Friday, January 13, 2006

Pragmatism over Principle

There's been a lot of fuss in the blogosphere (sorry, there must be a better word) about Neil's defence of Tony Blair's planned extension of summary powers, much of it expressed in rather heated language. The comments to Neil's post are worth reading to get a flavour of it. I strongly disagree with Neil's view but I'll attempt to keep this polite. We are British, for goodness sake.

Neil argues, perhaps not surprisingly for a New Labour supporter, that we should abandon principle in favour of what works. In his hypothetical example, this means confiscating £10,000 from anyone who can't prove that they have a legitimate reason for carrying it. They are probably a criminal after all. This figure is, in fact, slightly misleading as it's actually £1,000 or more which Blair wants to confiscate in this way.

The principled objections to this approach have been well covered. Neil, alas, doesn't seem to get it. My hypotheticals probaby won't help but here they are anyway.

Number 1
Black, hoody wearing 20-something approaches police officers.
"Would you mind emptying your pockets please sir?"
"On what grounds?"
"Empty your pockets. What are you hiding?"
"Nothing. Look for yourself."
"What's are you doing with £1,000 on your possession?"
"I was going to buy a second hand car but I decided I didn't like it, not that it's any of your business."
"Can you prove that?"
"I've got the sellers telephone number."
"Very good sir. And you expect us to believe that, do you? We'll be having that money thank you very much."
"But, but I've just passed my test and that's the money for my new car..."
"Tell that to the judge when your appeal gets heard, sunshine."
You can always appeal against this summary justice, you see. Most comforting.

Number 2
White smartly dressed 20-something approaches police officers.
"Evening officers."
"Evening sir. Mind how you go, won't you? There are dangerous people about tonight."
"Thanks officers, I will."
That's justice in action.

Anyway, leaving aside the principles (I know, I know, but just for the purposes of this rather odd debate), will it actually work? In what way will confiscating money in this way actually reduce the number of drug deals being done on our streets? The confiscatee is not detained and is free to go about his business, whatever that might be. If he is a drug dealer, will the loss of this money make him say "you know what, this is a mugs game"? Or will it make him say "crap, I'm a bit strapped now, I'd better get a big stock in for next month to make up the shortfall"? Be serious for a minute, for crying out loud. Of course they're not going to be deterred. They'll just consider it another part of the "risk" to their business and try to compensate for it to the best of their twisted abilities.

Of course, the police might catch them at it at some later day and put a proper stop to it but doesn't that negate the whole point of this "pragmatic" new proposal? Why not just do it properly the first time round and get the guy off the street?

Confiscating money in this way might have some small financial advantage for the government but it won't reduce anti-social behaviour. To do that, you need proper, thought through policies, not cheap gimmicks designed to "reassure" the public that something is being done. And when those gimmicks also undermine the fundamental principles of the rule of law, well, the fact that they are even being considered is extremely worrying.

Tags: , , , , *

* This tag is the one I use to categorise many New Labour policies. It's not a reference to Neil. I'm big on politeness to real people, even if I strongly disagree with their opinions. Politicians, on the other hand, deserve everything they get.

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