Call a truce in the battle over law and order

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The Independent Online

Consensus politics is horrid. Bring back socialism, trade union power and the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In the glory days of the old left-and-right politics, it was possible to ensure that the electorate was able to make real choices on big-picture issues.

With clear blue water on economic issues between the parties, neither sought to challenge the generally accepted consensus on historic rights such as trial by jury and innocent if found "not guilty". The Conservatives will rue the day that Margaret Thatcher, as promised, successfully rid the Labour Party of socialism. All that is left, as a result, is for William Hague and his colleagues to find ever more unusual methods of creating unnecessary divisions between the Government and the Opposition. Law and order is now the only battle-cry that substantially differentiates the two parties and seems to resonate with a public ever more apathetic and unable to distinguish between the parties.

This week sees another ratcheting-up of the bogus bid for votes, as Jack Straw and William Hague battle it out for yet another round in the "who can be nastier to criminals" grudge match. Both are set to outdo each other as they prepare to meet the Police Federation at its annual conference this week.

It is easy to understand why Mr Hague thinks that he is on to a winner after his gains during the recent local elections after appealing to the baser voter instincts on asylum-seekers, immigration and crime. He is certainly right to draw attention to these issues, and no one should blame an opposition leader for trying his luck with the public, who believe they are in constant danger of being mugged or burgled.

Taken in isolation, each of these attempts to harness public support does appear to have some merit. The problem is, however, that when these Conservative policies are added together, they seek to reinforce an image of hard-line right-wing attitudes that may actually be an unfair representation of the Conservatives' general stance. Mr Hague is driven by a desire to put himself outside the "liberal establishment" and he regards it as a triumph when commentators attack his more right-wing policies. To some extent I sympathise with his delight at upsetting the liberal consensus. The more politicians are attacked by the mainstream media commentators, the more likely it is that they are reaching out to a large group of voters who feel alienated from the political process.

Tony Blair's problem is that he is, in fact, a classic establishment figure and, for all his populist skills at reading public opinion, he hates being on the receiving end of criticism from the modern equivalent of the ruling elites. His desire to go to the wall in support of Jack Straw's proposals to end the automatic right to a jury trial is motivated by an appeal to the forces of conservatism in order to outdo the Opposition on its traditional solid ground as the party of law and order. Fortunately Mr Hague is, rightly, promising a battle royal against the Prime Minister on this fundamental departure from an historic right which has made this country a beacon of natural justice down the ages.

Regrettably, however, Mr Blair's disgraceful stance on this issue has directly led to the opposition leader finding other law-and-order issues which are just as stomach-churning in their own illiberal consequences. The latest proposal, to be announced by Mr Hague at the Police Federation conference, is to end the "double jeopardy" principle which states that no one can be tried, twice, for the same offence.

On the face of it, the proposal has some merit and would, its supporters claim, ensure that the alleged murderers of Stephen Lawrence ended up back in court if new evidence was subsequently uncovered. Mr Hague's supporters say that he is merely articulating suggestions made last year, by the Law Commission.

Somehow, though, I have the feeling that Mr Hague is simply engaging in political window dressing and there would be an outcry if there were any realistic prospect of the proposal being enacted. When we mess with the fundamental principles of our judicial system we are far more likely to uncover nasty creepy crawlies we did not initially imagine. Suppose that the jury had acquitted Tony Martin in the recent case in Norfolk. Consider the furore there would have been, subsequently, if the police uncovered evidence that for all the use of the gun in "self-defence", they were able to establish new evidence that the killing of the teenage burglar by Martin turned out to be "pre-meditated" after all. This would then have involved a second trial with even more uproar than occurred last month.

There are already too many examples of police failing in the proper presentation of evidence, leading to acquittals of criminals who are probably guilty. If the police are given fresh licence, after an acquittal, to seek new evidence because they are angry at a jury's verdict, they will be driven to even more time-wasting in order to "get even" with a jury.

It is time for both party leaders to call a truce on law and order, although I suspect that with the next general election campaign now, effectively, under way this is a vain hope. So often the public appetite has been whetted only to be disappointed later. In the early Eighties the solution was seen to be the restoration of capital punishment. We spent hours before the 1983 general election quizzing Conservative prospective candidates, at selection committees, on their views on the death penalty.

It was virtually impossible to be selected unless a commitment was given to support the re-introduction of hanging. Nearly every one of the current crop of Conservative MPs was originally chosen partly because of their views on hanging. Every couple of years we had a ritual debate and vote in the Commons where everyone knew that nothing would change. We fed appetites that, thank goodness, could not be satisfied and we then looked pretty silly when we had to face our electors who thought we had betrayed their trust and who then became even more disillusioned.

Mr Hague and Mr Straw know, in their hearts, that their various wheezes to outbid each other on the crime, law and order game will make not a jot of difference in the long run. Mr Hague talks tough, but if he ever got anywhere near power he would find his own law officers would eventually come up with a million reasons why his proposals for re-trials are simply unworkable. Within a short space of time he would have the same accusations of tough talk but no action levelled at him which has been the fate of every Government in modern times.

The Straw and Hague styles are not very dissimilar. Both appear to have arrived at their policies via the wretched focus groups. "How will this play in the tabloids?" seems to be the basis on which they operate. The justice, fairness or even the practical workability of their proposals appears to take second place. The dumbing down of politics is the only logical outcome followed by disappointment by the electors when the policies don't work. The only eventual consequence will be even more apathy.