Sunday, 4 May 2014
Justice and the law – which side are you on?
Any serious consideration of current events cannot but notice the contradictions of our times. As these contradictions become more and more acute they will give rise to challenges to the present social order.
Working class living standards are facing their biggest decline in a generation, yet we are told ‘the economy’ is recovering. Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain are forced to attend food banks for basic sustenance, while our television screens are stuffed full of programmes dedicated to gourmet food and the promotion of self-indulgence as our neighbours go hungry. Whereas previous food crises have been characterised by scarcity, today supermarket shelves are overstocked with an abundance of food – much of it increasingly priced out of the reach of working class people blamed for their ‘unhealthy lifestyle choices.’
Increasing numbers of working class people are being pushed into the margins of existence as a new wave of benefit sanctions leads people into destitution and despair. Every two minutes a young person somewhere in the UK has their benefits stopped by a Jobcentre. Despite making up only 27% of jobseeker's allowance claimants, young people are the recipients of 43% of the sanctions issued. This violence is being played out against a background of a united political class and complicit media telling us that the economy is recovering – that economic prosperity is returning. This is one of the major contradictions of our times. Anyone who switches on the media will hear the manta repeated ad nauseam. Perverse and meaningless statistics are used to justify the new vogue. Those who disagree with this analysis are marginalised and dismissed. Despite this narrative ordinary people in their daily existence know the truth; many here will know someone who is either out of work – or facing punitive benefit sanctions, others will be aware of the vicious attacks on the disabled being waged by ATOS on behalf of the DWP and the widespread deployment of Workfare – modern slavery. You may even be going through this process yourselves. Others will be aware of the increasing phenomenon young people face – called internships – free labour given in hope of a job in the future. For the mass of those in work, job insecurity is now increasing and widespread; the use zero hour contracts are escalating.
But there is another contradiction we need to address: while many of us anticipated these attacks as part of the economic crisis, we did not expect the absence of resistance. The ruling class, sensing this, are widening and deepening the attacks to ever increasing sections of the working class and wider population. Those on the receiving end are told there is no alternative but to accept defeat and isolation; poor people are being blamed for being poor, or else told to blame other poor people for their poverty as racism and bigotry stalks. In response, feelings of hopelessness and depression become all the more common; alcohol misuse and drug abuse are increasing as alienation takes hold.
We need to confront this reality and begin to understand why this is happening, we need to understand clearly the role of the law in this country and begin to work out how we can fight for social justice.
One important point I want to make is that all of these attacks are part of conscious political decision making. It has recently dropped out of the vocabulary of the ruling class and its media, but what we are experiencing is the realisation of the Tory party vision of what they termed the ‘Big Society’. That is the role back of the state, the systematic destruction of state welfare provision for the poor and the vulnerable and the promotion of charity as the solution. What we are seeing is a return to the nineteenth century poor laws – people should read the lead article in the current edition of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! where we discuss the social crisis in more detail.
In these times, however, where there is so much injustice and so little resistance it falls on us to understand and explain to people what is happening and begin to work out a solution. We must understand that others before us have faced far worse social conditions and found solutions. We cannot afford to lose inspiration and hope – we need to maintain belief in ourselves and understand that it is working class people organising together who hold the key.
The discerning among the ruling class understands all too well the enormity of the crisis facing British imperialism. They know that the economic crisis is producing a social crisis; they also know that a political crisis is inevitable. They may be many things but they are not foolish. Just look at how skilled they are at dividing and ruling people; they have been doing it for generations. This is why they have erected an array of legislation to criminalise increasing swathes of the population; the last Labour government created criminal legislation at a rate of more than one a day – over 6,000 new pieces of legislation! It was the most heavily legislated parliament since parliament was created and more than twice the rate of the previous Tory regime under Thatcher and Major. A recent academic study of the legislative programme of the Scottish Parliament noted how it had created criminal offenses at a far greater rate than its English counterpart; in the course of a twelve month period between 2010 to 2011 twice as many criminal offences applying to Scotland were created compared to those applying to England. Why, we are entitled to ask, is all of this necessary?
