Show Hide image

Welcome to Militant England

A few years ago Ukip was seen as the by-product of a Tory split. But now it appeals to disillusioned voters across the political spectrum and of all classes.

Seeing red: the flag of St George has become more than just the mark of football supporters. Photo: Magnum Photos

The Palm Bay estate in Cliftonville is a picture of English respectability in white paint and red brick. Detached bungalows with modest front lawns stretch inland from the Kentish coast in neat rows. It is not a wealthy area but it projects a doughty resistance to the decay that is visible elsewhere in Margate, the resort of which it is a suburb. These middle-class homes stand in prim Edwardian rebuke to the grimy Victorian terraces and crumbling Regency façades of the town centre.

Cliftonville worries about encroaching decline and has expressed that anxiety in recent county council elections by voting for the UK Independence Party. At a sedate meeting in a seafront hotel, an audience of mostly grey-haired and exclusively white-skinned residents listens politely to an address by a local Conservative MP, Laura Sandys. The most contentious issue to arise is housing – not the shortage that exercises Westminster policymakers, but the opposite. There is fear of construction developments and suspicion that refurbishment of derelict properties (of which Margate has a surfeit) will benefit undesirable newcomers.

“You can make the properties as nice as you like,” says a woman in her fifties. “The problem is the quality and calibre of people going in them.” Another resident explains afterwards, over tea and biscuits, that Margate has been overrun by “the dregs from London” – a category that captures immigrants, benefit claimants and drug addicts believed to have been dumped on the coast by councils in the capital.

Sandys is a popular MP but she is standing down at the next election. An opinion poll by Survation last year put Ukip in second place in her constituency, South Thanet, with 30 per cent of the vote – 5 points behind Labour. It is one of the seats that Nigel Farage is rumoured to be considering as an entry point to parliament in next year’s general election.

Like many coastal towns in eastern England, Margate has an immigrant population. There are Slovakian, Czech and Roma communities, although it would be a stretch to say they have drastically altered the complexion of the place. It is no inundation. Resentment here is about something more profound than fear of jobs being taken by outsiders or distaste at the sound of alien consonants in the bus queue. It expresses a feeling that all the important decisions are being made elsewhere; that someone in the capital has decided what kind of town this should be and that dissent is ignored or, worse, belittled as the mark of backward provinciality.

“People feel they’ve lost something,” Sandys tells me as we tour her constituency. “They may not be able to pinpoint what it is, but they don’t think they’re getting it back.”

A defining feature of Ukip’s presence in the area, according to Sandys, is the way it feeds on and fuels pessimism, especially among her older constituents. They have worked hard throughout their lives and find as they reach retirement that they are worse off than they expected to be. They cannot go on holiday or provide treats for their grandchildren. They struggle to heat their homes in winter. These indignities provoke shame and rage. Financial precariousness that was exposed by the Great Recession combines with longer-standing feelings of cultural disorientation to produce a dread of abandonment. Politics in Westminster is judged to be for the benefit of someone else – migrants, welfare recipients, bankers, Brussels bureaucrats.

This is how Farage has been able to position himself as the anti-politician threatening to storm the wicked bastion. In the second of his recent televised debates with Nick Clegg on European Union membership, the Ukip leader issued an extraordinary call to arms: “Come and join the people’s army. Let’s topple the establishment who got us into this mess.”

The rise of Ukip has been the most dynamic political element in the current parliament. Opinion polls show little exchange of voters between Labour and Conservative. Ed Miliband’s support was bolstered by left-leaning Liberal Democrats, but that defection happened almost immediately on Clegg’s decision to form a coalition with the Tories. Thanks to the perversities baked into our electoral system, Ukip’s surge could easily put Miliband in Downing Street, by taking votes from David Cameron in key marginal seats. For that reason, Labour is largely silent about the party that threatens to win the European parliamentary elections in May. “I’m not that interested in Nigel Farage,” Miliband said recently when asked about the Ukip leader. He should be.

