The Corner

The Failure of the Rule of Law in Britain

There are, I suppose, three restraints on man that prevent him from resorting to criminality and together can be described as the Rule of Law. The first two are the moral restraints of guilt and shame, one exercised internally, the other both internally and externally by the community. I discussed yesterday how these restraints appear to have disappeared in the U.K., and will give more evidence of that shortly. However, the third restraint is entirely community-based: the threat of external sanction. Even a demoralized society can be law-abiding if the threat of swift retribution from the authorities is present.

There is mounting evidence to my eyes that the trigger for the London riots was the realization that the third pillar of the Rule of Law has now disappeared. Tony Blair’s Labour government proudly proclaimed it was “tough on crime, tough of the causes of crime,” but the Tories have no such boast. Justice secretary Ken Clarke is on record as saying that prison is a waste of money and wanted to reduce already-short sentences by 50 percent in return for guilty pleas. Then came the political riots by students opposed to the idea of paying for their own education, which resulted in few prosecutions and condemnations of police “overreaction.” Rupert Murdoch’s assailant, who committed a violent assault in the Houses of Parliament itself, was given a sentence of six weeks in jail, but would only serve three weeks.

Small wonder, then, that the rioters do not believe they will suffer any consequences from the authorities even if arrested. This BBC interview with some rioters is worth listening to, even if a native speaker of British English like myself found it hard to understand. Fortunately, ConservativeHome provides the highlights: 

The first line of defence against crime, the justice system, is not seen as sufficiently threatening to deter the youths. One of the group says this would be my first offence, “the prisons are over-crowded. What are they going to do? Give me an ASBO? I’ll live with that.”

The government has failed to keep order, according to the group. They agree that their motivation is partially that “the government aren’t in control – because if they was we wouldn’t be able to do it could we?”.

The low rate of arrest of looters is then also brought up as an incentive to loot, with one youth saying “they failed, innit? How many people have they arrested really, though? Ten.” He then says “I’m not really bothered. I’ll keep doing this every day until I get caught.”

The incentive to make money from their crime spree is clear: one of the youths say he has been looting because he didn’t want to “miss the opportunity to get free stuff that’s worth, like, loads of money”. 

Powerless families are also shown to be a major factor in allowing the looting to take place. One youth admits to warning his family he was going to be present at the riots, and then describes a subsequent telephone conversation with a family member: “He said ‘get home, you’re in trouble’ I said ‘no’ and just put the phone down. They can’t get into town, they can’t get me, and when I get home, nothing’s going to happen to me, I’m not going to get grounded or shouted at. I might get shouted at but that’s it, I’ll live with it and keep doing it.”

This certainly gives a whole new twist to the bromide of “I blame the government.”

So I worry that the situation is worse than Jack fears. British society is not just tolerant of bad behavior, but paralyzed in its face. Its legal apparatus is now incapable of doing anything about it. The indispensible James Delingpole (author of the excellent book Watermelons on the green movement) describes how young offenders — surely the majority of those involved — will be treated more like victims than their actual victims, while the media silences those who point out inconvenient truths.

This may become the defining moment for the Cameron Coalition. They have an opportunity now for popular reform of this broken system. It is interesting that one of the main voices demanding tougher action is Education Secretary Michael Gove, not Ken Clarke (see here for him wiping the floor with Labour harridan Harriet Harman). Michael has been doing great work reforming the education system, but perhaps he should replace Clarke at the Justice ministry. But if Cameron fails to take this opportunity, the country will probably demand someone who will.


P.S. Theodore Dalrymple’s take is now up at City Journal.

— Iain Murray’s latest book is Stealing You Blind: How Government Fatcats Are Getting Rich Off of You.


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