As we wrote previously in Fight Racism! Fight Imerialism!, the economic counterpart to the social disciplining of the working class is a flexible labour market: freedom for the market is matched by social control for the working class. Or as Larry Elliot wrote of the Blair’s Labour government: having decided it will not regulate the markets, Labour will ‘regulate the people instead, imposing a panoply of social controls to ensure that problems caused by uncontrollable unregulated economy…don’t threaten the lifestyles of its new middle class constituency.’
This increasing criminalisation of our communities has gone hand in hand with attacks on our legal rights. I want to discuss two of the major ones, the attacks on legal aid and the moves by the Scottish Parliament to abolish evidential corroboration in criminal trials.
To fully understand these measures we need to view them as part of the overall war on the working class. Let us be clear; the rich will always be able to buy the best lawyers. For the working class however justice is increasingly being denied with all of the consequences which follow from inadequate legal representation when faced against a state intent on widespread criminalisation. That the increasing attacks on legal aid are occurring at a time of increasing criminal legislation is no accident. The challenge before those who oppose cuts in legal aid is to go beyond immediate self interest and show how these issues of justice affect us all. As political activists who are subject to police harassment and criminalisation we declare a special interest. To save legal aid it may be pertinent to examine how legal aid came about in the first instance; I know of no serious study which has examined this issue – either north or south of the border. It is perfectly conceivable that its author awaits.
We need to also understand the recent moves to abolish corroboration in Scots law. Corroboration – the requirement in criminal trails that for a conviction to be safe there must be two independent pieces of evidence of the crucial fact. The emotive issue of Scotland’s poor conviction rate for rape is often at the fore of the corroboration debate. It is misleading and it is intended to mislead and confuse. We are rarely told that in fact this is the political response to Scots law being brought into line with the rest of Europe following the important 2010 Supreme Court Cadder ruling which upheld the right of an accused person to have consultation with a solicitor – a right long held in other jurisdictions. The ruling means that Scottish police can no longer question suspects without offering the suspect a private consultation with a lawyer; not only before an interrogation but also at any time during the interrogation at the suspects request. On 21 April the Scottish Government announced that it was putting on hold this process; clearly with the pending referendum they have calculated that this could be detrimental to the SNPs independence ambitions. In the final analysis these matters will be dependent on the prevailing balance of political forces.
The increasing propensity towards criminalisation, the restriction of access to justice by undermining legal aid and the moves towards abolishing corroboration cannot be separated from the economic and social crisis facing British imperialism. The great contradiction of so much injustice with so little resistance is a temporary state of affairs. These developments show that the ruling class are preparing for a deeper class war than we are currently enduring.
Where will the resistance come from? History is loaded with examples of what propels individuals into political action; we say that the contradictions of our times will inevitably give rise to opportunities for revolutionary advances to be made. The Edinburgh born Irish revolutionary James Connolly understood and articulated very clearly the material basis of political action in an important article published in the Workers’ Republic on 12 August 1899. His prophetic words are worth recalling;
‘In every case the social condition of the mass of the people was the determining factor in political activity. Where the mass of the people find existing conditions intolerable, and imagine they see a way out, there will be a great political movement; where the social conditions are not so abnormally acute no amount of political oratory, nor yet co-operation of leaders, can produce a movement.’
There is no such thing as a problem without a solution; the solution lies within the problem.
What is the role of progressive people at this time? Our primary duty must be to struggle; we must prove ourselves capable of articulating the frustrations and aspirations of our communities. To do so effectively we must constantly be on our guard against our biggest enemies at this time; pessimism, indifference and inaction. We must understand that from nothing comes nothing. We must be able to take each and every particular problem, each instance of injustice to its roots in the general crisis of capitalism and back to the particular solution. We must be vigilant and actively oppose those who would steer struggles into dead ends; those who promote narrow class interests over the interests of working class as a whole. We cannot offer readymade solutions but know that the struggle contains the solution.
Today by having meetings and discussions such as this we are rebuilding the revolutionary traditions firmly grounded upon our knowledge of the economic basis of all political action. As James Connolly stated;
‘Examine the great revolutionary movements of history and you find that in all cases they sprang from unsatisfactory social conditions, and had their origin in a desire for material well being. In other words, the seat of progress and source of revolution is not in the brain, but in the stomach.’
In these times it is absolutely vital that we take hope and inspiration from our revolutionary traditions, as Walter Benjamin once noted, it is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.
Paul McKenna, chairperson of the Glasgow Defence Campaign.