Thursday, 28 March 2013

Melvyn Bragg on Mary Mag: A cause for Concern

The BBC is showing a documentary about Mary Magdalene tomorrow lunchtime. Typical, pious, Good Friday viewing, reminding the public that Easter isn't all chocolate and bunnies but (for Christians at least) has something to do with Jesus, you might think. It's presented by Melvyn Bragg, for one thing, which is British broadcasting's ultimate stamp of intellectual seriousness. Better than Botney, even. But the loopy evangelical pressure group Christian Concern are aghast. In an "action alert" email tonight, they urge supporters to complain to the BBC about this forthcoming outrage, the timing of which they suggest is "highly inappropriate and inflammatory."

"The BBC's online complaint form only takes a few minutes to complete," they remind people. "The BBC's response will depend on what level of feedback it receives."

Because the Beeb is entirely unfamiliar with the concept of an organised write-in campaign.

"Inappropriate timing" is hard to sustain. The Gospels state that Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross while Jesus was being crucified, and that she was the first person to see (or imagine she saw) the risen Christ. And those are the only definite references to her in the New Testament. So it's hard to see what would be a more appropriate time to celebrate her.

So what's so outrageous about it?

Christian Concern are disturbed by a Telegraph piece in which Milord Bragg discusses the "tantalising and elusive" evidence about Mary M, and the "fragments which increasingly hint at radical new truths about the woman who has been called the apostle to the apostles."

This is certainly over-egging the pudding. The "radical new truths" have been around for donkeys' years: a few passages in apocryphal gospels that hint at a unique closeness in the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Yes, all that Holy Blood, Holy Grail/ Dan Brown stuff that has been the stuff of speculative history and conspiracy theorising since I was a lad and probably long before. There is, Bragg offers, "one taunting scrap of record which may well lead to the conclusion that she was his wife."

Well, knock me down with an archangel's feather.

If there's anything to be aghast about, it's the fact that this utterly familiar idea, for which there is, of course, no definitive proof (nor will there ever be) is still being presented in TV documentaries and newspaper articles as new and shocking. Given that half the population of the planet seems to have read Dan Brown's poorly-written thriller, that ought to be a genuine scandal. But, of course, that isn't the scandal that Christian Concern is concerned about.

Their concerns are as follows:

1) In a broadcast at the precise time Christians are remembering his death on the cross, this programme questions the purity of Jesus.

The programme suggests that Jesus might, just possibly, have been married. To a woman. How does this "question his purity", exactly. I thought that Christian Concern approved of heterosexual marriage. Barely a day goes by without Christian Concern voicing their supposedly Christian concern about the "threat" to traditional marriage posed by the government's proposal to extend it to gay couples. Only this Tuesday they sent out a "prayer alert" urging people to pray that the US Supreme Court uphold California's ban on same-sex marriage "and that God's good pattern for marriage and family is not further corrupted."

Yet somehow God's good pattern is not good enough for the Son of God, that if Jesus had married it would have exposed him to "impurity". As Cranmer Tweeted to me earlier this evening, one might expect Roman Catholics, with their ideal of the celibate priesthood, to reason thus (though celibate Catholic bishops, like the very pure ex-Cardinal Keith O'Brien, have put themselves at the forefront of the campaign for traditional marriage). But Christian Concern is a largely Protestant outfits, and Protestants have never thought that marriage might be somehow "impure".

It's an odd objection.

2) The claims about Jesus are based on dubious scholarship... it feeds on Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code' hypothesis rather than taking account of sensible scholarship.

Well, they're on slightly firmer ground with this one, I suppose. The scholarship itself isn't dubious: the apocryphal gospels which imply a wife-like status for the Magdalene do exist, and to regard the statement that "he often kissed her on the [mouth]" as suggesting physical as well as spiritual intimacy is not wholly implausible. What is dubious is the notion, which no serious scholar makes, that these texts are historically reliable. But to say that is not to say definitively that Jesus was not married.

What we can say is that the mainstream Christian tradition has always assumed Jesus to have been celibate; but that there were, in the first few centuries AD, contrary ideas floating about. The Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels record some of these ideas. So while there is no real evidence that Jesus was married, there's also no direct statement in the canonical gospels that he wasn't.

How does this matter? What Christian Concern and their ilk can't abide is that, for many people, Jesus is a fascinating historical (or quasi-historical) figure about whom little is known but about whom many would like to know more. I suspect that very few people would be scandalised if proof emerged that there was a Mrs Christ. Most of us would be quite pleased, I would guess, because most of us (even including Richard Dawkins) feel quite warmly about the Jesus depicted in the gospels, and wouldn't begrudge him a little connubial happiness. The theory that Jesus was married keeps getting trotted out, in other words, not because it's scandalous but because, credible or not, it has popular resonance. It's also plausible that a church that acknowledged Jesus as married, or even gave equal prominence to his female disciples (a role which Mary Magdalene, as depicted in the New Testament, undoubtedly fulfilled) might have had fewer problems down the centuries with sexuality and the role of women.

