The other day Channel 4 News gave serious scrutiny to Private Eye’s contention that, while 0.13 per cent of the population is currently in prison, the percentage for members of the last House of Commons in the same situation now stands at 0.16 per cent.
The report came up with a few quibbles over who had completed their sentence and who was still inside. But once the Conservative Lord Taylor and his more recent court judgment were taken into account, they concluded, it was indeed true that parliamentarians from both Houses are more than twice as likely to go to prison than the man in the street.
How things have changed since I first landed on Britain’s shores in October 1949, sixty-two years ago. I was a boy of eighteen, arriving as a student, hungry for learning and determined to make a success of my life.
The picture of Britain that I had then was very different from what I see around me today. The aftermath of the Blitz and the ravages of war were evident everywhere, particularly in London and other major cities. As the British dealt with continuing shortages and post-war rationing, the indomitable spirit and camaraderie that could be found in society at every level were a joy to behold.
This instilled in me the view that the British were a civilised and sympathetic nation. It was a corrective to my former experience of them as a colonial power under pressure in Palestine, attempting with little success to extract themselves smoothly from deteriorating hostilities between Jewish and Arab interests and sometimes seeming to strike out arbitrarily in all directions.
Clearly the colonisation policies of the British government did not reflect the characteristics of the British as individuals in their own country.
In politics there was an expectation that those who entered into public service, whatever their party affiliations, were people of integrity. Of course, there was always the odd rogue trying to milk the system, but there was never any assumption that it was somehow within their unwritten rights to do so.
The extent to which this has changed was beyond imagining from the earlier perspective. Today there is a public suspicion that those politicians who go to prison also represent a good few others who have got away with it. Lord Taylor is reported as having said he was advised by fellow peers that he would be mad not to make the fraudulent expenses claims that led to his conviction.
This is just one example of how I have seen many of the things I admired about Britain slowly erode in recent years, and those qualities that made us the envy of the world undergo a transformation. Often these changes have been justified as steps in the right direction, but many of them have turned out to be quite the reverse through being open to abuse.
Along with our moral standing in the world, our cultural heritage has been sacrificed on the alter of greed, with the closure of libraries and an education system under attack from cuts when it is already producing alarmingly high rates of illiteracy among the country’s youth.
Money and the getting of it has become an obsession that excludes all other values. Mrs Thatcher unleashed this particular ethos, and New Labour, under Tony Blair, not only emulated her policies, but took them even further.
The divide between rich and poor has continued to widen, with no sign of abatement.
Free speech has been curtailed, with ‘political correctness’ becoming an insidious influence in legislation that has turned the nation into a ‘Big Brother’ regime. The privacy laws in the UK seem to have given judges the right to gag the press and support those with wealth and celebrity status who can use the law to buy privileged protection to prevent their misdeeds and peccadilloes being publicly aired.
A first principle seems to have been lost sight of; namely, that all should be equal under the eye of the law.
Are some of our judges getting too soft in the head in their old age, losing the knack of differentiating between right and wrong? International celebrities are using the English courts as a recourse to stifle debate about their lives. Even multinational companies are able to use them to bend scientific arguments about certain products in their favour, so that researchers are inhibited from speaking out if they have doubts over the claims being made for fear they could face a crippling lawsuit.
Under our libel laws, people with wealth are able to stifle free speech. How can it be right for a rich individual to take proceedings in the United Kingdom against a publisher for a book he has published, while the same publication is available in the United States, where it is immune from any such action?
A major reform in our judiciary is certainly badly needed, along with a rethink of certain elements of political correctness. We need to educate the nation to become more tolerant, rather than force it to accept a mishmash of legislation that restricts or represses free discourse instead of working by persuasion.
Sexual freedom is another area worth reflecting on. It should not compel compliance from those whose religious convictions make an aspect of legislation unacceptable.
Tolerance and respect should work both ways.
There is a pressure now on everyone to be wary of giving honest expression to their inner thoughts, for fear they be unjustly labelled. To make a genuine and valid criticism of Israel, for instance, is to unleash a storm of abuse and accusations of anti-Semitism; the consequence being that the whole subject becomes taboo and starved of the openness of debate it needs if the problems in the Holy Land are ever to move towards resolution.
The aspect I continue to find most preposterous in all of this, however, is the way the establishment rewards failure. In business those who have caused great harm to the economy, and bankrupted many an individual as a result, are given higher jobs than they had previously. In some cases, including those of politicians, they are rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords.
Stuffing the Lords with mediocrities can only demean it as an institution. Honours should be given according to merit, but if we look behind appointments to the Lords in recent years we all too often find that there has been a generous donation made to the funds of one party or another somewhere along the line.
It seems typical of the oblique moral corruption that underlies so many levels in our public life. No wonder our sense of humour has steadily seemed to desert us.
I love living in Britain, and would not live anywhere else by choice. But I am nervous for the future.
We must revert to the old, august traditions of fair play and free speech, and cease rewarding those who are not worthy of it. The best legacy we can leave to future generations will be to make Britain great again, and a role model for the world at large. This does not mean a return to old imperialist attitudes, but it does mean outlasting the long shadows of Mrs Thatcher’s politics of doing the unthinkable, which proved to be such a Pandora’s box of unwanted consequences.
A Britain that is great in the future must also be a caring Britain. To try to claim this is a luxury we cannot afford in the present stringent economic climate would be the biggest mistake possible.