Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Sleepwalking towards fascism

I spent most of my first thirty three years in Africa (Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe), so I've experienced several regime changes and I've lived through a number of colonial and postcolonial ideologies, although like many colonials I had no interest in politics when I was young. One usually has little to fear and little to protest about if one lives in complacent conformity within an affluent social milieu and enjoys the material benefits that it brings. And if occasionally the justice system seems too harsh or weighted against certain groups and individuals, best to look the other way and avoid getting into trouble.

More than 2,770 people have been arrested in connection with last week's riots
But in recent years, following African politics from a distance, and in particular seeing the tragic disintegration of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, I have come to appreciate that the independence of the judiciary is the sine qua non of a just society. That's why we should be terrified about what's happening in Britain's courts in the aftermath of the recent riots and looting.

It is the law, not the political establishment, which safeguards justice in a society. In the rat race of modern politics, most of those who succeed are career politicians. Political self-interest gets in the way of their commitment to the common good, and it limits their capacity to contribute to the sense of justice that a society needs if it is to flourish.

That's why we need an independent judiciary - to restrain the excesses of political ambition, and to ensure that our legal system does not fall prey to the kind of mob justice which results from populist politics and political short-termism. So why have so many judges and magistrates been compliant in translating David Cameron's brutal rhetoric into hurried judgements and punitive prison sentences which can only breed an even greater sense of fury and resentment among this increasingly alienated generation of British youth?

There were undoubtedly hardened criminals and repeat offenders who took advantage of the riots to rob and vandalise with impunity, and they should be brought to justice. But there were also many young, first time offenders, carried away by the mood of the moment, some of them probably drunk or drugged, whose slender hopes of a future worth struggling for will now be dashed by a prison sentence and a criminal record. England and Wales already has the highest per capita prison population in western Europe. To send gullible young people into our overcrowded, under-resourced prison regime because they stole a bottle of water or posted a stupid message on Facebook is incomprehensible and cannot in any meaningful sense be called just.

There has been much talk in the last couple of weeks about responsible parenting, but any parent knows that the teenage years are fraught with risks, challenges and failures, and we are not in control of our teenage children - nor should we be. Allowing our children to grow up means respecting their freedom, even if they abuse that freedom (and is there anybody out there who never abused their teenage freedom in some way or another?) It means allowing them to make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and being there to help them to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who have all the benefits and privileges of the mortgaged middle classes know that there are times when things fall apart, during those teenage and early adult years, and we usually depend on the good will of a wide social network to put them back together again - friends and family, churches and communities, schools and, sometimes, social services, the police and the law. Even Prime Ministers are not immune - remember when Tony Blair's sixteen-year-old son was found drunk and incapable?

But how does one help a foolish young adult to mend his or her life after an arbitrary prison sentence and a criminal record, inflicted upon them for no other reason than to make them serve as a warning to others? What's wrong with our politicians and our judiciary that they have so little imagination about the long-term damage they're doing to our children - because these are all our children? There's an African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child, and we've seen in the last few weeks that, when the 'village' fails in its responsibility, its children become an awesome force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face is to get over the attitude that a child is a commodity or a possession over which a parent has sole ownership and for which that parent has sole responsibility.There are few areas where individualism does so much damage as in the attitudes we have towards our own and other people's children. On the one hand there's the suffocating over-protectiveness of so many middle class parents, and on the other hand we veer between negligent neighbourly indifference and punitive state interference with regard to those who are not able to keep their problems locked out of sight behind their suburban front doors.

We are all responsible for all our young people. We have a duty of care to the children in our communities and neighbourhoods. We have a duty to pay taxes and to provide institutions of education, health care, sporting and cultural activities that make young people feel included, while ensuring that they have roles to play which allow them to contribute to society, not least through ensuring that they can find jobs which give them a sense of self-esteem. We cannot blame all the troubles of the last fortnight on cuts in social spending, but when youth clubs close down, universities suffer catastrophic funding cuts, financing for basic recreational activities and facilities is taken away, and the employment market dries up, we cannot completely ignore questions of cause and effect either. The message we've sent out to our young people over the last few years couldn't be clearer: as a society, we don't give a damn about your education, your well-being or your future. If you have wealthy parents, make them pay. If not, hard luck.

The teenage years are a volatile hormonal soup even before we add the pressures of a society in meltdown. We should not be surprised that violence has erupted on our streets. My generation had the best of the boom years, and people of David Cameron's class will always be able to buy their way out of the bust years in our class-ridden and economically divided society. But we owe our young people better than a prison sentence and a life of debt.

I fear we are sleep-walking into fascism, and if our judges don't take a stand, who will?

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." (George Orwell)

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