Former Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock appearing on BBC News.
Show Hide image

The Mike Hancock saga shows that politicians can't be judged by the law alone

Natural justice, not merely the law, must be seen to be applied in cases of wrongdoing.

There’s a great Rumpole of the Bailey story, where our eponymous hero, as ever defending not prosecuting, calls on the jury to administer, not the law, but justice for the accused, who is clearly guilty of the crime for which he is charged – but for entirely understandable reasons. I am often reminded of this, and ponder whether the same shouldn’t apply to elected politicians, only in reverse?

There’s nothing very positive to say about the Mike Hancock saga from anyone’s point of view and no one, save the complainant, comes out of this with any sort of credit. But the whole saga raises one interesting point: should our public representatives sit, not above the law, but in fact below it?

The major difficulty for the Lib Dems in the Hancock case, as with many of the recent cases of inappropriate behavior (on a wildly ranging scale it should be said) is the fact that often not only were the charges not legally proven, but the authorities felt that there was insufficient evidence to even start the full legal process. And therefore, as the accused are (rightly) innocent until proven guilty, they feel no need to resign nor often face any penalty under party disciplinary procedures, however much many folk feel they should. And indeed, when calls are made for elected officials to do the decent thing, their supporters more often than not revert to the clarion call that this wouldn’t be justice. But of course, what they mean is, this wouldn’t be the law.

Now, I’m not advocating that there should be some sort of built-in lower level of proof required for politicians than the rest of us; that would hardly be liberal. But I do wonder if everyone connected with politics should accept that not only does the law need to be applied to every case, but natural justice needs to be not just applied – but to be seen to be applied. And falling on your sword for the greater good, not of the party you are a member of, but of the electorate you are there to represent, might be the best service you can do.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream. Certainly it opens up the door to wrongful accusations becoming just another political weapon. Of course, on many occasions, the innocent will suffer – we all know that in politics, you can get smoke without fire. But it might just be a price worth paying.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Show Hide image

Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.