3) It makes indefensible claims about the nature of the Bible (e.g. the process by which the books of the Bible came to be recognised and collated)

Bragg:

The Gnostic Gospels which were rejected by those who put together the authorised versions include the Gospel of Mary, found in Cairo in 1896 and widely argued to depict the character of Mary Magdalene, and, as important for her story, the Gospel of Philip – which was among the texts found by an Arab shepherd in the desert in 1945. These, like others, were excluded from the final political version of the Bible. When you read them you can understand why. Philip tells us that Christ “loved her” more than all the other disciples. In Mary’s Gospel she speaks of close and long dialogues with Christ himself. But the forces of men, later abetted by the forces of the manly state of Rome, and the masculine structure of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, were going to bring her down.

If all Christian Concern are saying is that the compilation of the canon of scripture was more than just a patriarchal plot to exclude female voices (even if that was the effect) they may have a point. But Christian Concern's idea of a "defensible" claim about the Bible is that it is the revealed Word of God, literally true in every particular, that may as well have floated down on a cloud, leather bound and written in Jacobean English. Compared with the view of scriptural fundamentalists, Bragg's "political" interpretation, simplistic caricature as it is, is rather closer to what modern scholarship has discovered.

I would however urge my few remaining readers (sorry about the patchy service of late) to bear in mind Christian Concern's valid points: that the BBC complaint form doesn't take long to fill out, and that "the BBC's response will depend on what level of feedback it receives."
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Monday, 25 March 2013

A genuine chance of a job

In his big immigration speech today, David Cameron took an axe to the rhetorical and philosophical basis of the Coalition's welfare reforms. I don't think he intended to do so, and few people seem to have picked up on it, but the implications of his remarks are nevertheless profound.

I'm referring to this. Rhetorically addressing an East European migrant, the sort who might be tempted to "come and take advantage of our generosity without making a proper contribution to our country" he first reminds them of what conditions are already imposed on British jobseekers:

You will be subject to full conditionality and work search requirements and you will have to show you are genuinely seeking employment.
If you fail that test, you will lose your benefit.
But then he goes further:

And as a migrant, we’re only going to give you six months to be a jobseeker. After that benefits will be cut off unless you really can prove not just that you are genuinely seeking employment but also that you have a genuine chance of getting a job.

But why would that help reduce the benefits bill? Surely anyone who is genuinely seeking work has a genuine chance of finding it? After all, the whole sanctions regime, which has been steadily cranked up during the past decade (under Labour and Coalition governments alike) and which can now lead to a claimant being thrown off jobseekers' allowance for three whole years, is based on the assumption that such incentives will encourage people to get back into work. An assumption that being out of work for a long period is a personal failing that can be corrected by a strong kick up the backside.

But in that case, what does having "a genuine chance of getting a job" mean?

It means, presumably, that you can be genuinely seeking work, genuinely doing everything that the DWP requires of you, and more, to get off benefits and into employment, and still not have a genuine chance of a job.

Cameron is talking about migrants. But there's no logical reason why it this applies only to migrants. He mentions inadequate spoken English as one possible barrier to finding work, which will form part of a "robust" test applied to unemployed migrants. He doesn't mention the other criteria that will be applied, but it's not hard to think of ones that apply equally to native jobseekers. Such as: low educational attainment, age, a drink problem, a patchy employment record, or (most of all, perhaps) lack of available jobs.

Because it is a truth universally unacknowledged (by mainstream politicians, at any rate) that there are many unemployed people who have no real chance of getting a job, however often they have their benefits stopped and however many workfare schemes they are sent on. To acknowledge this fact, though, would make a nonsense of much of the political debate around welfare, which seems premised on the assumption that the way to reduce unemployment is to make life as difficult as possible for the unemployed.

Foreigners can be told to leave or starve, but what is to be done with British-born people who, according to what are now going to be formally devised criteria, have "no genuine chance of a job." Informally, we have the answer: they are going to be forced to work, not for the national minimum wage (which would at least be reasonable) but for the inadequate benefits that they had hitherto been given while "looking for work". But workfare programmes, thus far, have been justified on the principle that they exist as a stepping stone towards proper paid employment, even though someone working a full week at a fairly intense (if unpaid) job is likely to have insufficient time and energy for useful job-hunting. No politician has yet suggested that performing state-directed labour for around a quarter of the national minimum wage is meant as an alternative to normal employment. Not yet.

