Outrage on a sliding scale

. . . on scapegoats, scandal, serial snubs, sentencing and civil liberties

What can be done about Fred the Shred, the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss who insists on holding on to his pension? I wonder if the case of Stanley Baldwin can offer inspiration. Posterity blames Neville Chamberlain for the appeasement of Hitler, but he inconveniently died in 1940, leaving the British, as they struggled through the Second World War, in need of another scapegoat. They settled on Baldwin who, as PM from 1935 to 1937, could be held responsible for the failure to rearm against the Nazi threat.

Newspapers demanded that Baldwin be stripped of his £2,000 annual pension, just as they now demand that Sir Fred Goodwin relinquish his somewhat larger retirement pot. But the authorities hit on a more subtle humiliation.

They requisitioned the gates and railings at Baldwin’s country home in Worcestershire for scrap. Some were two centuries old and, according to the biography of Baldwin by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, “all were elegant, light and beautiful”. Actually, they had little value as scrap, but their absence would have been a constant, tangible reminder to Baldwin of the displeasure of his fellow citizens.

I do not know if Sir Fred has gates of any value, but the government could at least seize that shotgun with which he is always being pictured, and send it to the troops in Afghanistan.

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Then there is the problem of Peter Mandelson, and his crazed mission to part-privatise the Royal Mail. We are overdue another Mandelson scandal, and the Daily Mail thinks it has one.

The ubiquitous PR Roland Rudd, whose clients include the airports operator BAA, invited Mandelson to be godfather to his child and had him to his 40th birthday party in 2001.

Add Rudd’s five meetings with ministers, including Mandelson, in the ten days before the go-ahead for a third Heathrow runway, and you have, the Mail believes, an open-and-shut case.

I am not so sure. But what the story does illustrate is that Mandelson has too many friends and too many enemies.

He makes friends at the many parties he attends, giving newspapers ample opportunities to discover what they call “links”.

At the same parties, he makes enemies. They have experienced the rather old-fashioned Mandelson cold shoulder, whereby he ostentatiously turns away from and ignores people he dislikes, even when a third party attempts an introduction.

Possibly because I once fell into a post-prandial sleep while he was talking to me, I was subjected to this treatment myself, and so was the former junior minister Chris Mullin, as revealed in his diaries, A View from the Foothills, out this month, where he writes: “Obviously it is a skill he has perfected over many years . . . It must be very wearing having to remember with whom you are on speaking terms and who you are ignoring.”

As for the Royal Mail, Mandelson told the Observer he had to press ahead to demonstrate “we are a government of ideas”. Is there a single person, anywhere in the country, who, on learning of his plans, leapt up, shouting: “What a brilliant idea; wish I’d thought of it”?

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The Labour peer Lord Ahmed was rightly jailed for texting messages while driving on the M1. Motorists should understand they are in charge of a lethal weapon, and driving it without full attention is the equivalent of firing bullets at random. But the judge said he had stopped texting several minutes before colliding with a stationary car that was straddling two outer lanes. The Slovakian driver, who was killed, had crashed into the central railing and, according to tests, had been drinking.

His relatives, however, weren’t satisfied. The three-month sentence, they said, should have been ten years, and they added the usual stuff about a mother losing her son while Ahmed, with remission, could be free in weeks.

Emboldened by the media, the families of almost any crime or accident victim now speak in similar terms, regardless of the circumstances. It is as though a loved one isn’t properly honoured without demands for stiffer punishments. This does not strike me as the mark of a very civilised society.

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I don’t want to rain on the parade, but I wonder if the Convention on Modern Liberty isn’t casting its net a little too widely.

My outrage on civil liberties issues is on a sliding scale. At the top are no-jury trials, detention without charge, restrictions on rights to protest and, worst of all, the possibility that the British security services, and even ministers, colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition. Somewhere in the middle come databases of emails and website visits. At the bottom – not outraging me at all, if I am honest – come DNA databases and identity cards. Some civil liberties – the right to carry guns, for example, which so moves many Americans, or to exceed speed limits without being spotted by a camera, which is most Tories’ favourite liberty – I would prefer to campaign against.

The convention’s supporters – Helena Kennedy, Anthony Barnett, Shami Chakrabarti and so on – are people I admire. En masse, however, they seem rather too pleased with themselves in their role as heroic defenders of civil liberties, quoting Magna Carta and suchlike. I would like an item-by-item shopping list before I sign up.

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At a dinner the other night, I sat next to a German who is researching vocational education. She expressed incredulity at stories about sacked investment bankers becoming plumbers or electricians. In Germany, nobody would dream of employing somebody to fiddle with their drains or wiring without qualifications based on three-year courses. I tutted with her over the low status the English accord to skilled trades. On reflection, however, I wouldn’t mind a banker doing my plumbing if he (rarely she) was no longer playing funny games with my money. Perhaps the plumbers could take over the banking.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload