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24 January 2000

Who killed Magna Carta?

Not long ago, Jack Straw defended jury trials. So what persuaded him to change, asks Nick Cohen

By Nick Cohen

To Jack Straw, opponents of his removal of rights to trial by jury for about 18,000 citizens a year are “woolly-minded Hampstead liberals”. Rather than fight him on his chosen ground by trying to find out if house price inflation has allowed any intellectuals to move to Hampstead in the past 25 years, Straw’s enemies have been provoked by his revival of an exhausted cliche into making more demanding inquiries. Who, they ask, supports the sealing of the jury rooms? Who killed Magna Carta?

Finding the tiny band of culprits is a painstaking task. Detectives must examine the neglected links between Gordon Brown’s prudence and new Labour’s authoritarianism and look at the patterns of offending behaviour of the holders of real power in Whitehall.

The prime suspect is, naturally, Straw himself. He’s made a full confession without the traditional inducements of beatings and sleep deprivation. In opposition, the Conservatives also toyed with the idea that defendants who face charges of burglary, theft, handling stolen goods and gross indecency should be prohibited from electing to be tried by juries of their peers. Straw then described Michael Howard’s disdain for true verdicts as “wrong, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective”. Now he “readily acknowledges that I have changed my mind”.

The case would appear to have been closed before it has been opened. Yet canny sleuths know there is nothing more distracting than the deluded man who walks into a police station and coughs up to a great crime. There are inadequates among us who prefer infamy to no fame at all, and a politician who in a recent interview with the Observer did not mind being compared to Mussolini – “I am trying to make the courts run on time,” said Straw in reply to the suggestion that sacrificing justice for efficiency was the classic modus operandi of a tyrant – could well be seen as a fantasist.

Straw’s U-turn was executed at great speed and we should listen for the barked instructions of backseat drivers. “Cui bono?” they ask rhetorically. The Treasury, stupid.

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In 1998, when jury nobbling was first considered by the present government, Straw was paying the price of zero tolerance. He had to cope with an explosion in the number of prisoners. A deal was done. He could spend to prevent his jails descending into riot if he saved £100 million a year by pushing juries to the margins of the criminal justice system. That the forecast savings may well be illusory, as the Straw of 1995 argued, in no way undermines the strength of the charge.

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Conspiracy theorists were happy to leave the inquiry there, but Helena Kennedy QC, leader of Straw’s Labour scrutinisers in the House of Lords, wasn’t satisfied. She was listening to Lord Warner of Brockley claim that lawyers who defended juries were modern aristocrats – “the custodians of a secret garden to which the laity are not admitted” – when it struck her that he had been an adviser to Straw. Had he advised him to subvert the legal system?

“My lords, I am afraid that the noble baroness is not allowed to ask that question,” he cried.

Noble lords: “She is!”

Lord Warner: “My lords, she is allowed to ask it, but I do not have to answer it.”

There isn’t an investigator in the land who would call that a firm denial. Warner’s obscurity should not hide his complete mastery of the arts of the modern courtier.

Norman Warner was director of social services for Kent in the early 1990s. He took pains to befriend Margaret Hodge and other rising new Labour stars. Straw brought him to the Home Office where he made himself useful by attacking probation and prison officers. When Tony Blair moaned about “cynics who stand on the sidelines”, Warner was appointed to head a task force to “reclaim the idea of doing good”. When Straw tried to fulfil his promise to arrest children, Warner devised the Youth Justice Board. He was ennobled for his efforts, made chairman of the board and went on to display a fondness for private prison profiteers – whom Straw had condemned as “morally repugnant” in opposition, but embraced in government.

You do not need Kennedy’s forensic skills to detect other aiders and abetters. The Home Office, in defiance of quaint notions of Civil Service neutrality, has released the partisan views of a ragbag of allies. The police much prefer magistrates in what used to be called “police courts” to sceptical juries, and the chief constable of Kent, David Phillips, reproves professionals who use the “rhetoric of justice” as “a veil” to hide “vested interests”.

Presumably the hopeless sap does not realise that his insults can be thrown in the face of chief constables as well as lawyers. For lack of self-knowledge is the essential component of our emerging profile of the offenders. To support trial by jury is to support the democratic right of the English to decide who deserves punishment for serious crimes.

Yet Warner and the chief constables claim to be opening to the public the “secret garden” of the vested interests of the legal profession by banning that same public from sitting on juries and by handing justice to unelected magistrates. Straw says he supports the rights of the plain people of England against toffee-nosed Hampstead liberals; yet on Radio 4 he denounces those who sit on juries for their “propensity to violence”.

These people believe democracy is elitist. I may be a dinosaur do-gooder, but when faced with such cases I believe we should reach out to the inner child and try to understand a little more and condemn a little less. The services of psychiatric social workers are urgently required.

The author is a columnist on the “Observer”