But perhaps the way is now open for such an admission, as the new concept of "genuine chance of employment" is tried out, initially on migrants from other EU countries. The next development in benefits conditionality might be precisely this, that after a period (perhaps two years, perhaps one, perhaps even six months) of permitted job-hunting a claimant will be subjected to a "genuine chance of employment" test, and anyone failing it will be put onto underpaid work for life.

I can imagine some employers being quite enchanted by the prospect of not having to pay unskilled workers properly, or at all. Of course it will distort the labour market, taking away jobs from paid employees: but they needn't despair, because after a suitable interval they'll become eligible for workfare too.
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Monday, 18 March 2013

How Implementing Leveson threatens religious freedom

This is a guest post by Julian Mann

A broadcaster on the BBC, which is regulated by statute, abuses a Conservative cabinet minister on a comedy show in disgusting terms and gets away with it. But how would a traditionalist Christian who in a press article criticised abortion, sex outside heterosexual marriage, the use of cannabis or religions that deny the Trinity - without resorting to personal abuse - fare under a regulated press regime?

One suspects that he or she would have a much harder time than the leftist comedienne who abused Michael Gove.

The way in which any new UK press law would be enforced would inevitably reflect the values of the 'progressive' metropolitan elite in the political, media and legal establishment. That establishment intensely hates the so-called 'right-wing' press, which continues to provides a platform for the articulation of traditional Judaeo-Christian values.

Surely such hatred does not give much ground for optimism that freedom of Judaeo-Christian speech will flourish if the press becomes regulated by law. Even if the statutory regulator were to come down on the side of freedom of speech in a particular case, editors could become overly cautious about publishing views that offend against political correctness. The threat of legalised censorship could lead to unnecessary self-censorship.

This concern about the preservation of trenchant counter-cultural comment in the press is very separate from the question of celebrity news reporting. I personally have no interest in the details of the depravities of famous people. But if a famous person is, on a point of fact, an adulterer or promiscuous or otherwise morally errant, surely a journalist should be free to point that out.

Do I believe the comedienne who abused Mr Gove should be prosecuted under a hate speech law? Certainly not. That would be dictatorial.

Do I believe the media organisation which employs her should be forced to dismiss her? No, because again that would be governmentally heavy-handed, even though the media organisation in this case is funded by a statutory licence fee.

But do I believe the BBC should voluntarily dismiss her from her position? I certainly do because she crossed a moral line of personal abuse.

The recent parliamentary manoeuvrings towards a press law have the feel of something the Russian Duma might have got up to prior to the Bolshevik revolution. The UK Parliament currently seems well capable of sacrificing the precious privilege of freedom of speech on the altar of short-term political posturing and petty pay-back for the exposure of the expenses scandal.

As a Christian minister, my main concern is the preservation of the freedom to proclaim the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ and the spiritual and moral entailments of His message of salvation. For example, it is impossible faithfully and coherently to proclaim the glorious message of the forgiveness of all sin through faith in Christ unless the judgement of Almighty God on human sin and His displeasure towards mankind's spiritual and moral rebellion are also clearly asserted.

What if a lobby of celebrities decides to get hacked off about being told in a press article that all men and women are guilty, in the words of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, of 'provoking most justly (Almighty God's) wrath and indignation against us'?

The precious freedom of expression for Christians like me looks decidedly precarious under the politically correct values driving the Gadarene rush towards a press law.


Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire -
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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Hubris and a Woman Scorn'd: Narrative cliché in the sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Sweeney

The normally level-headed Charles Crawford was sent into raptures by the performance of Mr Justice Sweeney as he sent Chris Huhne and Vicky (aka Vasiliki) Pryce down for eight months yesterday.  "When a British judge is on top form," he writes, "the result is peerless: clarity, precision, nuance and above all a strong sense that, yes, a good and fair decision has been reached."

Hmm.  What I saw is a judge indulging himself, as sentencing judges often seem to, in a crowd-pleasing display of moralistic finger-wagging that ultimately had little to do with the facts of the case before him.  Whether or not the eight month sentences were justified as a deterrent (and to what? Not keeping shtum about a crime you committed years ago?) or as proper punishment for the acts committed is another matter.  Had he confined himself to the offences and the appropriate penalty that they attracted, he would have completely discharged his obligations to the public interest. 

He seemed to sense, though, that more was expected of him. 

To the media, the Huhne/Pryce case has only ever been tangentially concerned with the crime of perverting the course of justice by exchanging speeding points with a spouse.  Rather, it is somewhere between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy.  Chris Huhne, a high-flyer brought low by his own arrogance and sense of invulnerability, his stellar political career wrecked not so much because of his manipulation of the criminal justice system but because of the way he left his wife.  Vicky Pryce, herself a high-flying economist but now reduced to living out a misogynistic cliché: a modern-day Medea, deranged by jealousy and deformed by hate, wreaking her hysterical revenge on the man who rejected her; or else a cool, cynical manipulator, plotting with her neighbour Constance Briscoe, a publicity-hungry barrister and part-time judge, to bring her ex-husband down while escaping the consequences of her own actions. 




All journalists like a neat narrative hook, of course. They're in the business of telling stories, and stories are easier to tell when they fit (or, more often, can be fitted) into a pre-established narrative framework.  The wronged wife is such a stock character in fiction, and Vicky Pryce's ultimately self-destructive behaviour fits so comfortably into the time-honoured pattern, that it would be expecting too much for the media not to latch onto it.  Especially as it takes attention away from the role of the newspapers themselves in the downfall of both partners, above all the inducements and implicit guarantees offered Pryce by Isabel Oakeshott of the Sunday Times under the guise of friendship, followed by a failure of both Oakeshott and her editors to go to the wire to uphold the once-sacred principle of journalistic confidentiality. 


(Although a narrative template can be fitted to that, too: witness Sarah Ditum, who eschews any discussion of journalistic ethics by painting the Pryce/Oakeshott relationship as a "horrible parody" of female friendship.)

But however tempting it is for the media to frame the Pryce/Huhne implosion as a modern morality tale, as the two protagonists act out their hoary roles of fallen hero and vengeful wife, we should expect better of a high court judge.  Yet Sweeney J was only to eager, it appears, to lard his judgment with the same narrative clichés and trite amateur psychology.

For him, the fate of Huhne touched on the tragic.  The former Cabinet minister had "fallen from a great height", his ambition (originally, concern about possibly losing the Lib Dem nomination for Eastleigh) leading him to embark on the course of criminality and lying that ultimately ended in the dock.  The judge expressed no sympathy for Huhne, indeed asserted that "to some extent" he was the more culpable of the two (they were his speeding points, after all).  Nor did he seem very convinced by Huhne's expressions of remorse ("It's easy now to apologise").  Nevertheless it's possible to detect in the tenor of his remarks a certain sadness at the predicament in which Huhne now finds himself.  Indeed, he gives Huhne a 10% discount for pleading guilty, even while detailing the lengthy and mendacious attempts he made right up to the day of the trial to frustrate justice, by lying to the police and then trying to have the case struck out, attempts that "will not add a day to your sentence."

The relish with which the judge lays into Vicky Pryce, by contrast, is evident in every twist of his rhetorical knife.  Her behaviour, he has "no doubt", demonstrates a "controlling, manipulative and devious side to your nature."  Having decided that she is motivated ("I have no doubt") by "an implacable desire to revenge", he admits that the circumstances under which Huhne dumped her must have been "horrendous" but is nevertheless unmoved.  Pryce had "little consideration for the position of your wider family", he tuts (meaning, I suppose, that she was a bad mother, who let her vindictive desire to get one over on her ex override her duty as a woman to keep up a dignified façade for the sake of the children). 

Armed with this interpretive framework, Sweeney then relates Pryce's dealings with the press in a manner that makes no allowance for the subtlety of her relationship with Isabel Oakeshott.  While Pryce did indeed make the first move, Oakeshott's dogged pursuit of a story, her willingness to flatter and cajole a sometimes reluctant source are all too obvious from the leaked emails between them.  As Janice Turner put it in Saturday's Times, "from the needy tone of her emails... it seems Pryce sought solace besides revenge.  So much so that she didn't notice this consummate journalist expertly reeling her story in."  Turner, though detecting "little sexual jealousy" (but much jealousy of Huhne's political career) thinks that Pryce lost both her cool and her common sense.  Had she displayed more "propriety and grace", her warmth and expertise on the Greek economic problems would have seen her star rise as Huhne's set.

Well, maybe.  Sweeney J, though, has Pryce down as a cold and devious manipulator, which makes the press the victim as well as the instrument of her calculating manipulations.  Pity the poor journalists who became the puppets in Pryce's theatre of revenge:

Your weapon of choice was the revelation of his part in the offence in 2003. But it was a dangerous weapon because it had, in truth, been a joint offence. Thus you did not go to the police, because (as you admitted during your second trial) you appreciated the risk that you would both be prosecuted. Instead you went first to The Mail on Sunday then, when they didn’t publish, to the Sunday Times and then, after they published, back to The Mail on Sunday. Hence it was that over the period of six months from November 2010 to May 2011 you, I have no doubt, sought to manipulate and control the Press so as to achieve that dual objective, hoping all the while to be able to hide behind their duty of source confidentiality, which you tried long and hard to do, as well as laying the ground, if that failed, for a false defence of marital coercion.

