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''The delegates should assemble in sackcloth and ashes, with humble and contrite hearts''

In the New Statesman of 24 December 1932, John Maynard Keynes, advised world leaders on the

In the first six months of 1933 the world will be wondering between two alternatives; and until doubt is resolved it would be vain to expect genuine decisions from an International Conference. The alternatives are these. Will it be apparent by the middle of 1933 that this slump is the same in kind as past slumps though so violent in degree, and is gradually working itself off by the operation of natural forces and the economic system’s own resiliency? Or shall we find ourselves after a modest upwards reaction and dubious hopes of recovery, plunged back again into the slough? So long as there is any prospect of our realising the first alternative – and its realisation is not impossible – we may be certain that the International Conference will confine itself to pious words. Only in the other event, with hopes dashed and the oppression of renewed and universal despair terrifying the delegates, will there be any chance of action commensurate with the problem.

It is easy to predict the agenda of the Conference. A number of resolutions will be passed declaring that many things ought to be changed, but without a serious intention of changing them. Exchange restrictions will be denounced, but those countries where they exist will regret that they are in no position to abate them. It will be said that debts should be written down when they are beyond the capacity of the borrower, but no individual creditor will offer to write them down. The Conference will declare that there should be a general return to the gold standard as soon as possible, but those countries which have gained their liberty in this respect will not surrender it except on conditions which they do not expect to see satisfied. The Conference may agree, even with French acquiescence, that prices should be raised. But will it offer any plan for raising them?

So long as the Conference deals with symptoms and not with causes the shadow of futility will lie across its path. Its first task therefore should be to distinguish one from the other.

The trouble began with something that is best described as "a state of financial tension". In the United States the causes of tension were internal; elsewhere they were in their origins mainly international. These initiating causes are well known - on the one hand a frenzy of speculation in the United States, on the other hand a cess ation of the international lending which had been off-setting the disequilibrium of the balances of payment between countries which war debts and tarriffs would have already produced otherwise. A state of financial tension means that individuals and communities suddenly find much increased difficulty in putting their hands on money to meet their obligations, with the result that they take various measures to reduce their purchasing.

There is one, and only one, genuine remedy; namely to increase demand - in other words to increase expenditure. As the slump progresses it becomes more difficult to do this. At first a relief in the financial tension would have been enough by itself. But when the decline of prices and profits has gone beyond a certain point, the incentive to produce, and not merely the financial ability, has disappeared. At this point, the State itself must, in my judgement, start the ball rolling by deliberately organising expenditure.

The essential task is to divide measures for the direct relief of financial tension between nations.

Our plan must be spectacular, so as to change the grey complexion of men's minds. It must apply to all countries and to all simultaneously. Each at the same time must feel able to remove barriers to trade and to purchase freely. If we all begin purchasing again, we shall all have the means to do so. The appropriate stimulus to the activity of trade will vary from nation to nation; in some a relief from taxation, in some a programme of public works, in some an expansion of credit, in some a relaxation of exchange and import restrictions, in some a repayment of pressing debts, in some the mere removal of anxieties and fear, in some the mere stimulus to the lords of business to be courageous and active again. What is the charm to awaken the Sleeping Beauty, to scale the mountain of glass without slipping back? If every Treasury were to discover in its vaults a large cache of gold proportional in size to the scale of its economic life, would not that work the charm? Why should that cache not be devised? We have long printed gold nationally. Why should we not print it internationally? No reason in the world, unless our hands are palsied and our wits dull.

The plan would be as follows. An international body – the Bank of International Settlements or a new institution created for the purpose – would be instructed by the assembled nations to print gold certificates to the amount of (say) $5,000,000,000. The countries participating would undertake to provide a lawful ratio of equivalence, though not necessarily an unchangeable one, between gold and their national moneys. The gold certificates would then be distributed to the participants in proportions determined by a formula, based on their economic weight in the world . . . I see no disadvantages in [this plan] and no dangers. It requires nothing but a little more elastic than usual.

The delegates to the World Conference should assemble in sackcloth and ashes, with humble and contrite hearts. It is, I suppose, well nigh the fiftieth of post-war Conferences. Fear and greed, duplicity and incompetence, but above all conventional thought and feeling, have brought their collective performance far below the level of the participants regarded as human individuals. But here is a last opportunity. Finis Coronat opus.

The above is an edited extract

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was a highly influential British economist.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come