The NS Interview: Mary Warnock

“The ‘big society’ doesn’t speak to me. It doesn’t speak to anyone”

How has philosophy developed since you trained in the discipline?
I loved the philosophical climate of the 1950s. We were iconoclastic and it was great fun. But I think what changed was the status of moral philosophy - it was probably the Vietnam war that changed it, because students were not prepared to study the subjects that had nothing to say on just war.

You dispute that morality is grounded in religion. What is its basis, in your view?
I believe morality comes from our common human nature and that we live in a society that is precarious and difficult. To take morals seriously is to take the view that we've got to collaborate and take one another seriously.

Is it an oversimplification to describe Britain as a secular society?
In some ways there's more religion than there was; there's more Islamic religion and there's a lot of enthusiastic Christianity. On the other hand, we have politicians being openly able to say they are not religious.

But we still have an established church.
Yes, but I think that the established church has - and I suspect for years has had - very little to do with policy. It's more to do with ceremony and there being some formal way of recognising great occasions.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has talked of a religious "longing" in society. Do you recognise this?
I would probably call them longings of the imagination, because I think religion grew up out of human imagination. This is a Romantic idea and none the worse for that. Romanticism is part of our history; it won't go away.

Would you describe yourself as a “cultural Christian"?
Yes. I love the Church of England. And particularly I love church music, which couldn't have existed were it not for people who absolutely believed what they were expressing.

Do atheists such as Richard Dawkins conflate religious belief with fundamentalism?
Yes. I think he's got very little sense of history, therefore he hasn't bothered to think what it is like to claim to be a member of the Church of England. I can find horrors that happened because of religion, but to move from that to say that religion necessarily produces horrors of that kind does seem to me overly simple.

Is it a failure of imagination on Dawkins's part?
If you talk to Richard Dawkins you will find that he's sympathetic to the imaginative things from religion, such as church music, paintings and architecture. But he dissociates the imaginative content from the religious content. That seems absurd, because obviously the cathedrals were built to the glory of God and people believed that. You can't pretend that Bach wrote his religious cantatas out of anything other than profound Protestant belief.

Why is imagination so important to you?
What I tend to mean by imagination includes the Archbishop's longings: the things that really, as far as we know, separate us from all other animals. It is a distinctly human capacity.

Do you think politicians should declare their faith?
The Archbishop of Canterbury said he thought that religious people had an absolute right to express their political opinions in parliament and outside. But he thought they ought to declare where they're coming from; they shouldn't expect a free passage just because of their faith. I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

You reject the idea that a basis for morality can be found in the concept of rights. Why?
Rights are too legalistic a concept to be the foundation of morality. When you claim a right, you're claiming a right either for yourself or
for your group: you're not looking out towards other people. I think this does diminish the importance in moral discourse of virtues such as patience or compassion or loving kindness. I'm a great believer in the virtues.

What is your view of the "big society"? Is it about trying to find a common good?
I believe that what David Cameron is trying to say is that there's something missing. But the actual phrase, "the big society", doesn't speak to me. I don't think it speaks to anyone. It's not intrinsically intelligible. He should have searched around and consulted a few theologians.

Did you vote before you entered the House of Lords?
I certainly did.

Was there a plan?
No. Though I knew from the age of about ten that I was to be an academic.

Is there anything you regret?
Not being a scientist. If I had my life again, I'd really learn about biology.

Are we all doomed?
Probably - but it will be after my time.

Defining Moments

1924 Born in Winchester, Hampshire
1949 Becomes fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford
1949 Marries Geoffrey Warnock, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University
1966 Becomes headmistress of Oxford High School for Girls
1982 Chairs human fertilisation inquiry
1985 Is made a life peer
2010 Publishes her book Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics

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

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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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 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus