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The NS Interview: Robert Skidelsky

“Osborne gets away with it – people haven’t really nailed him”

You lived in Keynes's house for 20 years. Has he always loomed large in your life?
He started to loom large when I was working on my thesis, which became Politicians and the Slump. He seemed to have very good answers to the slump that were never adopted.

What has driven the current financial crisis?
Faith in risk-management models, and the belief that you could reduce all uncertainty to risk. In risk, you have numbers; in uncertainty, you don't. The bankers believed you could work out the odds on anything, like a game of dice or roulette. The pervasiveness of uncertainty seems to be Keynes's central point: those wedded to the efficient market don't take sufficient account of it. It's right at the root of his economics. He rejected probability as a statistical concept and thought of it instead as a logical concept. This was key. If you have probabilities without numbers, you open the barrier to uncertainty: you have knowledge, but it's not precise.

Has the bailout shifted the problem from a banking crisis to a fiscal crisis? 
I don't think there is a fiscal crisis. I think it's an invention.

By politicians?
Yes. Someone like George Osborne gets away with leaving out assumptions behind his arguments because he's not confronted with them. He's interviewed a lot, but people haven't really nailed him. There hasn't been enough debate about the stimulus and national debt.

Did you vote, before ennoblement?
I did from time to time. I tended to vote Labour.

Why hasn't the crisis killed the "efficient markets" hypothesis?
It's tenacious for two reasons. First, economists want their subject to be as much like the natural sciences as possible, so you can't allow uncertainty into the system. Second, much of the new classical economics really supports those with power - the people who want the markets to be set free and who hate government intervention. Those two things are a deadly combination. When you trace back the relationship between banks and government, you always get to the same idea: that markets are efficient and governments are inefficient.

You've said we should be wary of scapegoating bankers. Are you uneasy with bailout outrage?
It's morally explicable, and it's important because it fuels the pressure for reform. But if you're looking for the causes, it doesn't really help. It was greed that allowed the disaster to be as large as it was. And the guilty ones were allowed to get away with it.

Why?
Self-interest became the touchstone of conduct and the sense of being part of a community had eroded - there was less of a religious sense.
 
Do you have a religious temperament?

I've come to appreciate the importance of a religious temperament more and more. I no longer see obstacles to believing in things that atheists and secularists find it impossible to believe in. I'm not sure the problem of rational belief is confined to religion. I find it increasingly difficult to believe scientific truths.
 
Are we all doomed?
In the long run, yes. I'm not sure our species has enough moral and intellectual resources to be permanent inhabitants of this planet.
 
Amartya Sen advises recalibrating GDP to take quality of life into account. Do you agree?
Certainly - they already have indexes of well-being. But no one takes them seriously because the numbers are arbitrary. GDP numbers seem harder, but they're less certain than they used to be - how do you factor in financial services? I would be inclined, like Adair Turner, to assume that a large part of them is socially useless, and cut them down. Adair Turner has revealed himself as a rather effective critic of our financial system.
He has been very courageous, and said things that were very necessary. Reducing the weight of financial transaction on our system is now on the agenda. But the fear is that as the economy recovers all this will be swept away.

That's a very pessimistic observation.
It's an observation that fits the essentially placid British character. Maybe I see it that way because I don't have English parentage.
 
Do you feel outside of Englishness?
I was educated in England, made my career in England, and couldn't have entered a more English institution than the House of Lords. I think I see things from outside and inside.
 
Do you feel comfortable as an outsider?
I think so. I think it balances one's need for acceptance with one's commitment to truth.

Robert Skidelsky's "Keynes: the Return of the Master" is published by Allen Lane (£20)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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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 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End