Only a few years ago, Ukip was widely seen as a Tory schism – a secessionist republic of Little Englander reaction against Cameron’s efforts to modernise his party. That view no longer holds. While Ukip still takes more votes from the Tories than from anyone else, it plainly appeals to disillusionment from across the political spectrum, irrespective of class and region. Farage’s popularity is a symptom of something more potent. Little England is the retreat of the besieged; Ukip is animating a spirit of resistance.

“So many people don’t feel they have the power to change things,” says Sandys. “So they devolve their power to Nigel Farage.” The Ukip leader’s beer-swilling, cigarette-puffing indefatigability offers the vigour of defiance.

Farage makes no secret of his view that Ukip has already taken about as much support as it can expect to poach from the Tories before a general election and must now pick off disaffected voters in Labour’s heartlands. The nature of that pitch was summed up by Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, at last year’s party conference. “The Labour Party has abandoned its working-class roots,” Nuttall declaimed, in his broad Merseyside accent, to an auditorium packed with southern ex-Tories. “In the days of Clement Attlee, Labour MPs came from the mills, the mines, the factories. The Labour MPs today follow the same routes as Conservatives and the Lib Dems. They go to private school, they go to Oxbridge, they get a job in an MP’s office and they become an MP . . . [they wouldn’t] know a council estate if it fell out of the sky.”

The accusation is unfair but accuracy wasn’t the aim. Nuttall wants to reinforce a suspicion in many voters’ minds that Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, became a vehicle for slick career politicians who despised the party’s core supporters. At its more extreme end, that resentment mutates into a belief that New Labour pursued a policy of deliberate ethnic dilution and wage suppression, opening the borders in order to flood Britain with cheap workers.

Ukip has a credible claim to have supplanted the Tories as the main challenger to Labour in parts of the north. So far in this parliament, the party has come second to Labour in by-elections in South Shields, Middlesbrough, Rotherham, Barnsley and, in February this year, Wythenshawe and Sale East. Reporting on that most recent contest, I met people who would reel off a list of complaints that tally exactly with the issues on which Labour campaigns – job insecurity, zero-hours contracts, soaring energy bills, the “bedroom tax”, cuts to public services. They would then declare an intention not to vote at all, or to support Ukip. When people did say they planned to back Labour, the reason was most often ancestral loyalty. (“We’re all Labour round here.” “Always Labour.”)

Ed Miliband held the seat thanks to a strong local candidate with a ground operation that knew where Labour supporters lived and made sure they voted. The potential for a better-organised Ukip machine to win over areas that were once dominated by the traditional left is beyond doubt.

“If you look at the Labour Ukippers, some of them are the kind of people who might once have been shop stewards,” says John Denham MP, the former Labour cabinet minister who served as an adviser to Ed Miliband. “For them, trade unionism was a defensive thing economically, and a defensive thing in terms of ‘our people against the bosses’. Those people feel they’ve lost that power to fight against unwelcome change and defend their interests.”

This view is supported by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, of the Universities of Nottingham and Manchester, respectively, whose study of Ukip’s rise, Revolt on the Right, was published in March. The book identifies the potency of the new anti-politics radicalism in social and demographic forces that have been building for generations. The authors chart the creeping monopolisation of centre-left politics by a middle-class, white-collar, university-educated elite whose lives are remote from the concerns of the old industrial working class. Civil liberties, environmentalism, feminism, racial equality and European integration became the emblems of moderate left opinion, when the most pressing matters for historically left-wing voters were low wages, a lack of social housing and job insecurity – all of which could be filtered through suspicion of immigrants.

During the boom years, the benefits of open borders and market liberalisation were obvious to a skilled, affluent and mobile elite. They were less clear to those at the sharp end of competition for work and housing (although everyone enjoyed budget holidays and cheap manufactured imports). In reality, there was less divergence of economic interest than there was cultural polarisation. The liberal determination to expunge prejudice from public discourse was interpreted as denial of permission to be cross about immigration. That feeling seems especially strong among older, low-skilled, white men, whom Goodwin and Ford characterise as feeling “left behind”: “Already disillusioned by the economic shifts that left them lagging behind other groups in society, these voters now feel their concerns about immigration and threats to national identity have been ignored or stigmatised as expressions of prejudice by an established political class that appears more sensitive to protecting migrant newcomers and ethnic minorities than listening to the concerns of economically struggling, white Britons.”

