10 April 2013

"I've known quite a number of very genuine robbers..."

There's an exchange in Rumpole and the Fascist Beast which has been lodged in my head this week.  Set in 1979, the episode turns around the trial of "Captain" Rex Parkin, a petty politician of the far-right, for incitement to racial hatred, after a stramash at a fascist rally.  The accused man meets Rumpole in chambers to discuss his defence. 
Solicitor: "Captain Parkin wishes it to be known that he's absolutely sincere."

Rumpole: "Unfortunately, that is not a defence, in law. I've known quite a number of very genuine robbers.  They sincerely wanted to be rich."

Thus far, I've avoided adding ink to the relentless commentary on Mrs Thatcher's demise, and I don't propose to add substantially to that body of words here.  Rather than analysing the legacy of The Lady herself, I wanted to highlight a rather curious aspect of the retrospectives which have choked the airwaves and pages of the print media. It tells us less about the former Prime Minister, but perhaps a good deal more about the current state of political debate in the United Kingdom.

Over the last few days, it has been common to hear folk rattling off equivocating tributes in something like the following terms. I heard in the pub last night.  "Whatever you think about the departed - good or bad - you have to respect the strength of her convictions.  She knew what she stood for.  And you knew where you stood with her. You have to respect that." Gordon Brown furnished one concrete example.  "Even those who disagreed with her never doubted the strength of her convictions and her unwavering belief in Britain’s destiny in the world," he said. 

Bracket the dead woman for the moment. Generalise. What sort of logic does Brown's praise rely on? Why should the strength with which ideas are held affect the esteem in which we hold an individual, and our evaluation of the positive and negative dimensions of their work? It is such a safe nostrum, trotted out so naturally when an unliked body is interred beneath the clod, that the eccentric premises it relies on are often overlooked.  

Can you think of any other circumstance in which we would think that you were a better person simply because you were full of passionate intensity, because your bad acts were sincerely transacted? It makes for an unusual principle of judgement. To adapt Voltaire, I may disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death the moral superiority of your vices and follies, so long as you were really committed to them.  In what other circumstances would any of us believe that this is true?

Would you rather have your pocket picked professionally by a determined sneak thief, while judging the hesitating, ambivalent cutpurse more harshly? I dare say not.  If I destroy your life through negligence, or by accident, in what circumstances would you regard me as the moral inferior to the killer who plots out your annihilation carefully, and twists the knife to make sure? I'm not sure I can believe that the assassin is the moral superior of the drunken brawler, and yet that's where Brown's logic seems to take us.

I imagine that George Osborne has been entertaining fond notions of cutting the size and scope of the British state since he was in nappies, or at least since he acquired firm views on public policy. Iain Duncan Smith finds himself in a position to reweave the social safety net in this country, and proposes to stint on the rope. When both men are visited by the Reaper years hence, ought we to look back and say, their innovations are morally enhanced because they genuinely believed in taxing the rich less? Ought the notices to be improved when Tony Blair goes to his final reward, because he wholeheartedly, unequivocally, believed in the Iraqi invasion, whatever its consequences?

It seems the intoxication of certainty still hasn't worn off.  There's a certain whiff of nostalgia for an imagined past here. For a time before the supposed "death of ideology" and a new generation of sleek, trimming, vacuous pols who have made a virtue out of a lack of programmatic ideas about how this country ought to be governed.  Or at least, by wrapping up their ideas in the loose, unpolitical language of necessity, practicality, and plain old common sense. A melancholy reflection that today, the best lack all conviction, and the worst lack all conviction too.

Secreted behind these tributes, we might detect a very Thatcherite sensibility: contempt for the ambivalence of the wets and squishes, scorn for complexity, and the incautious, unrepentant magnification of the Leader's vision and will.  As Rumpole told Captain Rex Parkin, "that is not a defence, in law". I see no reason why it ought to be a defence in ethics or politics either.


  1. I don't think that "She was sincere about supporting Pinochet and Zia" really cuts it with me.

    1. Tulloch,

      With my legal hat on, thus framed, that isn't a proposition I'd care to defend. You'd be lucky to find an advocate who could make the point convincingly...