Monday last the law changed, ending an accused person's right to remain silent. Until now, this was regarded as a cornerstone of British justice: no assumption of guilt could be made if a defendant refused to give evidence in court. But no longer.
Though still enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution, our Home Secretary has seen fit to terminate this fundamental civil right. From now on, British courts can - and will - infer guilt from a defendant's lack of testimony. Judges will be able to direct juries in this manner, so that they can presume culpability. The capacity for wrongful conviction is obvious: if the Guildford Four or the Birmingham Six had been tried under such circumstances, they would probably still be in prison.
And the reaction to this astonishing abuse? A big fuss when it was first proposed. But now? A deafening silence, of course. Not a murmur of protest. Perhaps this is not surprising, since it reflects our way of life. We inhabit a culture of silence, we live amid unutterable conspiracies. Though denied the right to remain silent, we are not allowed to ask questions, unlike Americans, who at least have the Freedom of Information Act.Meanwhile, our government guards its words, choosing only the blandest and most euphemistic phrases, couching its xenophobia in coded terms. Why? Because it has no purpose other than survival. There is no Big Idea, no statement of intent, driving the Conservative Party. It is hopelessly divided. Its policy can be summed up in one word: expedience. But words are not enough to shake it from office, not enough to shame the most sleaze-ridden government in living memory into resignation.
The Labour Party likewise maintains an expedient silence. It knows that any pronouncement of genuine political content can be turned against it, fashioned into "politics of envy" or "loony left" rhetoric. In an age where the four-second sound-bite is the zenith of eloquence, the Labour Party remains muted, hoping to succeed by stealth. Otherwise a certain section of the press will go for the jugular.
That same section of the press claimed another victim last weekend, when the umpteenth Tory MP to be involved in a sex scandal tended his resignation. Predictably, the "three-in-a-bed romp" enjoyed by junior minister Richard Spring and detailed in the News of the World led to renewed back-bench calls for a Privacy Bill to restrain - or silence - the press.
But silencing the press is censorship, and our libel laws are already quite adequate for stifling press comment, as Robert Maxwell demonstrated while plundering various companies' pension funds. Perhaps if the libel laws were relaxed, on the other hand, the press might pursue those stories that should be making front-page headlines, rather than publishing trash about the private lives of politicians.
Which brings us to Jonathan Aitken MP. Ironically, in the week when silence became an indicator of guilt, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury defended his right not to declare his Saudi Arabian business interests on the Member's Register. Mr Aitken also maintains that despite his directorship of BMARC and presence at relevant board meetings, he was unaware that weapons were being sold to Iran, in breach of UN and British arms embargoes. Strangely, everybody else seems to have known what was going on. Perhaps he was the unwitting benefactor of another silence, the kind that forms a wall.
Remarkably, Mr Aitken believes these events have no bearing on his fitness for office. Even more remarkably, to my mind, Mr Aitken, as a director of an arms-dealing company that sold weapons to a hostile government during an embargo, has not broken any law. It is just as well. Otherwise some gimlet-eyed judge might interpret his lack of self-justification as culpability.
Mr Aitken will be in court soon if he carries out his threat to sue the Guardian. But what a shame that the proceedings will not be televised, as in the O J Simpson trial. One yearns for another glimpse of his lovely wife Lolicia and ravishing daughter Victoria, utilised so effectively, one on each flank, at his otherwise risible "sword of truth" press conference.
In a week when silence spoke volumes, when the unsaid became infinitely more damning than any utterance, theirs was a special kind of stoicism, a mute dignity of heroic stature, the kind Swinburne surely had in mind when he wrote: "For words divide and rend; but silence is most noble till the end". I have said it before, and I will say it again: those Tory women sure know how to keep mum.Reuse content