31 May 2009

Pro Camera Stellata (Laborensis)?

Why oh why, do we think, that the Labour Party have come over all historical and are identifying their three-member expenses disciplinary panel, set up under the auspices of their National Executive Committee, as the Star Chamber? Brown repeated it on the Andrew Marr show this morning. Why not go the whole hog and describe it as the Camera Stellata, and paint their meeting room with pretty, sparkling stars?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the Star Chamber as follows, with a nod to its historical origins:

“A court, chiefly of criminal jurisdiction, developed in the 15th century from the judicial sittings of the King's Council in the Star Chamber at Westminster. The judges were the Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper, the Lord Treasurer, the Lord Privy Seal, and any peers that chose to attend. The rules of procedure of the court rendered it a powerful instrument in the hands of a sovereign or a ministry desirous of using it for purposes of tyranny, and the abuse of it under James I and Charles I have made it a proverbial type of an arbitrary and oppressive tribunal. It was abolished by an Act of the Long Parliament in 1641.”

The Daily Mail contextualise the characterisation by advising its readers that “the original Star Chamber dished out summary justice at the Palace of Westminster from the reign of Henry VII to that of Charles I.”

To be more precise – and more contextualised in an English tradition which came to loathe and ultimately abolish the Star Chamber - it dispensed its decrees summarily, and hence, unjustly. The idea of the “Star chamber” has transcendent its specific historical character – and become a byword for any court which is accountable only to executive figures, and which is classically employed by that executive to pummel dissenters or liquidate that regime’s foes.

More broadly, it simply signifies a sham proceeding, an instrument of pure power. To identify any forum of decision-making with the Star Chamber is sharply to emphasise that proceeding’s arbitrariness, secrecy, and violation of the canons of natural justice. Labour’s National Executive might as well have called their three-person review committee the Kangaroo Court, or perhaps The Moscow Trials II: A Russian Proceeding in London. Indeed, if I was making submissions before the Sheriff and in my irritation characterised his jurisdiction as Camera Stellataesque, I could expect nothing from him but fury. But that is hardly surprising. It’s a term of abuse.

The curious question, knowing this, is why the Labour Party is fostering and propagating such an appalling characterisation of this body. There are, I think, various plausible answers. In the first instance, whatever the Star Chamber’s associations with unfairness, nobody would accuse it of excessive or yielding ruth. It’s a showy attempt at seeming tough and rigorous. It makes the three people on the tribunal seem less small and insignificant. Anterior echoes of this sort of thing was the Brown/Stalin narrative, or the persistent, allegedly presidential character of Mr Blair’s ministry. While some folk may perceive these characterisations as damaging – the underlying emphasis on control, decisiveness and power probably flatters the self-impressions of the intended targets. In the case of this contemporary Star Chamber, it also risks giving an impression of effectiveness and decisiveness.

However, while this is probably part of it – I suspect there is another, more insidious element slithered beneath the surface. It is, I think, perfectly possible, that the Labour Party is seeking to capitalise precisely on the idea that they are engaging in shadowy, ruthless, merciless adjudication. In short, glorifying the appearance of pitiless and brutal decisions - while privately engaging in a far blander, more careful and perhaps fairer sift.

This concerns me. Whatever the need for sharp disposals of villainous, mindless leeches supping at the vital fluids of the body politic, exalting as if admirable odious adjudicative practices risks valourising what should be despised. For the sake of a paltry political attempt to put a bit of testicle at the bottom of denunciatory comment, Labour has thought to summon up the blood spattered ghost of an old and wicked spectre.

It would be pathetic, were it not for the permanent risk that we let such old revenants stalk the living, and take up flesh again. Star Chambers continue to sit across the world. In Britain, there remains a modern political desires to reinstitute secret trials, sealed and inaccessible evidence, arbitrary imprisonment without hope of habeas corpus, mysterious military processes.

In this context, the Star Chamber characterisation is by turns disgusting and pathetic. Cringing and yet vicious. Pious and yet corrupt. We should crush under heel the snake of all Star Chambers, not identify with the serpent.

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