17 February 2011

Aitken out...

In Holyrood's stage 3 debate on the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill last summer, Baillie Bill Aitken's contribution prompted guffaws. The Official Report records the laughter of his colleagues. I dare say the man himself chose his words with a certain degree of levity, but his comments struck me as expressing something quite fundamental about  his self-image, how he regarded himself.

Bill Aitken: As a young man from a poor area of Glasgow, I had many friends in low places and got to know the criminal mindset. [Laughter.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Bill Aitken: That impression was confirmed when I sat on the bench and has been reinforced by discussions with criminal lawyers in Glasgow. For a troublesome and small minority, prison is the only thing that will work...

I have also noted with human interest how Aitken conducts himself in the Justice Committee, with advocates and lawyers and judges. He has a tendency to fawn deferentially to judicial figures. He is always at pains to employ the appropriate legal terms. With Aitken, these terminological exactitudes always struck me as bearing a certain show of deliberation. They are not casual references to known facts, but something he clearly regarded it as crucial to get right, to talk about things in the right sort of way, showing himself to be the right sort of person. He speaks like an anxious insider, uncertain of his status. Nor does it seem incidental that Aitken played m'lud in the justice of the peace court. He bears all the hallmarks of a frustrated would-be lawyer, who pursued a political career at the expense of a longed for judicial one. Aitken's cynical wordliness is premised on what he no doubt takes to be a tough, realistic, no-nonsense attitude towards life. He is unsympathetic. Unlike his colleagues on the bench, who were taken in by all those villains who are at it, JP Aitken saw clearly, shrewdly. On some level, he identifies with the villain. He is not sentimental. I can distinctly imagine him sentencing a man to death, with a grim twinkle in either eye. In his respect, these features are redolent of the qualities ascribed to Scots judges in their hanging days - gruff Lord Braxfield and even the philosophical Kames (Aitken albeit without the learning of either gentleman in the tricky business of the Corpus Iuris Civilis).

But enough with the background Aitkenology. These features of his character and self-understanding, emerge strongly from the appalling transcripts of the Sunday Herald journalist's interview with Aitken, published in full on the New Statesman website. The dirty minded bluntness, the knowing doubts, the self-flattering scepticism of a man of the world, who knows about these things and isn't hoodwinked by bints in alleys. The conversation is annihilating for Aitken's credibility. All the more because it reads like a relaxed expression of the views of a man who thought he was off the record, and that nothing he has said could prompt complaint.

Doubt is not in short supply in our institutions of public justice. It is an elementary principle of our criminal law that to convict, the prosecution must prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. In the name of doubt, we maintain laws of evidence which do not even allow many cases to be put before juries and judges to decide. To this appalling weight of doubt, Aitken thoughtfully contributed his own, immediately, unprompted. His first, spontaneous response to news of a violent gang rape was to begin cross-examining the testimony of the victim. His second, unprompted response to the story was to focus on the circumstances of this gang rape, unilaterally implying a background of prostitution, knowingly adding "there's a lot more to these city-centre rapes than meet the eye". As other bloggers have noted (cf Grace Murray on Bella Caledonia), Aitken's remarks reflect  two well-documented tendencies in the discussion of rape. Firstly, respond with immediate, uneven and unjustified suspicion towards the victim. Secondly, from the limited facts available, strongly emphasise those facts which impute some degree of responsibility to the victim and purport to undermine their moral stature. What was she doing in Renfield Lane? Where had she been? Did she go with somebody? These are the first questions which occur to you, Mr Aitken? You hear tell that a women has been outrageously sexually assaulted in public, and these are the first words you stammer out? 

I agree with the Corbie's conclusion. As convenor of Holyrood's Justice Committee, parliament reposes a measure of trust in Bill Aitken. This terrible conversation cannot but deprive him of that trust. He must be pried from his spot as Convenor of Justice Committee. If Annabel Goldie will not be the iconoclast, then Parliament must do so for her. If she will do nothing? On her head be it...


  1. I thoroughly agree that his views on rape are awful and he should leave politics: well said. Nonetheless, it seems quite true that a lot of criminals have indeed hoodwinked judges and parole boards into thinking they are reformed characters, as a glance at the recidivism rates shows. You hint at this by saying, perceptively, that 'On some level, he identifies with the villain' - the problem is that too few of our judges are also able to do so. If we want less rape and violent crime, perhaps we should be less willing to give rapists and other violent criminals the benefit of the doubt when sentencing them and after they leave prison. Perhaps we should remain in touch, as Stephen King puts it, with "the dark fuckery of the human heart", from which too many well-meaning people, with liberal hearts and plentiful brains but limited imaginations, seem to have divorced themselves.

  2. Are you any relation to the Doric Cymric sheep worriers?

  3. How do you propose to remove Mr. Aitken from his committee Convenorship? Several people complained to the Presiding Officer about the conduct of Ms. Alexander as Convenor of the Scotland Bill Committee and were told in no uncertain terms that complaints about the conduct of committee members were a matter for... the Convenor!

    The Parliament's Standing Orders state that a Convenor can only be removed by a majority of committee members voting for a motion to remove the Convenor.

    I really hope the Presiding Officer or the Parliament, or even Auntie Bella, does something about Aitken, as it will expose their hypocrisy about Alexander!

  4. I think the Wendy situation has taken the foot of his throat a bit. A google news search reveals that the pro-union media are still seeking his views on 'soft touch Scotland' as of a couple of hours ago...


  5. Philosophical Zombie,

    Quite so. It is an interesting subtext to Aitken as an individual and, if we might generalise, to his "type". It also struck me as interesting in this context that Aitken identifies his early life as coming from a "poor" area of Glasgow, rather than a working class area. This emphasises the extent to which he is made of rather different stuff than the border farmer Tories which share Tory benches at Holyrood. A matter well worth exploring, but I suspect to do it justice, it will have to wait until another day.

  6. jimtrot,

    Any resemblance I may bear to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  7. Holebender,

    I haven't made a detailed study of the actual procedures which could or could not be employed to pry him loose. For my part, if he is to go, my sense is that it won't be a question of formalism but will be due to the exertion of pressure, either through the Tories or on the part of the parliament as a whole. If the critical atmosphere is sufficiently febrile, and the loss of confidence in his position at Holyrood is sufficiently vocally expressed, I would expect him to resign the post.

  8. Mark,

    It will, I think, largely come down to how his fellow parliamentarians react, how many of their constituents have written and e-mailed them about it and whether those constituents have convinced a sufficient number of our tribunes that Aitken staying in position reflects badly on them. Election pending, and all that...