It's hard to square this simplistic notion of newspapers lamely doing Pryce's bidding with the language used by Oakeshott in her emails, which seems more calculated, devious and manipulating than anything attempted by Pryce (eg: "It's an entertaining thought, cornering him at a press conference - his expression would be a picture.")

Sweeney then goes on to attribute Pryce's attempt to use a defence of marital coercion as part of the same "controlling, manipulative and devious" character.  Her original act of taking the points on her husband's behalf is impelled by nothing more than "shared ambition" (as if a woman of Pryce's professional standing, a senior economist who before Huhne became an MP was arguably in a more prominent public position than he was, cared only for her husband's career) and because she would find it inconvenient were he unable to use the car to ferry the children around. 

It doesn't occur to the judge that, even without coercion, there are subtle pressures at work in a marriage, which while not excusing the crime perhaps render it less morally damning: the loyalty that exists between spouses, a sense of mutual obligation, of being a team.  The fear, perhaps, of otherwise feeling guilty at having let her husband down, of letting him suffer the consequences of her own moral punctiliousness; the fear of the look in reproach in his eyes, of what would be the long-term effect on their relationship if she refused to back him up.  She was doing him a favour, it should be remembered: lying to the authorities, committing a crime, at some considerable risk to herself. 

Even Sweeney accepts that swapping the points was almost certainly Huhne's idea.  It would have been quite open to him to deplore her action in placing marital loyalty (or even harmony) ahead of honesty and obedience to the law, to say something along the lines of "It is no excuse that you acted out of misplaced love and a sense of obligation to your husband."  But such a conclusion would fit ill with his favoured interpretation of Pryce as a cold, calculating and manipulative woman: she couldn't possibly, on this view, have ever helped Huhne for his sake; she must have had selfish and devious reasons of her own, like not wanting to have to drive the kids to school.

Constructing a pat little narrative that draws on age-old misogynist stereotypes but which is pitched perfectly to appeal to modern newspaper readers (at least as journalists imagine their readers to be) does nothing to advance justice or understanding.  It's a judge's job to pass sentence, not to carry out gratuitous acts of character assassination based on little more psychological insight than a daytime talk-show of the Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle variety.

Huhne and Pryce were only in court, of course, because of Pryce's desire to hurt her ex-husband and her resentment at his treatment of her led to an old offence being brought to light.  The judge notes this in passing, and somewhat strangely: "To the extent that anything good has come out of this whole process, it is that now, finally, you have both been brought to justice for your joint offence."  The phraseology implies that the conviction and jailing of Huhne and Pryce is merely a minor, if benign, side-effect of the disastrous train of events that has destroyed the careers of both of them.  That certainly reflects the story as told by the press, and perhaps as experienced by the ex couple themselves.  Legally, though, the exposure of the crime is the only thing that really matters: the collapse of the Huhne marriage was merely the mechanism that brought the crime to light.  If there's little sense of that in Justice Sweeney's remarks it's probably because, like almost everyone else who isn't Chris Huhne or Vicky Pryce, this has been less a trial than a narrative event.
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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Is marital coercion a feminist defence?

The conviction of the former Mrs Huhne today for perverting the course of justice has put a spotlight on the defence she attempted to rely on, that of "marital coercion".  For many, the notion that a wife (but not a husband) can escape justice by claiming to be under her spouse's control when committing a crime is anachronistic and patronising, even offensive.  It recalls another age, when women lacked social and economic freedom, when a wife might indeed claim to be wholly dependent on her husband and subject to his overbearing will.  Today, however, we have feminism and equality. 

Joshua Rozenberg for example, thought it was "an extraordinary defence for any woman, let alone a former joint head of the government economic service", and points out that the Law Commission wanted to abolish the defence (found in the Criminal Justice Act of 1925) as long ago as 1977, a time when there was considerably less sexual equality than there is today. 

Last week, Rozenberg wanted to abolish juries because the first jury in the Vicky Pryce case failed to reach a verdict.  This week he seems to want to abolish a defence because the second jury didn't buy it. 

Well, that's one way of looking at it.  Viewed from another perspective, though, the defence of marital coercion is surely one of the most feminist laws on the statute book.  It recognises, after all, that in heterosexual relationships there is inevitably a power imbalance, and that in marriage, with its legal and historical baggage, that imbalance is likely to be especially great.  We may like to think that all that belongs in the past, but the evidence suggests otherwise.  As Jack O'Sullivan notes, even the most modern, right-on and egalitarian-minded couples tend to revert to stereotypical roles once they have children, such is the pressure of social expectation.

