Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Actors Of Parliament

Actors of Parliament – Special

Straw's Jaw Jaw

Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is well-known as a seeker of self-publicity. In this Actors of Parliament special, SQUALL gives it to him.

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 18.

Ally Fogg reviews Jack Straw's Neighbour Witch-hunt proposal's and finds fault-lines in the new Communitarian novelty.

The last refuge of the armchair activist has always been "well there'll be an election in a few years and the other lot might repair the damage." The latest application of this has been "Tony Blair has said he'll bring in a Bill of Rights so he'll have to repeal the Criminal Justice Act, won't he?". One year into Tony Blah's leadership and issues of civil liberties, cultural diversity and social justice are further off the agenda than ever before.

It has been tempting to believe that Blah and his spin-doctors were merely manipulating the media to his own advantage, and protecting himself from the worst maulings of the tabloids. Just as Tories pretended to be deeply caring baby-kissing human beings until they were elected and then metamorphosed into twisted gargoyles after the votes were counted, maybe new Labour were just pretending to be twisted gargoyles and would transform back into socialists, or at least liberals, after the election. Now that 'New Labour' is beginning to flesh out its image with actual policy, we can begin to see just what kind of government we can expect in less than two years time. And as a starting point, Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw's new policy document "A Quiet Life: Tough Action on Criminal Neighbours" makes chilling reading.

Briefly, Straw's plan is to introduce new laws to deal with groups of people, particularly families, who terrorise residential areas by an accumulation of petty offences. A court can then make a 'community safety order' which can set curfews and restrict movement. Failure to obey a restraining order will be a criminal offence which carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

There are two distinct reasons for opposing this idea, firstly that it quite obviously will not achieve its own objectives, and secondly that it flagrantly and dangerously disregards all accepted standards of civil liberties and human rights.

When the plan was first announced it was greeted with patronising contempt from the likes of the Magistrate's Association who said that every magistrate knew a "family from Hell" and it was likely that they would simply not obey the restraining orders and would end up in jail. The Penal Affairs Consortium, representing prison governors and chief probation officers among others, called it 'dangerous and draconian'.

From the civil liberties perspective the proposals look even worse. At the heart of the issue lies the right to a fair trial. The restraining order can be granted without first-hand testimony but using evidence of a police officer that complaints had been received, without naming the complainant. The idea is that people will not be intimidated out of reporting offences if they will not be named in court, but it also means that complainants cannot be cross-examined by the defence to establish that they are telling the truth. The principal behind the proposal seems to be one of 'no smoke without fire', that is if enough neighbours think that a family are a bunch of villains, then they must be. This is the justice of the witch-hunt, and is dependent on the honesty of police officers. There is also obvious use of guilt by association, people could end up imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives.

The effect will be people facing a seven- year stretch when they have not been convicted to a criminal level of proof. This is not something that appears to concern Jack Straw. The true face of New Labour can be seen not just in the policy, but in the presentation and justification given.

In the style perfected by Michael Howard during the Criminal Justice Bill campaign, Straw defended his policies by evoking stories of vicious criminal behaviour which are already worthy of long prison sentences. While Howard justified persecuting squatters and criminalising travellers by recounting tales of breaking and entering, theft, assault, and drug-dealing, Straw has justified his proposals by, you've guessed it, recounting tales of breaking and entering, theft, assault, and drugdealing. In both cases the logic is if we can't prove that people are doing nasty things, we'll lock them up for being nasty people. That logic is as fast a track to fascism as any.

Straw was not prepared to settle for emulating the Tories in policy, he even adopted their language, repeatedly asking: "What about the civil rights of the victims of crime." Somebody should explain to Mr Straw that civil rights are what protect the citizen from the state, and that we need those more desperately than any laws to protect us from each other.

If there is any doubt left about how Jack Straw's mind is working, consider this quote, not from the heat of the moment in a live debate, but from a carefully considered column in the Independent on July 6. "Is it not the duty of serious politicians to take preventive measures for the innocent victims of crimes?" The preventive measures he means are not social policies to tackle poverty and the true causes of anti-social behaviour, but are attempts to shift attention away from the politicians who are responsible and on to the victims of their failed policies. By being so quick to get their retaliation in first, Labour are making a tacit admission that they intend to do nothing about the real problems that millions of people are facing in this country.

At an ideological level, Straw's policy may be significant as the first real product of new Labour's flirtation with the ideas of American communitarians like Amitai Etzioni. Communitarians advocate small, self-defining communities which encourage positive social behaviour through majority opinion, with legal powers of 'local taboos' and eviction from the community. Etzioni himself argues for protective rights against prejudicial or unfair majority rule, although other advocates on the American right are less liberal. In return communitarians reject unfettered consumerism and expansive capitalism. Motivating forces should be responsibility and duty, not self-interest. The main concern many have with the theory is that it provides little scope for civil liberties and it does nothing to address the imbalance of power between sex, class, race etc which already exist in society. As Anna Coote of the Institute for Public Policy Research wrote recently: "Communities, like clubs, are defined as much by exclusion as by inclusion. Where does communitarianism leave the dissenters and nonconformists, the artists and innovators, the misfits and migrants, the oddballs and loners, the recalcitrants and recidivists? Nowhere - unless in a long-stay institution of some kind." The philosophy uses the premise that liberty, equality and justice have already been sufficiently achieved, and now we need to protect what we have achieved from collapse into chaos.

Thus far communitarianism has been causing ripples in the think-tanks of all the British and American political parties, but none have as yet wholeheartedly endorsed the theory. Until they do it remains an interesting theory, which for Labour in particular could provide intellectual stuffing for their new image. The way in which it is applied could hint at the future of mainstream politics into the next millennium, and provide a route out of the ideological vacuum of our times. Equally it could lead us into a new political era of cultural fascism and majority tyranny. In the meantime if anyone else tells you that Blair is a liberal at heart, then remind them of the how he stood back as Shadow Home Secretary and allowed an inept government to introduce a malicious assault on the civil liberties of a generation, and simultaneously allowed the trades unions and the British people to be sold down the river on the H.M.S. Criminal Justice Act. And he hasn't looked back since.

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