Generally pissed off

Alan Duncan, Shadow Secretary of State for Business is on the war path. When I spoke to him this wee

The past week has offered the Tories a chance to hone their analogy skills on two fronts. The return of Mandelson, “He’s like a rat joining a sinking ship” And Brown’s financial crisis, “He’s like an arsonist who comes with a hose pipe and says look at me I’m putting out the fire”. Some of them have been quite creative, “Like a Tory with endless analogy possibilities”

There had been a concern since before party conference, a concern that has only heightened during Gordon Brown’s global economy tour. At what point do the Conservatives point out who started it?

There are a few MPs who think they could have indicated their disgust with more haste, “How does he have the nerve? For years Brown has hid debt, managed his government by headline, spent money to buy votes and left the bill to be paid by future generations”. But the reluctant consensus is: “It would it be seen as churlish and point scoring, we will do all we can to rescue the country for his error.” The overall feeling is one of irritation.

There are a few camps, 1) “a bit gloomy” 2) pensive and generally pissed off 3) cheer up twits (Boris) 4) Alan Duncan spitting-bullets angry. Duncan, Shadow Secretary of State for Business is on the war path. When I spoke to him this week he was livid, 5 ft 6in of grrrrrrr.

“We are now in a political war, a war where Labour are trying to brand us for their failure. This is Brown’s failure. Brown is the most deceiving politician I have ever met other than Ed Balls. They are performing the most revolting political gymnastics and we will nail it.” Sleep with one eye open, Balls.

Duncan continues, “Gordon Brown and George Bush have fuelled this with massive deficit. Some of us did foresee this. [In 2004 Duncan openly supported John Kerry in the US Elections citing he was not convinced of Bush’s economic record.] I sat in the boardroom of the RBS and asked “Are you worried about debt?” They turned prudent lending into pyramid selling. This has been fuelled by a boastful arrogant Government in the US and the UK. But the UK is the main culprit.”

Give him his dues; Alan Duncan has been talking about this for a while. In September 2007 he wrote on newstatesman.com, “The surest sign that problems are looming is when bankers, institutions and countries convince themselves that they have entered a new period in which economic gravity can somehow be defied. UK conditions are not prepared for the turn in the cycle and worse, with nothing set aside for a rainy day, the pain stands to be greater than it would otherwise have been. Brown mortgaged the country the way that banker have mortgaged banks.”

Accusations of the crisis being a threat to Conservative ideology are batted down. “This is the death of socialist pollution of the free market. If we had had lower spending, lower taxes and traditional banking we would not be where we are now. How dare they suggest it's Thatcher’s fault, if she stood for one thing, it was living within your means” says an MP from the pensive camp.

To be fair, not a day has gone by when a humble Tory has not remembered the roller-coaster of 2007, no one has had any public James Cameron “I’m King of the World” moment. Which is actually quite staggering… considering.

In London and spreading to distant constituencies are small murmurs of this being as good as it gets for Brown, it has canny prospective candidates mobilising and making quiet preparations for a spring election. Whispers are if Gordon is up in the polls he would be mad not to call an election be it to win or damage limitation. The fact is they [the candidates] want it, they were gee’d up like coiled springs last October. From Portsmouth to Witham, they were prepared, and they are prepared now.

The future looks bleak with the country going from over heating to perma-frost in one fell swoop, should we have seen it coming? Historically Labour Governments always run out of money.

Perhaps Boris is right, we have to do something to get away from the gloom, play some records, put up some colourful bunting. A usually chipper Tory MP at a party last night who managed to get out of bed that morning, mumbled, “Brown has left nothing in the kitty. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. The real pain is about to begin”

What now? Gordon appearing in a pinny showing us how to make a Victoria sponge sandwich using powdered egg, Sarah Brown cajoled into doing a public services broadcast advising girls to paint stocking seams on their underfed legs, Lord Mandy helpfully giving “make-do and mend” fashion tips to hard-up city boys. It is after all unpatriotic not to look ones best

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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.