Dad gets "provider fever", works harder, and gains economic power over his partner – and enhanced relative power in the public realm. It's a disheartening reversal: a "patriarchal moment". Meanwhile, mum has her "matriarchal moment", winning domestic control, largely taking over the private and social realms. Ancient norms reassert themselves despite the couple's vows to do things a different way.

Men don't just (still) have more financial power, on average, than women, they are also bigger, stronger, more aggressive and dominant.  Again, I'm talking about the average man and the average woman here, but it's a significant average.  Domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men against women, and even without physical abuse women are more likely than men to be trapped in mentally abusive and controlling relationships. At least, that's what feminists tell us:

Feminist theory in domestic violence emphasizes gender and power inequality in opposite-sex relationships. It focuses on the societal messages that sanction a male’s use of violence and aggression throughout life, and the proscribed gender roles that dictate how men and women should behave in their intimate relationships (Pence & Paymar, 1993). It sees the root causes of intimate partner violence as the outcome of living a society that condones aggressive behaviours perpetrated by men, while socializing women to be non-violent.

Proponents of feminist theory acknowledge that women can also be violent in their relationships with men; however, they simply do not see the issue of women abusing men as a serious social problem, and therefore, does not deserve the same amount of attention or support as violence against women.

If we do indeed live in a society which condones aggressive behaviour by men and encourages women to be submissive, we should expect to see male criminals (who, I suspect, may be more violent and less receptive towards feminist messages of equality than the average male Guardian reader; just a guess) regularly using their physical dominance to overawe their wives.  We should expect the wives of such men to often aid and abet their crimes, not out of personal criminal intent but through fear, or because they are wholly under the thumb of the brutes they married. 

In a society in which women are habitually the victims of male supremacy and aggression, the defence of marital coercion remains not just plausibly relevant but also necessary. Even if you don't fully accept the radical feminist argument about the pervasiveness of the patriarchy with its prescribed gender roles and male privilege, you might still agree that such a social pattern persists to a greater extent among the criminal underclass. It's probably less relevant where the male criminal is a Lib Dem MP like Chris Huhne; perhaps this explains why the second Pryce jury declined to accept the defence. But that shows that the law is working, not that it is obsolete.

Far from being an offensive anachronism, the lack of balance in the law of marital coercion, its explicit privileging of women, is surely a sign of its radical and progressive nature. Unlike most laws, which pretend to objectivity ("everyone is equal before the law") while in truth representing the interests of white, heterosexual men, the defence of marital coercion recognises the unequal nature of society as a whole and the particular inequality of marriage, and in a very 21st century manner attempts to correct it.

There's only one problem I can see with this unimpeachably feminist line of thought.  The defence of marital coercion replaced an earlier, indeed ancient, principle which assumed that a woman always acted under the direction and control of her husband.  It was to this concept that Dickens' Mr Bumble gave the immortal retort that "If the law says that, then the law is an ass."  It was, in other words, an expression of patriarchy in law; at best, a form of legal gallantry, like holding open a door for a lady, that disguised condescension with courtesy. 

It's no real contradiction, though, that a system that oppressed women also wanted to protect them.  It merely shows that patriarchy was not necessarily uncivilised: that having conceptualised women as the weaker vessel, whose default position in relation to men was one of subordination and victimhood, it drew the logical inference that they were not necessarily responsible for their own actions, at least not when their husband was in the room.  The law needed to recognise this.

When discussing domestic violence, or sexual objectification, or the need to eliminate pornography and sex work, or rape conviction rates, or positive discrimination in the workplace, modern feminists often make precisely the same case.  Or so, at least, it often seems to me.
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Wednesday, 6 March 2013

City bonuses pay for our schools

If Julia Llewellyn Smith is to be believed, the era of Loadsamoney triumphalism is dead, to be replaced by one of shoe-shuffling hypocrisy.  Perhaps it's a return to traditional British discretion.  Talking about money is so vulgar, after all, especially when you've got a lot (or when you've got none).  Maybe the rich (or just the comfortably off) wish to spare their friends and neighbours from feeling like losers in this time of austerity.  Or it's an attempt to preserve the illusion that "we're all in this together", when plainly we're not.  Do they even have a sense of shame, those bonus-rich bankers and hedgies, that having got the country - the continent, the entire Western world - into an economic death-spiral from which we may never escape it is they who are least likely to be suffering personally?  It would be nice to think so.  But perhaps they're just a bit worried about being the first people to be put against the wall and shot when the revolution comes.

Because we all hate rich people, especially bankers with their bonuses.  If anything's likely to restore the public reputation of the European Union, especially in this country, it's the latest move to restrict City bonuses.  The sight of George Osborne going into battle on behalf of greedy plutocrats while he's hammering some of the poorest people in the country for having a spare bedroom, even when there's no smaller property for them to move to, serves only to confirm prejudices about Tory priorities.  It may even convince people once again that the EU is a force for equality and progress, even while it's obsession with preserving the Euro pulverises and pauperises the whole of Europe south of the Alps.

