No pain, no gain

As Europe ensnares the PM just as it did his predecessors, Adam Boulton watches Gordon Brown talking

If not yet for peace, this Middle East envoy business already has its uses. A week or so ago, Tony Blair met Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss economic reconstruction for the Palestinians, et voilà!, a few days later the French president says that Blair would be an ideal man to be the first EU president. Now, Maggie and Gordon eat your hearts out, the Cameron and Blair offices are swapping dates for Mr Future and Mr Once to hold their own Levantine discussions. In fact, Euro-President Blair doesn't look like a runner, as it would take more euros than the EU could decently spare to entice him back to an interminable round of the closed-door European Council meetings he found so frustrating as PM.

Unlike Blair, who liked to arrive late and leave early, Gordon Brown was on a charm offensive in Lisbon this past week as he and fellow leaders agreed the treaty to amend EU institutions. Brown even arrived in time to attend the pre-Council gathering of European socialist leaders. The touting of Blair was a wake-up call for the new premier.

After ten years of an avowedly pro-European government in Britain, the EU is less popular with the British public than it was, and a source of pain, more than pleasure, for our political leaders. Brown, David Cameron and whoever ends up running the Liberal Democrat shop have not avoided this fate.

So why did Brown clear the diary so that between New Year and next Easter "parliament will have the opportunity to debate this amending treaty in detail and decide whether to ratify it"? Labour's calculation is that extended debate will hurt the Tories more than it hurts the government.

Brown's answer to the referendum question was to ignore it: in his statement on 22 October the "R word" did not pass his lips. Which won't hold in the lengthy Lords and Commons discussions when the Conservative calls for a referendum are put to the vote. Labour will continue to argue that the revising treaty is completely dif ferent from the constitutional treaty on which Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems all made manifesto pledges to hold a referendum. Detailed debate is likely to highlight similarities rather than differences between the two treaties. Brown reckons that he will avoid defeat because the passivity of the Lib Dems will cancel out the handful of pro-referendum rebels such as Gisela Stuart and Frank Field.

Scary sentences

But if it all goes wrong, there is already a convenient fall guy: David Miliband. Miliband's support for Brown, first articulated in the NS last year, was the key to securing the bloodless transition from Blair. Yet No 10 still regards him as the most likely potential rival. Taking the bill through parliament will be a major test for Brown's youthful Foreign Secretary.

So far, Miliband has been far from sure-footed in his new job. The eccentric delivery of his party conference speech last month left many baffled, as did his naive assertion that we live in a "scary world". Miliband seemed to be reaching for Blair-style informality, complete with glottal stops and verbless sentences, but it didn't work. His debut at the UN was no more successful. The government was forced to issue an official correction after he contradicted Britain's long-standing position on new Security Council members in an off-the-cuff TV interview. Speculation was heightened by his simultaneously patronising and petulant appearance before the Commons European scrutiny committee, which must have made him a lifelong enemy of its Labour chairman, Michael Connarty.

Miliband does not even have an efficiently functioning Foreign Office team to fall back on. Harmony there, and among Labour's ministerial team in the Lords, has been shattered by Brown's decision to appoint Mark Malloch Brown as Miliband's deputy. There is much resentment that Malloch Brown owes his job, his title, his salary and his London home entirely to his prime ministerial patron.

All this should provide rich pickings for Cameron. He says he wants the Europe debate to be about "the trust issue" - about Brown bottling a promised referendum, rather than exquisite detail such as the extension of qualified majority voting through the wonderfully named passerelle clause. The Tory leader admits that he faces a difficult few months, as his party will inevitably have to break his injunction against "banging on about Europe". Hardliners such as Norman Tebbit and John Redwood are already demanding a referendum pledge, even after the treaty has been ratified. Such an abrogation could unpick Britain's full membership of the EU.

Cameron is resisting this, while talking tough. "If we can hold a referendum, at the next election we will promise it," he said; but "the time for a referendum is now, while the treaty is still alive and being debated". Cameron does not want to jeopardise the ties he is slowly rebuilding to potential allies in Europe, especially Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, with whom he is sharing a stage in Berlin on 26 October at a conference of Germany's ruling CDU/CSU.

Meanwhile, the pressure for a referendum of some kind will grow. Ireland is having one. Denmark may follow. The Scottish government, the Eurosceptic millionaire Paul Sykes and villages such as Broughton Astley are all threatening to hold votes of their own. The Sun has put a referendum at the heart of its editorial policy, providing a possible pretext for decoupling its loyal support for the government.

Nor will the political pain end with the debate in parliament. The treaty is due to come into force in January 2009, ensuring that a new Council president and foreign minister, or rather "high representative", would be chosen next year. European Parliament elections take place in June 2009, an appetiser or side dish to a UK general election. If Brown delayed until 2010, he would have to appoint Peter Mandelson's replacement as EU Commissioner by September 2009.

Unlike the arcane treaty reforms, issues such as these are more easily grasped by the public. Brown is merely the latest prime minister to try to be sceptical at home but constructive in Brussels. The greater the scrutiny, the more difficult it is to pull off this Janus stance. If he gets to No 10, Cameron will find himself in a similar and even less comfortable position. Indeed, confrontation with Tory Europhobes may offer his most likely Clause Four moment.

The Liberal Democrats' call for a referendum on the bigger question of Britain's EU membership is merely a ruse to get them off the hook of their own treaty referendum pledge. That is one European referendum that the Euro-enthusiasts are more likely to win. Not for the first time, Lib Dem opportunism may turn out to be prescient. Sooner, in Brown's case, or later, in Cameron's, it may yet prove expedient to ask the voters the old question: "Britain - in or out?"

Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News
Martin Bright is away

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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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 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan