Saturday, 30 November 2019


The not guilty verdict in the manslaughter trial of David Duckenfield, the senior police officer in charge at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, is an example of impunity. After 27 years, nobody has faced criminal sanction for the avoidable deaths of 96 people. The trial was disfigured by the obvious sympathy of the judge for the accused and by the defence's revival of slurs against the victims that had been definitively rejected at the inquest trial in 2016. This wasn't merely bias, but a performance of contempt for those victims. Contempt is characteristic of impunity. It's not simply about letting someone off the hook. If an individual or group receives preferential treatment, then necessarily someone else must suffer a relative loss or deliberate disregard. It isn't a victimless crime, which is why examples of impunity offend our sense of natural justice. Well, that's the theory. In practice, we regularly collude in the support of impunity, and the reason we do so is that we are only too happy to side with the beneficiaries and think ill of the disregarded.

Some of this is due to propaganda, such as the notorious campaign run by the Sun newspaper in the aftermath of Hillsborough, and some of it is simply the tendency to side with the establishment and mistrust "troublemakers". But we're regularly told that we live in an era of scepticism in the face of "fake news" and widespread mistrust of that establishment. Logically, the tolerance of impunity in public life should have declined, but it appears to have increased, particularly since 2008 and the spectacle of bankers being first bailed-out and then excused. As Andy Beckett has noted, the current general election campaign has been forward-looking, with the parties' emphasis on the reinvigoration of the nation post-Brexit or the transformation of our economy in the face of a looming climate emergency, but the corollary has been a relative lack of debate about the Conservative Party's record of incompetence and sheer malice over the last decade. There has certainly been criticism of austerity, but its chief architects are not about to apologise for it and few people are pressing the case that they should.

The liberal media is attuned to this increase in impunity, but too often it couches its analysis in the conservative language of virtue. This from John Naughton is typical: "On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we're seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies." Naughton correctly points the finger of blame at "the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets", though there is an obvious omission in his charge-sheet where you'd expect to find the neoconservative adventure of the Iraq War, but while the market may have reduced formal consequentiality it doesn't explain the weakness of informal sanctions and rebuke, i.e. the court of public opinion. Blair survived criticism over Iraq to win a majority in 2005. Today we have a Prime Minister who was twice sacked for lying during his career but has continued to routinely lie. That kind of impunity requires the connivance of a lot of people.

Some have tried to explain this by a new "big lie" theory: that if people trust you on one key issue, such as the promise to "deliver Brexit", then they will excuse your serial lying and misbehaviour on other matters. But this hardly explains why Johnson enjoyed relative impunity for his misdeeds well before the day he wrote his two letters advocating and rejecting continued membership of the EU. Jonathan Freedland, who makes this big lie claim, draws a distinction between professionals and amateurs: "The implication is that while the Westminster class, journalists and rival politicians, are focused on the literal truth – accurate stats, misleading claims – voters are looking for something different from a politician. Do you mean what you say and, crucially, will you make good on it?" The idea that the politico-media class cares more about literal truth than the general population would be difficult to credit at the best of times but it's particularly hard to swallow in the midst of an election campaign marked by so many misrepresentations, not least by the BBC.

As usual with Freedland, what appears like a damning critique of Johnson turns out to be largely a dismissal of Corbyn. This is not just a reflection of his own distaste. It is a tenet of centrism that both "extremes" are as bad as each other, but that in turn means that should one pole of politics degrade, there will be a tendency to generalise the problem and damn the other pole in similar terms. In other words, the intellectual decline of the Tory party, and the increasing evidence of its incompetence, has led to an insistence that Labour must be equally bereft of ideas and capability. This takes the form of dismissing their proposals as either antiquated or implausible and belittling their frontbench as either naive or talentless (with the obvious centrist exceptions, such as Keir Starmer). Likewise, the claim that Labour has become "infected" by antisemitism under Corbyn's leadership is in part a compensation for the all too evident moral corruption of the Conservative Party since 2010. If one has promoted a hostile environment for Afro-Caribbeans, surely it's plausible that the other has promoted a hostile environment for Jews?

The cynicism of Freedland is corrosive. It suggests that truth cannot succeed against the big lie and that impunity will be extended to the liar so long as the lie is maintained. In the context of the general election campaign, this suggests that Freedland thinks the cause of remain is lost: the Liberal Democrats are a busted flush and he will never support Labour. Presumably he envisages a slow disillusionment among the wider population as reality gradually undermines the big lie of Brexit's sunlit uplands. But what the case of the Hillsborough 96 tells us is that the truth emerges quickly. The big lie - that the fans forced the Leppings Lane gate - simply couldn't survive proper investigation and was rejected as early as the Taylor report in 1989. The problem was convincing the government to pursue criminal charges, a struggle that lasted decades. I imagine this week's verdict will have made the hearts of the Grenfell campaigners sink a little, though they must already be fearing the worst given how their case has been handled to date.

Impunity is privilege but it also depends on connivance. Duckenfield and the South Yorkshire Police thought they could get away with avoiding culpability and smearing the Liverpool fans not only because of their longstanding institutional privilege but because they believed they had the unstinting support of the government following the Miners' Strike. The apparent rise in impunity in public life over the years reflects widening inequality and the associated rise in relative privilege. Boris Johnson is an extreme example of entitlement, but he is wholly representative of his class, as his own father's recent patronising comments have made clear. His indulgence by most of the media is simple connivance, and the idea that he would be brought to book by Andrew Neil is wishful thinking (Neil's loaded question technique prompts evasion in those who value honesty but it's less effective if the interviewee is happy to lie). His refusal to submit to a grilling is not cowardice alone but the display of his privilege. That the BBC has thrown in the towel today shows that his expectation of deference was well-founded.


