Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can Liberalism Survive?

Gladstone said “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence.  Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”
The reaction to rioting over the last week has shown one thing more than any other – the majority of those aspiring to be opinion formers and leaders in this country tend towards conservatism.  Distrust of people tempered by fear seems to sum up the reactions of most politicians, journalists and Facebook pundits.  It even seems to me to have reached over into the courts.  I am not for one moment suggesting that magistrates or judges are all supporters of one political party – far from it!  But that sense of not trusting the people, being afraid of what they will do, seems to have coloured the sentences meted out this week.  A month ago someone who stole bottles of water from a shop with no previous convictions or contact with the legal system would probably have been cautioned, might have been fined, and would have gone on his way a wiser and a contrite man.  This week he’s possibly facing a custodial sentence. What has changed?  Yes, we need justice.  But we also need mercy and we need to ensure that the punishment really fits the crime.  I was impressed by one person I heard interviewed in the street by a local radio journalist.  When asked what should be done to those who caused damage and mayhem he said “Make them clean it up.  Make them pay back to the community for the damage they’ve done.”  He saw that the community didn’t benefit from these people being locked away, but they would benefit from the clean-up operation being carried out.
It’s relatively easy for me to remain a Liberal – my home wasn’t damaged or even remotely threatened.  My family are all safe.  I haven’t, as far as I know, got any direct involvement with anyone involved in any of the cities affected.  I’m not a councillor in one of those affected areas wondering what on earth I do now to start to rebuild the community.  I’m not an MP for one of those areas wondering what this is going to do to my credibility and my votes next time.  But I believe that gives me, and others like me, a responsibility – to keep Liberalism alive.  To show that trusting the people most of the time is the best way, but that in order for people to be able to respond to trust we all need to know where our  boundaries are and what our responsibilities are.  Being part of a liberal, democratic society is a two-way thing.  We all have a responsibility for making it work, for looking out for each other, lending a hand and not expecting “them” to do it all.  And sometimes we do have to be prudent – we don’t automatically trust every stranger we meet to look after our house, our children or our money without some kind of checks.  We don’t assume that everyone is a saint.  But please, don’t let us go the other way and assume everyone is a criminal with the worst possible intentions without doing some kind of check first.  And let’s not send so many people to prison for relatively small offences that we lose the ability to have proportional sentences for those who really need to be locked away from the rest of society for a very long time.

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