Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The rule of Law

How do you stop people doing what is wrong?

One answer might be, you don't. What you call 'wrong' is only wrong in your opinion and it's their business not yours.

If you live in a society which is supposed to function as a whole, it all eventually depends on the use of force. We employ a police force to restrain and even, if necessary, kill those who are breaking the law. The law that they break has many origins but comes down, in a democracy, to the will of the majority demonstrated in a ballot. There are fine checks and balances in a mature society. There is also separation of powers so that the executive, the parliament and the judiciary are able to disagree. The fourth estate is empowered to investigate. The balance between these four powers must be preserved so that no-one predominates. Who judges that? The Demos; the people.

In the recent riots in London and elsewhere in England, 75% of those arrested were known criminals and I dare say the rest were mostly criminals who had hitherto escaped arrest. One 11 year old was on police bail for setting fire to a bus the previous week. They seemed to have thought that the Law had been suspended or switched off for a day. Result: anarchy.

Not for nothing does the magistrate bear a sword, says St Paul.

Liberal opinion seems to think that rioters and looters should be treated lightly. Police tactics are expected to be those with a 'light touch'. But the public (in opinion polls) favor a more robust approach. In many European countries they go beyond the riot shields and police batons used in the UK. Water canon, tear gas, plastic bullets and even live rounds may be used.

The problem with such escalation is that people must be allowed to demonstrate freely against perceived ills. Drawing the line between a peaceful demonstration and a riot may be difficult. Regimes like Syria have clearly got it wrong, but often the decision lands on one man's lap and a quick answer is needed. In the UK the police tend to act with caution. In the recent riots, rather than escalate the violence the police chose to photograph it and use the images to prosecute the perpetrators afterwards. If the justice now seems harsh - 4 months in prison for stealing a pullover - it should be remembered that it was not for the theft that the punishment was exacted, but for the riot and looting, which was a threat to the structure of society.

The Director of Public Prosecution has protested about the harshness of the sentencing. This man was a Tony Blair appointment who was named after the founder of the Labour party and has been a lifelong Marxist. Th American idea that functionaries such as he are reappointed by an incoming administration is a good one. The man should be dismissed.

Samuel Rutherford during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 summed it up in a Latin phrase: Lex rex; the Law rules. The Riot Act, which was repealed by the last Labour government, allowed the police to fire live rounds at a mob that refused to disperse after it had been read to them. Undoubtedly, it has been misused (though not for a century) but we need it back on the statute book, not least to demonstrate that law and order is ultimately guaranteed by the use of force. We may be 'slow to chide and swift to bless' but the eventual sanction is the use of force.

In international affairs the problem is even more complex. If we are attacked we have the right to defend ourselves, but how far does that extend to the defence of a third party; especially if that third party is a citizen of the country doing the attacking. And suppose the attacker is not a state but an armed gang beyond the control of that state? Tomorrow I shall try and explore that question.


BelfastChild said...

Of course, this is all correct. However, I am a little surprised by comments in the press that the recent London riots are the worst in the UK in a century. Of course, this is incorrect. There have been many more severe, and a few less severe, riots in Belfast, my home town, and Northern Ireland over the last 45 years, most recently in East Belfast this summer.

The last time I checked, Northern Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And we have had to put up with water canon, plastic and rubber bullets (the latter apparently hurt less and are less frequently fatal) and live rounds from the security forces. Indeed, we have also frequently had to put up with live rounds and bombs from the rioters, some of whom are now in government.

There are two possible conclusions: (1) the London rioters should be Honourable Members of the House of Commons at the next election, or (2) the criminals and terrorists in Northern Ireland's executive should be sent to prison, with the London rioters, where they belong. It seems wrong to me that rioters and criminals should be so differently rewarded in different parts of the UK.

Can you imagine what would have happened had Northern Ireland's tragic last 45 years happened somewhere on the British mainland?

Manu Manickvel said...

Ans: as yet unknown?