  1. «Blair survived criticism over Iraq to win a majority in 2005. Today we have a Prime Minister who was twice sacked for lying during his career but has continued to routinely lie. That kind of impunity requires the connivance of a lot of people.»

    Those people are easy to identify: millions of voters, who have a "button issue" of big yearly southern property profits from rising rents and booming prices. As long as they cash in the typical £30,000-£40,000/year for a 2bed flat or terrace house, which nearly double their income, they will never vote against whoever delivers that, that money is absolutely vital to maintain the lifestyles they entitled themselves to.

    This is easiest to see in the absolute number of votes for New Labour from 1992 to 2010: landlide for John Major as prices had been booming and the 1990s crash had not bitten them, landslide polls for John Smith as soon as the 1990s crash screwed them, landslide victory inherited by Tony Blair for 1997, and then a fall of 5 million votes since, without a corresponding increase in the Conservative vote, as those who benefited from big price increases did not dare to vote against New Labour, and either abstained or wasted their voted on the LibDems.

    In 2010 voters crushed New Labour's vote because they let another house price crash happen, and did not give the Conservatives a majority as many still remembered the 1990s crash; in 2015 prices were booming again, and the Conservatives got a majority, and in 2017 a massive surge for the Conservatives as prices were doing quite well. Today many voters know well that Johnson is a champion of booming property prices, and love him, and could care less about anything else.

    What right-wing parties discovered in the 1970 and confirmed in the 1980s is that property owning voters are entirely obsessed with property gain and will give a blank cheque to governments that deliver them, after all £30,000-£40,000 per year of redistributed money is a very big deal for middle income families.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment2 December 2019 at 19:34

    The truth is even more depressing than Blissex assumes.

    I remember when that boy died in the med some years ago and all i heard from the left was, this will change everything. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry!

    In reality Blair won because no one gave a second thought to the dark skinned victims of Blairs imperialist war. If a trillion dark skinned people were slaughtered it wouldn't register in the imperialist centre, unless of course it led to the shelves at Primark being emptied, then they would get all hot and bothered and claim the government were a disgrace.

    A jury can only be a reflection of the general prejudice, and it is no surprise this verdict was returned.

    So whats the answer to this? Bloody violence I am afraid.

    But I think we should attack elements of the far left in their outlook, and not just the illiberals (or liberals as they are sometimes referred). I mean unless you are proposing abolishing capitalism and moving away from it then don't talk about billionaires or attacks on labour. Capitalism cannot exist without billionaires and most certainly cannot exist without labour being heavily disciplined, to the point of being in debt bondage.

    Attacking billionaires and improving conditions without removing capitalism is a fools errand and even owrse leaves workers with 2 main lessons: we need billionaires and we need labour discipline!

    1. Is your screen name an attack on car culture? I'm guessing that you choose to personify it as "Herbie" (ie the Volkswagen Beetle) because not only was that vehicle intended to bring motoring to the masses (as shown by the very coinage "Volkswagen" – meaning "People's Car") but it was also originally a creation of the Third Reich.

      I guess it makes a lot of sense for an open-borders extremist such as yourself to hate car culture, because time wasted in traffic jams was probably a big factor in Britons' belief that they were living in an overpopulated country (which was of course a big driver of the vote for Brexit: perhaps big cities tended to vote Remain in part because their residents were less dependent on cars?)

      And we don't need to go to a centrally-planned economy (which wouldn't work anyway except in pursuit of a very specific short term objective, like winning a world war) to deal with destructive inequality. We merely need to deal with the monopolies that permit such wealth concentration, either by breaking them up, or by taxing away their economic rents following the example of Henry George.

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment7 December 2019 at 13:10

    “Is your screen name an attack on car culture?”

    More the wanton damage to the planet and an attack on Hollywood’s anthropomorphism and infantilism, so Herbie Goes bananas, whereas in reality Herbie Destroys the Environment. Or if you are charitable, Herbie makes moving from a to b much more convenient.

    Incidentally it has nothing to do with bringing cars to the masses or its links with the Third Reich.

    Not hard to fathom really.

    “I guess it makes a lot of sense for an open-borders extremist such as yourself to hate car culture”

    You really must point me to the quotes that show this! I am with Friedrich Engels on this, capitalism creates mass social dumping, leading to a number of issues. Is open borders the answer? No ending capitalism is.

    “because time wasted in traffic jams was probably a big factor in Britons' belief that they were living in an overpopulated country”

    The use of the term was probably here indicates you have done no research to justify this assertion. So your belief that my concern for car culture can be linked to my open border extremism via traffic jams is off the mark somewhat.

    “which was of course a big driver of the vote for Brexit:”

    I don’t think people sitting in traffic jams was a factor Brexit, just for the record.

    “We merely need to deal with the monopolies that permit such wealth concentration, either by breaking them up, or by taxing away their economic rents following the example of Henry “

    Ok let’s say we took the wealth of the 100 richest people on Earth and spread it among everyone else. What would we be left with? Maybe a brick each and lots of fictitious wealth. Your redistribution idea would simply expose the fact that the staggering wealth of the ruling class is simply a social relation which keeps these people in astonishing luxury and gives them immense power but actually is built on an illusion.

    You simply don’t understand the true nature of inequality, the true nature of capitalism and the actual social questions facing the future society.

    It isn’t really about the 1% or the billionaires, it is going to be about how humans organise themselves in society and in my view the changes required are far more fundamental than getting a brick each of the billionaire class.