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Oh, for a judge who had read Dante or Shakespeare to sum up the tragedy of Vicky Pryce

The best summings up by the best judges are exemplary - this one fell woefully short

We lack, it seems to me, the language of disgrace. And where there is no language of disgrace – no deep damnation – there is no language of compassion either – no pity like a naked newborn babe, no tears that drown the wind. I’ve no desire to trawl through the rights and wrongs of the Huhne case now that they’ve been packed off, and you could say that their shame resides precisely in the pettiness of their offence, for which small words will do as well as great, but do you not feel, reader, that in the absence of prophets among our commentators and tragedians among our judiciary, without a grand cosmology of sin and expiation to shape our thoughts, we haven’t really risen to the drama of their fall?

Yes, the ironies have all been noted. The biter bit, hell hath no fury, the ruthless and the vengeful hoist by their own petards. But these are so many clichés, and even they were denied them by Mr Justice Sweeney in his summing up. “Any element of tragedy is entirely your own fault,” he pronounced begrudgingly – a statement that disappoints in many ways, not least as it misunderstands the nature of tragedy. When it comes to tragedy’s power to move us, fault is no disqualification. Only think of Othello’s fault, only think of Macbeth’s; indeed, it’s hard to think of any tragic figure whose failings of character are not contributory, if not intrinsic, to his fall. If you want a word for what befalls the blameless, it’s misfortune. Grievous misfortune, where what befalls them is dreadful. But you cannot be too naughty – though it’s possible you can be not naughty enough – to be tragic. It all depends on the imaginations of those who tell your story. And on this showing Justice Sweeney doesn’t appear to have an imagination adequate to the piteous and stirring drama of human life.

Whether a more eloquent and capacious imagination would have made a difference to the sentences he handed out I can’t say, but the best summings up by the best judges are exemplary, whatever the sentences, exemplary in the way that literature is exemplary, and we might have expected Justice Sweeney to want to point a grander lesson from the wreckage of the Huhnes’ careers and marriage than that swapping speeding points is wrong.

The best summings up by the best judges are exemplary

To complain that a judge is judgemental might be pushing one’s luck, but some of the remarks Justice Sweeney made about Vicky Pryce’s character – I am thinking particularly of his telling her there was “a controlling, manipulative and devious side” to her nature – struck me as over and above what was necessary to find her guilty, as though the condemned man must be told, in the moment of the noose going around his neck, that he is, on top of everything else, not a very nice person.

My objection to the phrase “controlling, manipulative and devious” doesn’t stop there. For while I see it is a refutation of Vicky Pryce’s plea of marital coercion, a person might be all those things and still not be guilty of anything greater, or, if guilty of something greater, then needlessly accused of something smaller. I am reminded of the way a succession of political leaders after 9/11 called all acts of terrorism “cowardly”, though most showed unimaginable courage. We might not like to concede bravery to a heinous deed, but the charge of cowardice, where cowardice is not, adds nothing to the crime. Better – better for our understanding of our enemies and ourselves, better for the precise expression of our outrage – that we name the crime for what it is, not for the anger we feel about it. Vicky Pryce took her husband’s speeding points and then denied she had done so. Try her for that. Try her for personation and for lying. Not for whether she is also cruel to cats.

But I haven’t done yet with Justice Sweeney’s excavations in the city of dead words. Neither “controlling” nor “manipulative”, whether or not either gestures fairly at something in Vicky Pryce’s character, is what you would call a mot juste. Tell me I’m fastidious, but “controlling” is a hideous usage that brings to mind “hurting”, as in: “My wife being controlling, you won’t be surprised to learn that I am hurting.” This is language of the sort favoured by teenagers impatient with “controlling” parents, drunken husbands who justify their staying out all night by the need to escape “manipulative” wives. Sitcom and Sunday therapy words. Amateurish and approximate, words that lie on the surface of feeling, secular.

Try her for personation and for lying. Not for whether she is also cruel to cats

Don’t mistake me. I don’t ask Justice Sweeney to be a believer. When I complain that his vocabulary is secular, I don’t simply mean that he shows no sign of having read the Bible. I mean that you hear no echo in the language of his pronouncements of those works of literature that rival the Bible in their conception of human suffering and wrongdoing. If it is too much to ask that he remember Dante or Shakespeare when passing final judgement on a couple consigned to a hell of their joint making, let him at least remember the fate of the Lammles in Our Mutual Friend, bearing the consequences of their deception of each other “till death divorce them”; or Mrs Norris and Maria Bertram, in Jane Austen’s great retributive novel Mansfield Park, who are sent to a place “remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other, no judgement, it may reasonably be supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment”.

No judgement in the one, no affection in the other – by the lights that they have lived by will they suffer. Such is justice. It’s not condemnation or compassion we look for; it’s an adequate comprehension of what’s terrible in