This anger extends beyond race. It includes a range of prohibitions, some real and some imaginary, imposed by faceless, arrogant officialdom. It covers the ban on smoking in public, “political correctness”, a “health and safety” regime that is caricatured as banning children’s play, “human rights” distorted to mean pampering convicted criminals and, of course, “Brussels”. This edifice of indignation was captured in a 2012 focus group of Ukip supporters conducted by Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative financier and former deputy party chairman. He typified their mood as follows: “They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. Ukip, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them . . . [They are] part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold Nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.”

Mistrust of our national politicians is nothing new. Even in times of economic buoyancy, there is a curmudgeonly strain in British culture that thinks the country is going to the dogs. What seems different today is the tendency to see politics itself as not only disreputable but an organised conspiracy against decency.

That jaundiced view owes something to the parliamentary expenses scandal and a lot to the financial crisis. But its roots are deeper. Recession brought on a fever that was incubating during the boom. It flourished in the climate of political stagnation created by a hung parliament.

In coalition with the Lib Dems, David Cameron was able to cobble together an economic agenda but the two parties were too dissimilar to agree about the kind of society Britain should be. The new government had policies but no coherent set of shared values. Even without Nick Clegg complicating the picture, the Conservatives were divided between “modernisers”, who wanted the party to look and sound more like 21st-century Britain in all its polyglot diversity, and the “traditionalists”, who felt that Cameron was marching them into a dead end of faddish metropolitan liberalism.

That fault line describes the Tories’ ongoing confusion over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. The Conservatism of the Eighties failed as a national project because it was socially and geographically divisive. The industries that Thatcherism treated as relics of a moribund economic order had sustained communities. Their collapse inoculated swaths of the population against voting Tory. Even in areas that benefited from Conservative rule, the doctrine that promoted competition and individual self-reliance as the motors of progress came to be associated with greed, selfishness and contempt for the poor.

Many Conservatives still struggle to see Thatcherism as anything other than a triumph. In this view, the country was saved from death by state suffocation. Yet even if that argument can be sustained as macroeconomic history, it fails as a story of national redemption because it lacks the unifying ingredient of collective participation. Twenty-four years after Thatcher’s downfall, the Tories still have not found a way to talk convincingly about solidarity.

The Conservative argument did succeed in forcing Labour to jettison its own language of class-based unity. Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 felt like a mass mobilisation but it was without foundations in shared identity. There was a pent-up appetite for change – any change – after 18 years of increasingly derelict Tory rule. New Labour’s courtship of the southern English middle classes reached people who, in the Eighties, would never have described themselves as socialists. Blair cleverly associated himself with a cultural current of the mid-Nineties that blended social liberalism and rock’n’roll permissiveness with contempt for the crusty old idioms of traditional Conservatism. This was the age of “Cool Britannia” and it was unfashionable to be anything other than Labour.

Or, at least, that was the mood in the capital among the creative and media class that manufactured the roaring Nineties zeitgeist. The moment is captured by Martin Amis in his 1995 novel The Information as one author broods on the success of his rival: “Of course Gwyn was Labour . . . Gwyn was . . . a writer, in England, at the end of the 20th century. There was nothing else for such a person to be. Richard was Labour, equally obviously. It often seemed to him, moving in the circles he moved in and reading what he read, that everyone in England was Labour, except the government.”

Once the glamour of the New Labour project faded, it turned out to be not much better at nurturing community and a sense of belonging than Thatcherism. Blair’s critics on the left attribute that to his embrace of free-market economics, admiration for the City of London and acceptance of socially corrosive levels of inequality. Conservatives accuse the Blair-Brown government of inflating the size and reach of the state, above all through the welfare budget. This, they say, led to a dependency on government that left civic bonds to atrophy. Such was the thinking behind Cameron’s “big society” project. It was meant as a Burkean rebuttal to the old accusation that the party of Thatcher didn’t believe in society and as a rejection of the New Labour instinct to treat every social ill with a multimillion-pound government taskforce.

