Suffering does not fit us for law-making

What gives a Dunblane mother the right to a view on a policeman's trauma?
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The Independent Online
Today Parliament will vote on what handguns to ban. Terry Dicks MP will tell us whether the Snowdrop campaigners - the parents of Dunblane - are anything like satisfied. Only the very hard-hearted will wonder at the wisdom of this alliance between the maverick reactionary and an association of the scarred. This is the New Politics, in which the popular voice is heard and acted upon.

It certainly has very attractive elements about it. In the past couple of years, we have seen the development of new pressure groups whose common denominator is suffering. They have antecedents in the development of groups representing people who were the victims of accidents such as Hillsborough, the Marchioness and the Herald of Free Enterprise. Now we have groups representing the victims of the street: of drug-pushers and stalkers, of knives and guns.

We are bound to listen to these sufferers. But there are obvious absurdities. Ann Pearston of Snowdrop, lobbying for handgun control, was quoted yesterday as she opined on reports of legal action against the police authority by policemen who say they have been traumatised by the massacre. This, surely, is no more her business than anyone else's.

More generally, what on earth would HG Wells have made of the entire tendency? "The British masses neither rule nor want to rule. They are politically apathetic. They do not produce outstanding individuals to express their distinctive thoughts and feelings..." he wrote. "Slave revolts, peasant revolts, revolts of the proletariat have always been fits of rage, acute social fevers which have passed." Today we have moral panic.

It's true, surely, that most of us regard good government as government that requires no work from us. Equally, however, a hundred years or so of free education really ought to have a produced a society in which nearly everyone is articulate. Cassette recorders and home videos were bound to tool people up to transmit as well as receive.

It does not matter that the people campaigning necessarily lack experience. The Labour MP Tony Wright - author of Citizens and Subjects: An Essay on British Politics - robustly defends the erosion of the power of "those of us who are paid to take an interest in everything all the time". It is hardly surprising, he says, that citizens take an interest in an issue only when it crunches against their own lives: "I'm only interested in the workings of my car when it breaks down."

And it is good that the old class trench warfare of the political parties is being replaced by the sniper action and guerrilla movements of the new apolitical campaigns, which form and dissolve by the hour.

But the new groups only have a claim on our attention. They have no monopoly on the truth or even public-spiritedness. To the extent that speaking out is a form of therapy, the rest of us are free to wonder how much to listen to lines of argument which are put, not on their own merits necessarily, but as part of a process which may do the sufferer much good but the rest of us small or great harm. The campaigners and their arguments may not be wise or even particularly nice.

Paul Betts, the father of Leah, who died after taking Ecstasy a year ago last Saturday, defends not merely his right to be heard, but also the quality of what he says. "I can talk from the heart about what it is like losing a daughter, but when I talk about drugs, it's the BMJ [British Medical Journal] and specialists in hospitals that I quote." He has, in short, been on a crash course in drug-related problems. He insists, too, that his is no populist, reactionary campaign: "Our point of view is simply awareness, we've never told anybody "don't to it".'

Yet we need quietly to assert that politicians, at least politicians taken together, are wiser and nicer than the rest of us - sufferers included. It is Parliament that makes us empty our pockets to the poor. And whilst we are mostly squeamish, we are also mostly in favour of hanging as the way to produce less suffering and fewer victims, and it is parliamentarians who detect a wrongness in this solution.

Of course, in a sense Parliament was always wrong, or at any rate laggardly and reactionary. It has always defended yesterday's ordering of society and yesterday's morality. When we hear the conflict between the indignation of the new righteous and the obduracy of parliamentarians, we know who to support.

Yet we should be a little cautious. Parliament has usually been the battleground between the silent majority and the powerful minority. Now, things are more complicated, and more fluid. Martin Durham, an academic at Wolverhampton University who discusses the influence of "morality" campaigns on politics, points out that when we listen to victims we will not necessarily hear a coherent voice. He says: "The subway killing in New York produced a victim who turned Democrat because she wanted gun control, but also a Republican who argued for the right to carry concealed personal weapons for self-defence."

So someone wanting to fend off a new tyranny of the suffering would not merely have few political allies, but would not know where to seek them. Yet, oddly, at least sometimes, the sufferers are arguing against a strong majority interest. Most of us would like to be able to drink a bit more before we drive, and the evidence says that if we are middle-aged we would be unlikely to hurt anyone as we do so. Most young people would like legally to be able to smoke dope and perhaps (more ambiguously) take Ecstasy, and mostly feel them to be smaller risks than would otherwise be attractive. Few of us use handguns or combat knives, but many of us wonder whether the existence of the hardware in itself represents the source of the harm.

As Tony Wright says, even as he cheers on the New Politics: "I am against fundamentalism of any kind, whether it is about animals, drugs or guns." He adds: "Generating an engagement is wholly positive. But that doesn't mean the campaigners' policy conclusions are always right". Indeed. Parliament may need to develop listening skills but it also needs to retain its independence of judgement if we are not to fall prey to a series of single-issue moral panics.

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