Leading Article: Justice is justice, even 80 years late

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.