The “big society” failed for many reasons. Traditionalist Tories thought it was a vacuous PR exercise. Cameron’s lack of intellectual application supported that view. In the context of budget austerity it also looked like a euphemism for a neo-Thatcherite assault on the welfare state.

Among the few people who took the “big society” seriously were intellectuals on the left, mostly under the “Blue Labour” banner, who also criticised the Blair-Brown governments for relying on impassive and ineffective bureaucracy to deliver social progress. In 2012, Jon Cruddas, the leader of Labour’s policy review, told the New Statesman: “[David Cameron]’s idea of a ‘big society’ was a recognition of the way our social relationships have become more impoverished . . . Labour made a mistake by dismissing Cameron’s pro-social politics. We now have the opportunity to develop our traditions of reciprocity, mutualism and co-operation. The party grew out of collective self-help and popular movements of self-improvement. Labour’s social alternative must be about rebuilding Britain from the ground up.”

On the left, Blue Labour, with its twin aversions to centralised state intervention and globalisation, leads to uncomfortable terrain for the generation that was steeped in mid-Nineties metro-Blairism. It is more Eurosceptic and nostalgic for class consciousness. It is also explicitly English.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the liberal left came to the largely unspoken conclusion that Britishness was the preferred vehicle for expressing national identity. It was felt to be safer from connotations of ethnic exclusivity because it lumped together the different peoples of the United Kingdom. It was the Union Jack that New Labour waved to project inclusive modernity. (“We are patriots. This is the patriotic party because it is the people’s party,” Blair said in 1995. A year later, Peter Mandelson said: “We have reclaimed the flag. It is restored as an emblem of national pride and national diversity, restored from years as a symbol of division and intolerance . . .”)

The English flag and celebration of Englishness were judged too angry and too white. But English identity was in the ascendant – helped in no small measure by the 1996 European football championship, hosted by England and accompanied by the bedecking of every object with the Cross of St George.

The years of New Labour’s decline and fall coincided with a rise in English self-awareness. In a 2013 survey by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, 60 per cent of respondents felt their Englishness to be more important than their Britishness, with only 16 per cent feeling the opposite. Some 60 per cent also said they had come to feel this way more strongly in recent years. This was true across social and geographical groups with the notable exception of black and ethnic-minority communities in England, which still prefer Britishness.

There is a number of explanations. Scottish and Welsh devolution and the rise of nationalism in both countries raised the salience of Englishness as the least politically assertive identity in the UK. Meanwhile, the Tories had been expelled from Scotland and most of Wales and proceeded to define themselves by hostility to the EU. So the main political opposition at Westminster was simultaneously nationalistic in tone and English in composition.

It also seems plausible that Englishness came to be a haven of self-identification for people who felt excluded from the New Labour carnival of modish urbanity precisely because Britishness had been
appropriated to that cause. “That Nineties thing was such a small group of people, nearly all of whom lived in London,” notes John Denham. “Most of the country was left outside that dialogue.”

Denham describes himself as part of the “English nationalist wing” of the Labour Party, which calls for an explicit engagement with identity politics. The aim is to mobilise the dissenting, egalitarian strains of English history that can support an open and tolerant progressive politics to rival
the bitterness that nurtures Ukip. “There is no reason why English identity should become an older-white-working-class, racist or xenophobic thing. We have so many other ways of expressing ourselves.”

Yet the myth took hold that the English were the one group of people whose voice was not being amplified in the political choir, pushed as they were to the back of the line-up behind Brussels bureaucrats, Scots and asylum-seekers. Given that Britishness became the sterile label on a bloodless constitutional entity, Englishness was the natural vehicle for cultural grievance.

“During the New Labour years, Englishness offered a language of inheritance and tradition that expressed a deep opposition to the metropolitan hubris and state-led managerialism with which those governments were often associated,” says Michael Kenny, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of The Politics of English Nationhood.

