One small step for the politicians

Two speeches and a draft bill may not make for a revolution, but Mark Lynas hails a significant shif

If Gordon Brown got one thing right in his speech to the Green Alliance, it was his admission that we have entered a "new era" in world events. As Brown and his prime ministerial challenger David Cameron have both begun to recognise, old certainties are falling away as the public recognises our planetary ecological emergency. We are left floundering in unfamiliar political surroundings. The process is happening not just here in Britain, but worldwide.

Some of the likely results can already be identified, and the most important one is this: our position on the environment will be the defining question of the 21st century, just as ideology on wealth distribution was in the 20th, and religion in the 18th. Conventional polarities of left and right are ceasing to matter: neither points the way ahead for a civilisation that must completely alter the way it operates if it is to avoid a biological collapse and climatic meltdown, which most of humanity would not survive.

British politics is in flux, still adjusting to this new reality. Sensing the changing mood of the electorate, all major parties are vying for the new green ground. But awareness of the need for change is far from being universal: much of the Tory press, for example, is historically sceptical of environmentalism and violently opposed to Cameron's new stance. Conservative MEPs, too, seem less than convinced. They have the worst environmental voting record in the EU of any party. The furore over John Redwood's "global warming is good" blog entry illustrates both the divisions within the party, and how far the mainstream has shifted. Whereas Redwood's views might once have commanded majority support, he now looks like a crank.

Head to head

On 12 March, both Brown and Cameron (his shoes are pictured, left) made ground-breaking environmental speeches in a head-to-head battle to seize the green initiative. (The real Greens were left fuming as they saw their policies, like clothes, stolen one by one.) Brown is still some way behind - his moves to ban old-style light bulbs and to speed up the transition to low- carbon homes are welcome, but hardly radical. By contrast, Cameron's recognition that the growth in aircraft emissions must be constrained - even at the risk of upsetting frequent flyers - suggests a willingness to tackle damaging lifestyles for the first time.

Nor are national politicians the only ones making the change. In London, Ken Livingstone has transformed himself from Red Ken to Green Ken with an admirably ambitious programme to reduce the capital's carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2025 - a target which, if adopted more widely, might actually make a big dent in the global problem. Livingstone has made common cause with the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose participation in a five-state initiative to cut emissions shows how US politics is also changing. Al Gore may not be planning to storm the White House brandishing his Oscars, but it is no longer conceivable that any future president - Democrat or Republican - will echo George Bush's line on global warming.

The same change has happened across the industrialised world. In Canada, the Conservatives were elected on an anti-Kyoto platform, but have had to reverse their stance due to widespread pressure. In Australia, John Howard's government was once second only to Bush in outright climate-change denial - but it, too, has had to shift with the times. Now Howard makes speeches proposing carbon markets and ramps up investment in renewables. Australia has become the first country to agree a full ban on incandescent light bulbs. In France, presidential candidates have all hurried to sign up to a "green pledge" to avoid being challenged by a popular environmentalist TV personality. Where once immigration might have been the key issue, now it is global warming. In business, multinational companies such as Wal-Mart and DuPont are falling over themselves to convince consumers they are serious about going zero-carbon.

Translating this political shift into real emissions cuts remains the hard part, but it is becoming easier as electorates across the developed world signal their readiness to participate in big lifestyle changes. Livingstone's assertion - that "to tackle climate change you do not have to reduce your quality of life, but you do have to change the way you live" - nails the challenge for policy-makers across the globe: how to transform the need for emissions cuts into the kind of progressive social change that people are likely to welcome rather than oppose.

In the UK, David Miliband's proposed climate-change bill gives the first signs that the government is confident about such a move: the bill is a real milestone towards the eventual transformation of this country into a low-carbon economy, and puts the UK in a true leadership position as the only nation to commit to legally binding reductions in CO2. That these cuts will come about in the form of five-yearly "carbon budgets", rather than the annual targets demanded by Friends of the Earth (to whom much of the credit for the bill must go) is disappointing, but not critical. The government will still have to answer to parliament on its progress every year, and its performance will be scrutinised by an independent committee on climate change. The idea of carbon budgeting being just as important as economic budgeting is also crucial. Moreover, the new "enabling powers" contained in the bill allow for the introduction of personal carbon allowances (or "carbon rationing") without any further legislation being necessary - a highly significant move.

For his part, Brown has a chance in his remaining days as Chancellor to back up his words with some hard cash, particularly for the Department of Trade and Industry's Low Carbon Buildings Programme, which is being throttled at birth by a shortage of funds. A government that continues to pump billions into road-widening schemes while choking off the already miserly funds provided to the emerging renewables sector will struggle to be taken seriously - by climate campaigners and by the general public.

It will take more than a single speech for Brown to convince environmentalists that he will make a green prime minister, but many will now be viewing his impending premiership with a little less dread than they did previously.

The real lesson of the week's events, however, is a larger one: just as no US presidential candidate will be able to deny climate change and get elected, no future British prime minister will be able to contemplate politics without putting the environment at the centre. To both men's credit, it seems as if Brown and Cameron, the two main contenders, have begun to realise this.
Mark Lynas's book "Six Degrees: our future on a hotter planet" is published on 19 March (£12.99)

See also . . .
From Trident to tax to climate change: the party speaks by Peter Kellner
A YouGov survey indicates a divided mood among Labour members. Here we publish the full results of the poll

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour

Getty
Show Hide image

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 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour