Thursday, December 06, 2012

Scottish Civic Nationalism's Great Criminal Legal Aid Fiasco

By provoking solicitors, possibly the most conservative of all professions, into industrial action in the form of boycotting court sittings, Kenny MacAskill, aka 'The Copfighter-General', 'Justice Secretary' in the kitsch Cabinet of the soi-disant, ersatz 'Scottish Government', seems to have made a stunning botch of the whole criminal Legal Aid thing; a botch for connoisseurs of botches to savour. 

That no contribution is payable towards the provision of Legal Aid by an accused person is one of the few very few absolute goods contained within the criminal law of Scotland, and in my view my former professional brethren were absolutely right to take a form of action that many of them would have found extremely distasteful. They are not all shysters, hucksters, Billy Flynn types. Many of these men and women actually do care about niceties like the presumption of innocence, and the rule of law, and that the freedom of legal process from state interference is an absolute safeguard against the advance of tyranny, regardless of its accent. Whenever it commences a prosecution in Scotland the Crown is backed by the limitless resources of the state, while an accused person must seek the permission of the same state, through its agent the Scottish Legal Aid Board, to obtain reports which may be critical to the success of his defence. MacAskill wanted to encroach even further on to the accused's right to a defence and require that any accused person with a disposable income in excess of £68.00 per week be required to contribute to the cost of that defence (one presumes that he does not do his own shopping, nor has had to buy nappies for some time). 

Not being one of life's natural poker players, it seems he's blinked on that one and raised his offer to £82.00 per week; a difference of two pounds a day, far less than what I understand to be the minimum mobile phone top-up of £5.00, but worth approximately the same as two 'Boost' bars and one copy of the 'Daily Mail'. That is just about all that you can buy consistently, on a daily basis, with fourteen extra pounds per week, what you can spend two pounds buying every day; two 'Boost' bars and a 'Daily Mail'. Ten cigarettes now cost in excess of three pounds, while one bottle of beer, depending on the off-licence you buy it in, is about £1.10 - £1.20, and the cheapest quarter bottle of wine I've seen recently was on offer at £1.50; and at that price, I wouldn't use it for mouthwash, the smallest bottle of which I've seen comes in at £2.00, and at that price you put it into your mouth with a pipette. Somehow, MacAskill's apparent magnanimity does not seem to represent the proudest moment in the history of the Scottish Government.

To push your country's lawyers into a position whereby they feel they have no option but to boycott the courts is the sort of thing one might expect to hear of happening in societies suffering existential distress; The Lawyers' Movement, those very brave lawyers who stood up to be counted in Pakistan in 2007, are the most famous example of the breed, but their colleagues in Egypt have also taken action, and now even Egypt's highest court is getting in on the act. It's timely to remember MacAskill assumed office in 2007, and during his tenure what is to my mind the extremely authoritarian character of the criminal justice policies favoured by the Scottish civic nationalists, whoever they are, has become clear, and one is filled with foreboding about the type of society we would have to endure were we to live in a Scotland divided from the Union and governed according to the principles of Scottish civic nationalism, whatever that is. Double jeopardy, that oldest of safeguards against persecution masquerading as process, has been abolished. Scotland's separate police services have been consolidated and centralised, a move advertised as being necessary on the grounds of economy but one which in practical terms would enable a malign, ill-intentioned executive to exercise greater political control over the police - why deal with eight Chief Constables when you can ensure you only have to deal with one? It has been suggested that the requirement for corroboration be abolished, presumably to assist in prosecutions for domestic violence, an area of criminal law already electrically charged (that genuine domestic violence happens is beyond dispute, I have had to advise too many women crying from blackened eyes to think otherwise: wherever it genuinely happens it must be prosecuted, something the law isn't good enough at yet, and whether it ever can be is a whole different can of worms: yet I'm always a little wary of pushing it to the front of the policy agenda, so directly in your face that husbands and wives feel restrained in their interactions with each other, the threat of being reported for domestic violence acting as an impediment to exchanges of views; there is no easier way for a malign, ill-intentioned executive to criminalise marriage, to make the sexes wary of each other and impede the development of loving and fruitful relationships, to isolate people from each other completely, than to turn married people into criminals).

My own view, one I've probably repeated quite often, is that it would be a Scotland in which the only acceptable views on Scotland and the Scots would be those sanctioned by Scottish civic nationalists. In that respect, Scotland would become in the early twenty-first century what the Republic of Ireland became in the early twentieth - a small, oligarchic society in which both nation and nationality became objects of inordinate pride, leading many of its nationals to become fixed on where they had come from instead of where they were going to, the only available perspective very quickly becoming the one offered by the rearview mirror, leading in time to its nationals evolving an extreme sensitivity to criticism of the nation even when they reside elsewhere. It is that aspect of recent Irish history, not the false prosperity of the paper-fuelled paper Celtic Tiger era, that offers Scotland and the Scots real lessons, and very solemn, very grave warnings, on what can happen when militant nationalists seize control of the mechanisms of cultural and educational formation.

All of these guys, wherever they are found, are extremely authoritarian, and our mob are no different. By continuing to style himself 'First Minister' and not 'Prime Minister', I believe, I think, that Alexander Salmond, Tartanissimo of the whole damned crew, is engaging in a gigantic act of intellectual dishonesty; if he leads a Scottish Government and not a Scottish Executive, and if the members of his kitsch Cabinet are Secretaries and not Ministers, why then does he think Scotland does not deserve a Prime Minister and should make do with a First Minister, and why does he not then style himself Prime Minister accordingly? Why does he, of all people, persist in the use of what I presume he believes to be the Unionist style of 'First Minister' used by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell? Why does he choose to use the same title they used? Is it because he prefers the title 'First Minister'? Or is it an act of the coldest possible political calculation, a deliberate recognition that his adoption of the title of 'Prime Minister', one that would be absolutely intellectually consistent with his faction's other tinkering with titles, would be a step too far for far too many Scots to take? 

If he's already had the business cards printed with a view to handing them out in 2014, I hope he's kept the receipt. The future of Scotland and the Scots is far too important, far too precious, a thing for it to become the plaything of a very small group of very authoritarian people who, in my opinion, seem far more motivated by the chance that the end of the Union would bring opportunities for them to be photographed on the world stage than in actually improving the cultural and economic life of the nation. That Alex Salmond might get the chance to address the UN General Assembly as Prime Minister of Scotland is not in itself a prospect worth dividing the Union for. 

Yet none of this will help MacAskill, the former solicitor who drove the staid solicitors of Scotland to the barricades, solve the problem of the criminal legal aid budget. I do not wish him well in his pursuit of a solution to his perceived problem, if only because justice will suffer from the imposition of any solution he might care to impose. He has driven the solicitors of Scotland to the type of action that their colleagues in other lands have felt the need to take when faced with tyranny and official lawlessness - and it is depressing to realise that the irony of this will probably be lost on him. As the executives in Egypt and Pakistan drove their lawyers to strike, so our executive here in Scotland has now driven our lawyers to strike; and no matter what, I hope it stays in the historical record. Depending on who's writing it, I wouldn't be so sure.

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