes to crimes of race, sexual or domestic violence, liberals become deeply ambiguous or 'woolly' about the rights of suspects. In the case of Pinochet, Straw gleefully pointed out, liberals were demanding he put aside the rule of law and assume powers tantamount to internment.

In this critique of liberalism Jack Straw is entirely correct. Liberals have in many cases driven the authoritarian policies and measures of this government. Left-leaning liberals in particular are ambiguous, inconsistent if not hostile about freedom (see 'A free country?'). The spinelessness and trendy pick'n'mix authoritarianism of liberals is responsible, indeed the precondition, for this government and many of its policies. When it comes to freedom there can be no ambiguity; as Jack Straw himself points out, one cannot support authoritarianism here and oppose it there. If 'liberal' deserves to become a term of abuse it is because liberals have not been liberal enough. Jack Straw's invective against the 'woolly liberals' may seem extreme. Don't be fooled. He knows that a woolly liberal is the authoritarian's best friend.

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