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Nothing to turn back to

Irresponsible capitalism has left us in economic and political turmoil. The solution is a new democr

You wait ages for a crisis to arise, and then a stack of them come along at once. But the multiple crises that Britain is now experiencing have a common thread running through them: the relationship between markets and capitalism, on one side, and society and democracy, on the other. The interaction between these forces presents the left with its greatest threat – and its biggest opportunity – since 1945. It started with a financial services crisis because politicians put the banks outside democratic control. Then we were tipped into an economic crisis because of the credit crunch that ensued. As the Treasury bailed out the banks, the recession took hold and tax revenues plummeted, turning the crisis into a public-spending disaster.

Then the Daily Telegraph drew attention away from the bankers by lighting a fire under parliament. The expenses scandal is just another sign of our 30-year lurch towards consumerism. Too many MPs, it seems, are more interested in changing their homes than changing the world. The biggest crisis of all – the destruction of our climate – also has its roots in a capitalist system unfettered by social responsibility. We are on course to destroy our planet because, like our MPs, we can’t stop buying stuff we believe we don’t just want, but need. It’s the only version of the good life we know.

These multiple crises were a long time coming and will take a long time to be resolved. The European election results are a reminder that in the middle of a storm people can swing to the right, just as they did after 1929. But, over time, and given the right arguments, these crises could equally spark the start of a golden progressive era. The wonder of the moment is that, suddenly, politics is alive. Workers threatened by redundancy, homeowners staring eviction in the face, voters everywhere outraged at the expenses scandal: suddenly, everyone has a voice and view. We need each other, we need society – and therefore we need democracy.

Three months ago, John Harris and I wrote an essay in these pages entitled “No turning back”. We argued that, instead of slipping back to the pre-crash politics of debt and turbo consumption, the left must create new terrain on which to fight for a more equal, democratic and sustainable future. But since then, the possibility of turning back has gone – there is simply nothing to turn back to. The question we are all facing now is not whether to build the good society, but how.

The longest-ever Labour administration can now be deemed a failure. New Labour humanised Thatcherism and the market with policies such as the minimum wage; but it also embedded the market culture in schools, hospitals and every other part of our daily life. The current government has presided over growing inequality and the rise of the British National Party, the erosion of civil liberties and an unwillingness to take climate change seriously.

The overriding failure of New Labour, however – one at the root of all of these political disasters – has been the systematic weakening of institutions that make democratic change possible. Along with parliament and the party itself, the unions and the public realm have been hollowed out, not by accident but by design.

The moment it accepted the “inevitability” of market fundamentalism, New Labour signed the death warrant for social democracy. The relationship between markets and democracy is zero-sum – more of one means less of the other. Markets create efficiencies by closing down the space between producers and consumers, stripping out any organisations that stand between the two, such as trade unions, which demand negotiation and consensus-building. Much better to eradicate them through privatising services such as Royal Mail, turning the people who use them – all of us – from citizens into consumers. Economic efficiency and social justice, so the story went, go hand in hand. But while flexible labour markets were efficient, they destroyed jobs, cut real wages and imposed longer hours.

Efficiency through social democracy, on the other hand, is premised on the belief that the participation of people who run and use political institutions, public services and workplaces makes the most of everyone’s input, because everyone’s voice is heard. New Labour fears debate outside the party because it is deemed inefficient and internally because the membership would never back market-oriented goals. Broadly speaking, therefore, it is an anti-democratic project. Intellectually, organisationally and financially, it is bankrupt. But Cameronism is not the answer, either: he is a right-wing politician, and this should be a centre-left moment. He will not renounce Thatcherism. His leadership would be a pale imitation of Tony Blair’s, another sofa government. In seizing the moment, the democratic left must start with its moral compass: the values of equality, solidarity and sustainability. The principle of democratisation must be applied in five main areas.

First, the Labour Party needs to recognise that democracy is more than a means to an end – it must be both. The intrinsic worth of democracy is how it empowers us, not just that it delivers control. To have any hope of reforming parliament, the leadership must show trust in both the public and the party’s own members.

Second, the democratic system needs thorough reform. Proportional representation is the key, allowing politics to become a debate between competing visions of the good society. Without PR, reforms will just be a technocratic fix. The political system requires ideological blood coursing through its veins if it is to come to life.

Third, we have to democratise public services and local government as well as parliament. Fourth, there must be recognition that civil society matters: unions, NGOs, voluntary organi­sations – the places in which people can learn to be citizens – must all play a part. Fifth, we must democratise our places of employment. A voice in the workplace is not just a right, but also the means of unlocking our productive potential.

A new democracy and a new socialism are two sides of the same coin. The good society is the one we create for ourselves – we can’t turn back to the bureaucratic state just because the markets have crumbled. It is time for the democratic state. Do people need protection from global capitalism? Should we be a more equal society? Can people achieve more together than alone? The answer to all of these questions is: “Yes!” The potential for the left and the opportunity to realise it has never been greater. But we must seize the mantle of democracy firmly and permanently. There is no turning back. The past 12 years have left us nothing to turn back to.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and author of “All Consuming”, to be published by Penguin on 25 June (£10.99) The New Statesman is sponsoring the Compass conference “No Turning Back” at the Institute of Education, London WC1, on Saturday 13 June. Book at: www.compassonline.org.uk

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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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 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!