Some of that opposition has attached itself to far-right organisations – the British National Party (BNP), which is more English than its name implies, and the English Defence League (EDL). That support has since been subsumed into the growth of Ukip. At a public meeting on 1 April, Farage said he was “quite proud” to have poached a third of the BNP’s support since the last general election, and explained it as a strategy. “What we did,” he said, “is for the first time try and deal with the BNP question by going out and saying to BNP voters: ‘If you’re voting BNP because you’re frustrated, upset, with the changes in your community but you’re doing it holding your nose because you don’t agree with their racist agenda, come and vote for us.’ ”

Ukip attracts protest votes from non-racists but also gives fascists a route to political respectability. The boundary is blurred. Farage’s rhetoric is potent because it transcends the bovver-booted venom of the far right to mine a richer seam of mainstream English resentment. (Ukip is barely relevant in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is unassailable as the vanguard of anti-Westminster insurgency.)

Cameron poses arguably the greatest obstacle to Tory hopes of recovering ground that has been lost to Ukip. A segment of older, conservative voters who had no identification with the New Labour project could, for a while, expect redress in the event of the Conservatives returning to power. But instead, they got coalition under a prime minister who, in purely cultural terms, seemed to offer continuity Blairism – a negligible shift in attitudes from Islington to Notting Hill. Many old-fashioned Tories harbour the suspicion that Cameron despises them.

In reality he has made considerable efforts to woo back his party’s disgruntled defectors. The Tories could hardly have been clearer in their determination to deprive immigrants of benefits and their eagerness for a referendum on EU membership. That may persuade some waverers, but it isn’t adequate compensation for those who feel that the Prime Minister has been complicit in a more fundamental crime. Cameron stands for the smug plutocracy that has taken away their country. Farage offers himself as the man to take it back.

The kind of Englishness Cameron represents is establishment to the core. The mix of Downton Abbey breeding and west London mores makes him almost uniquely ill-equipped to project empathy with people who feel dispossessed. As the leader of the opposition, Miliband might, in theory, be better placed. But so much of the anger that is now spilling out against politics accrued under the last Labour government. Miliband also leads a pro-European party that is historically (and rightly) suspicious of nationalism and uncomfortable legitimising a politics of white male anger that conflicts with its anti-racist and feminist instincts. In any case, Miliband has no experience beyond politics that he can mobilise to present himself as an outsider.

Neither does Farage. He is a public school-educated (unlike Miliband) former City trader who is spending money running a party financed mostly by a handful of former Conservative donors. Ukip gets away with calling itself anti-establishment because it has redefined “the establishment” to mean anyone who was elected in the era of the Great Betrayal of pro-Europeanism and mass immigration.

Farage is also effective because he appears to say what he thinks. The three main party leaders exhibit a squeamishness in expressing commonality with the electorate, because they have so little shared experience with the people they aim to represent. Instead of empathy, they offer a mannered facsimile of empathy, cobbled together from fleeting campaign-trail encounters with voters.

“Politics is ceasing to offer people a resonant language, a way of orienting yourself in the world and expressing expropriation, disenchantment, and a way of offering a better future,” says Michael Kenny.

Much more is at stake here than the outcome of the next general election. There is a ceiling on the level of support Ukip can reach, set by its own hostility to swaths of modern Britain and its tendency to recruit cranks. The party’s organisation is currently inadequate to the task of reaching its full potential. Farage’s energy may flag. His bubble could burst. The energy that inflated it will not then dissipate. Politics has already been changed by it.

We are witnessing the start of a battle to decide the character of English national identity in the 21st century, and Ukip is dictating the terms. It threatens an inversion of the old liberation struggles, with white men revelling in supposed victimhood and pluralist politics cast in the role of a colonising power to be overthrown. Tolerance and liberalism, both of which have deep roots in England, are on the defensive.

The constituency that feeds Farageism is radical and disruptive. It believes itself to be under attack and it wants to fight back. This is not Little England. It is Militant England and its march is unopposed.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit