Leading Article: Justice is justice, even 80 years late

Share
Related Topics
PEOPLE'S TRUST in their system of government waxes and wanes - though there has, it's true, been more of the latter recently than the former, which is one good reason Labour should, with the Liberal Democrats' support, press on with the agenda of constitutional change and renewal. Yet, while we are suspicious of politicians, we still have an impressive faith in the ability of the state to deliver justice, especially by reopening and reviewing cases where people intensely feel an injustice has been done.

The passion of the Lawrence family, so cruelly let down by the criminal justice system; the determination of the Hillsborough victims' relatives; the anger (and puzzlement) of those deprived of a loved one by CJD - there is no guarantee that state inquiries after the event will answer all the questions raised in these cases, or heal the emotional wounds. But the process of truth-seeking and, where appropriate, of blaming, can have useful healing properties. There are those who say the British constitution in its unwritten state is really a matter of proper procedure - outcomes matter less than the fact of fair dealings. Certainly, such inquiries into failed procedure must be conducted by people who are above every suspicion. The Lawrence family's misgivings about the lawyers involved in the investigation of why Stephen's killers were not brought to justice must be quietened, by a change of personnel if necessary.

It is in a similar spirit that we think the request for a general pardon by relatives of British soliders shot for cowardice during the First World War should be met. Their argument is based partly on this point about procedure. Due process, even by the standards of a British Army at war, was not always observed; relevant evidence was not always presented; the circumstances of the Front were not taken into account. Because trials were faulty, the results were unjust. The men's descendants make another point, too. Cowardice in the trenches was not a moral deficiency but (we might nowadays be tempted to say) an almost rational response to horror; many of the men were suffering almost unimaginable torment in an industrial- scale charnel house.

Their execution cast a stain on individual soldiers, their families and those who remember them. In opposition, Labour, including the armed forces minister himself, seemed to accept the need to wipe it clean. A number of MPs, some of them now in the Cabinet, voted for a general pardon. They were right then. Now they are wrong if - as reports suggest - they are backsliding and having second thoughts.

Of course it is going to be difficult to disinter every case, however accurate the remaining paperwork; of course not every verdict was faulty - there is an offence of cowardice in the face of the enemy and not every desertion is justified by circumstance or medical condition. Yet there are two good reasons for a pardon, one specific to the First World War, one more general. There is something special about the place of that conflict in our culture and collective memory. Lately the revisionists have been making progress among professional historians. Scholars are now saying the British Army in France and Flanders were not lions led by donkeys, but lions led by lions; that many general officers (who suffered and died, too) were heroes and talented military tacticians. None the less, Joan Littlewood has the best tunes, still. The war is remembered as a conflict based on class, an episode in which ordinary people were sent to their death in hecatombs because this was not, in the way the Second World War was, a democratic and popular conflict. A general pardon would recognise the way this war continues to be perceived and go some way to pacifying the still lively sense that it was an especially horrible war.

A pardon would not imply that the officers involved in sentencing soldiers to death were evil men or even that the decisions they made in military courts were "wrong". We must all be relativists, to the extent that we recognise people behave in the circumstances they are given, or are allowed to make. But we are only relative relativists. We have to believe there are universal standards of right conduct which exist outside of time, for without such a scale we lack the means to adjudge that unique event, the Holocaust.

Besides we are not relativist about our own moral climate. To pardon those men shot in the 1914-1918 War would answer a contemporary perception about government. If Labour ministers cared only for their own skins, they would realise refusing a pardon is a passport to unpopularity. They should, however, reflect on the broader case for sticking to their earlier support. Their potency as an administration depends on people seeing government as a set of fair procedures, which are able to correct themselves when mistakes are made. That includes mistakes made over the killing of a black youngster on the streets of London. And it includes mistakes made eighty years ago.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions