LETTER from THE EDITOR

To be a victim of a terrible crime gives you passion and a special perspective - but it doesn't make a sloppy argument a good one
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The Independent Online
Who has moral authority, and why? The question is particularly interesting this week: Parliament is back, but the compelling voices have come from outside it. We report them in this paper at length, but the political classes are not greatly admired. Television offers a blurred babble of conflicting authorities, sometimes merely familiar faces. As a nation, we do not attend with marvellous attention to bishops, rabbis or ministers. Even our best writers are not turned to as sources of general wisdom - we leave that sort of behaviour to the French. In recent times, it seems that victimhood has become the one unchallengeable source of moral authority.

Frances Lawrence, widow, and the bereaved Dunblane parents, are people whose voices can calm the press, and whose arguments are treated with special respect by politicians. They have the aura. Jayne Zito, the Lockerbie relatives and those campaigners for peace in Northern Ireland who started from sudden bereavement are among other new victim-authorities.

In private, some politicians are angry about this. It is, they say, good emotional newspaper copy but bad politics: you cannot decide the rights and wrongs of proposed laws - whether they be about guns, knives or school budgets - against the backdrop of bereavement. This vigil atmosphere produces an irresistible moral blackmail that shushes argument and quells legitimate debate: witness the rare cross-party deal-making going on over legislation on stalking, paedophiles and knives.

And, of course, to be a victim of terrible crime does not make you right. It gives you passion and a special perspective but it doesn't make a sloppy argument a good one. All that said, I think victimhood is a significant and largely benign arrival in politics for one reason above all: these people are all campaigning, one way or another, against violence. MPs, and ministers in particular, are peculiarly hidden from violence. They are specially vulnerable to terrorism, and treat it with special attention. But the police guards at the Palace, the cars, the protected lives mean that ministers are, in general, in the worst position of all to understand just how frightened many Britons feel. All power to the victims!

A reader writes a personal letter expressing outrage and (so far as I can tell) genuine surprise that I have not yet been sacked for numerous failings, intellectual, moral and, no doubt, physical too. So I have been reading with particular and unhealthy fascination the pages in Andrew Neil's memoirs that refer to his eventual defenestration from Chateau Wapping. Though I don't have a Rupert Murdoch to deal with (thank God) I have been hoping to pick up the warning signs. Meanwhile, my wife has taped a cutting from an Alan Watkins column into my briefcase, underlining the words: ``being an editor is a dog's life ... they seem to come and go like fast-food operatives or Victorian housemaids.'' This is either strange humour on her part or an alarming marital heckle.

Finally, a piece of personal journalistic investigation. I have often puzzled over the significance of the live fir-trees that adorn the ornate and strange exterior of the Secret Intelligence Service building in Vauxhall, south London. Was it some obscure spies' joke? Well, no. It turns out that Lambeth Council insisted the building should have some architectural reference to the 18th-century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which were on the same site. These were known for two things above all - trees and prostitutes. So, after much consideration, they chose the trees.

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