Banker bashing is cheap and easy populism.  I'm not a great fan of the narcissistic and uber-Darwinian mindset cultivated by many of the City's bonus boys, as it happens, but I know a dangerous policy when I see one.  The new EU rules, which Osborne is powerless to resist, are a pistol aimed straight at the heart of the City of London, and at the British economy.  To most European leaders, who hate the City, or are jealous of its success, if reducing bonuses results in banks relocating to New York or Switzerland then the policy will have been a success.  From where they sit, the harm wrought by the Square Mile's financial buccaneering over the past two decades deserves exemplary punishment.  And the harm wrought to the British economy though lost jobs, lost tax revenues and lost economic activity is no concern of theirs.

But we should care.  To exult in the (marginal) impoverishment of some of the most overpaid people in the country is understandable, but it is also deeply stupid.  Bankers' bonuses keep much of London's service economy in business: the fancy restaurants, the car dealerships, the jewellers, the high-end travel agents, the private art galleries, the fashion business, traders in superior hi-fi, Saville Row and much else.  And these, in turn, keep other, humber businesses trading, and thousands of people in work.  Remove them, and you remove a major source of income for the British economy.

The undestand these things in China, where the initial fruits of prosperity and economic growth have produced obscene displays of conspicuous consumption.

Bonus money doesn't just benefit London, of course.  Many of those they support with their spending live outside the capital, while most obviously the tax levied on bankers' pay and bonuses is redistributed to other parts of the country.  Large parts of Britain no longer have a functioning economy: they depend on public spending, which in turn is heavily reliant on the revenue from the profitable parts of the economy.  The top 1% of earners contribute 30% of income tax paid in the UK.  Factor in the amount they are paying in VAT through their conspicuous consumption, in stamp duty through their property purchases, in capital gains tax and elsewhere, and it's clear that the rich are to a great extent funding public services in this country.   Needless to say, a high proportion of this 1% work in the City of London, and receive hefty bonuses.

Take that money away, and frankly we're screwed.  We're screwed even more than we already are, which is bad enough as it is.

There's an almost plausible argument for the EU policy that blames the bonus culture for encouraging risk-taking among City traders, and blames risk-taking for the mess we're currently in.  Restrict bonuses, the argument goes, and the result will be more cautious banking, no more crashes, no more bail-outs by taxpayers.  Allied to that are predictions that nothing much will change: banks will merely pay their top earners higher salaries and smaller bonuses, and the merry-go-round will continue much as before.

But risk-taking is inseparable from profit, and with lower bonuses there will be less incentive to chase profit.  There might be fewer disasters if traders were more risk-averse, but there will also be fewer jackpots.  This will soon make London-based banks, constrained to pay their traders and executives the same however well or badly they perform, less profitable than those based in New York or Switzerland.  London will steadily become a backwater.  The money to be made from casino banking will still be made, but it will not be made, or spent, or taxed, in Britain.  And we'll all be the poorer.

It's true that the UK economy has been far too dependent on the City, with the result that the financial crash has plunged the country into an era of permanent low growth.  Diversity is good, and the government needs to help stimulate other sectors of the economy.  But we are where we are, and you can't encourage wealth creation in other areas by taking away one of the few genuine sources of wealth that the country already has.  It's not good to have all your eggs in one basket, but the answer is not to smash all the eggs and throw away the basket.  The only viable solution is to hatch a few of the eggs and give the resulting hens some new baskets to lay in.
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Monday, 4 March 2013

Nicola Edgington, mental health and the failure of justice

Nicola Edgington was an accident waiting to happen. In 2005, suffering from severe mental illness she killed her mother, stabbing her nine times in the face, neck and chest with a kitchen knife. She was sent indefinitely to a secure mental hospital where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but was released after just four years with what seems like inadequate supervision. Two years later, she murdered 58 year old Sally Hodkin in the street with a stolen butcher's knife and attempted to kill another woman, 22 year old Kerry Clark.

Just prior to these attacks, Edgington made repeated attempts to get help. First she contacted the police, who accompanied her to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich in the early hours of 10th October 2011. Despite her professed desire to be detained under the Mental Health Act, hospital staff told her to wait. Increasingly worried about what she might do, she then made no fewer than five 999 calls from the hospital asking for further help from the police. The calls were replayed during her recent trial for murder.

Here's a selection of her pleas:

"I need to go to a mental hospital. I need the police to come now. I done a murder five years ago."

"I need for the police to come because I have had a nervous breakdown before and I killed someone."

Could you please send a car here now please this is very important.'

I don't want to start hurting anyone. I want to hand myself in now before I start hurting anyone else.

Do you want me to hurt someone here, I'm telling you if you don't come to Queen Elizabeth Hospital I'm gonna end up hurting someone

'I'm a very dangerous schizophrenic and if you don't come and help me I'm gonna end up hurting someone.

'I'm having a nervous breakdown. I'm really really not well.
You know the last time I was feeling like this I killed someone, the last time I was feeling like this I killed, I killed my mum.

'I have got very strange ideas, I think I'm at the gates of heaven, I think.'

Nevertheless, it was deemed that the hospital waiting room was a "place of safety", so there was no need to involve the police further. Eventually, some attempt was made to arrange a specialist assessment, but shortly before seven in the morning Edgington simply walked out of the hospital, found a suitable knife and selected her victims.

Much of the attention tonight is on the failures of the police, detailed in an IPCC report, for example the failure to carry out a police national computer check which would have alerted them to Edgington's conviction for manslaughter on the basis of diminished responisbility. Other, more striking failures might be laid at the door of hospital staff who failed to give Edgington the help she plainly needed, or indeed the decision to release her from the secure hospital two years before. It might be asked what kind of care she was receiving in the community. But I'd like to focus on the outcome of the trial and the sentencing remarks of Judge Brian Barker, which betray an outrageous and profound ignorance of the nature of severe mental illness and display attitudes quite astonishing in a supposedly advanced and civilised society.

That Edgington was charged with murder at all, given the strong evidence of her long-term psychosis and previous hospitalisation, is remarkable enough. It is especially remarkable since, it turns out, the trial had been postponed because Edgington, who has been detaine in a secure mental hospital since the tragic events of that October day, was at first considered too ill to stand trial. The CPS argued, against all logic and the medical consenus, that she was suffering merely from a borderline personality disorder - and that she was therefore in full command of her faculties. Why they should have come to this conclusion is a mystery, though Edgington's conviction for intentional murder might be said to take some of the blame for her crime away from the failures of the NHS, the police and the criminal justice system. The defence was able to produced two senior psychiatrists who said it was almost impossible for Edgington to have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.

When the jury, who were perhaps influenced by a sense of outrage at the barbarity of the slaying, returned a verdict of murder, the judge had no choice but to impose a life sentence. But he had considerable discretion as to tariff and remarks. He proceeded to use that discretion to ignore all the evidence before him of Edgington's condition and of her attempts to get help before it was too late, preferring instead to treat her as fully responsible for the crime, almost as though she had no mental illness at all.

In his sentencing remarks (pdf), judge acknowledged that Edgington had been diagnosed in 2005 as suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia with a prominent mood component" and that despite the apparent improvement that had enabled her early release she subsequently suffered "a relapse of some sort". He also stated that "it may well be" that both before and after the attacks she was "experiencing some form of transient psychosis". In other words, she was not in control of her actions. Yet he went on to describe her as "manipulative" as well as "exceptionally dangerous" and concluded that she had pursued "a consistent and calculated course of criminal conduct." Barker noted the submission made on Edgington's behalf by her barrister, John Cooper QC, that she "had a significant condition and at the time were a woman in crisis trying to comply with directions in the care plan." He then dismissed this self-evidently true proposition:

I disagree that responsibility for these acts can be laid at the door of others. You made a choice and the fact is these were terrible acts, and you must take responsibility for what you did. I cannot ignore the fact that you have killed before and that overall you have come as near as can be to having three deaths at your hands.

He went on:

The main mitigating feature is that you suffer from a mental disability, but on the particular facts of this case there is no convincing case to conclude that the abnormality reduced your culpability to any significant extent.

He then sentenced her to a minimum term of 37 years. In prison, presumably, although she clearly belongs in a hospital.

A tragic and senseless murder of an innocent woman, whose profound misfortune it was to cross the path of someone in the grip of profound psychosis, inevitably produces anger and a desire to blame the perpetrator. But I cannot see how justice is advanced by a legal fiction that treats such a troubled individual no differently from the most sane and cold-blooded killer. It is evident, or should be, that in moments of lucidity before her descent to homocidal actions she had attempted to get help: that is scarcely the behaviour of a pre-meditated and "manipulative" criminal.

Besides the profound injustice of sentencing a mental patient as though she were at all material times fully compos mentis, and the unforgivable ignorance and prejudice displayed in Barker's remarks, there's also a demonstrable failure of logic. If, in the judge's view of the evidence, Edgington was suffering from "transient psychosis" at the time of the murder, it surely follows that she cannot be held fully responsible for her actions.

This is a truly appalling judicial decision.
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