Although we are a family of fairly avid readers, other than a few coffee-table staples, books do not feature in our living room. Well-leafed and generally abused volumes are neatly filed on bookshelves in bedrooms and on our upstairs landing, or unceremoniously dumped in unlikely corners of the house (I stumbled on a haphazard pile on the staircase to the roof the other day). Some authors are more popular than others but we rarely sport a full set. We have all read the Complete Juvenile Works of JK Rowling (including The Tales of Beedle the Bard) but would be hard pressed to lay hands on more than two installments, both of which are by now missing critical narrative. Dickens, Austen, Le Carré and PD James are well represented in various fonts and sizes. But, perhaps our most preserved set, neatly placed above our youngest son’s desk, is Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories.
Now, I am sure Mr Deary would not consider it libelous were I to state that this is not great literature. In fact, I am not sure it passes as literature at all. With titles like “The Terrible Tudors” and “The Even More Terrible Tudors”, the illustration packed volumes tell us, in graphically comic detail, just how horrible life was in the bad old days – pretty horribly.
Reading (or, to be more precise, leafing through) the Horrible Histories, it is easy to be lulled into complacency about the present.
I am beginning to think that the world is not quite as nice a place as I would like to think it is. To be clear, when I say “world”, I do not mean the majority of the 200 or so countries that constitute that carbuncle on the face of modern civilization, the United Nations. One day, when those rogue nations are free-speech toting liberal democracies, Mr Deary will be able to make another fortune writing their Horrible Histories. I am referring to cosy countries like yours and mine that think they are approaching the final synthesis in the Hegelian dialectic when all households will have at least one TV in every toilet.
To be even clearer, I am also not referring to the horrendous actions of individuals and organized groups. There will always be outliers in every sphere of society. It is western governments that are the problem. They have become very good at repackaging old nasties in inoffensive euphemisms and glossy camouflage. And if we, the silent majority, do not watch out – they will get away with it.
Take torture, for example. The activities at such sunny resorts as Guantanamo Bay are regularly referred to as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, which sounds like a project undertaken by a management consultancy firm. Even the mention of Waterboarding gets me humming Beach Boy tunes rather than thinking of medieval Ducking Stools.
Even our own tax world has its fair share of practices cleaned and rebooted from yesteryear.
There was the 504 year sentence handed down last year to a Greek tax miscreant. Apart from the absurdity of a sentence that cannot possibly be served, what possesses any modern system to deprive a man of his freedom for all eternity for a crime that did not involve the taking of another life. We all (other than many of the members of that august institution, the United Nations) are appalled by stories from more than 200 years back of young men being hanged for stealing sheep. To all intents and purposes, there is not a colossal difference.
And what about the award of $104 million that the IRS made last September to a single Whistleblower in the UBS case? The first thing that came into my mind when I read the story was W F Yeames’s painting of a Parliamentarian’s interrogation of two young children in the English Civil War, as he tries to establish the whereabouts of their father. If there was one quality rammed into me by the British school system it was the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not sneak”. Honour among thieves was a real value and we would have rather faced the stick than split on our schoolmates. To be fair, teachers expected and respected that behaviour and often punished the snotrags that “told tales” (mind you, it didn’t stop the bloody sadists using the stick anyway). Waterboarding, at least has the possible justification that its use might save many lives. What is the IRS’s excuse?
Then, a few short weeks ago, none other than Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for the second time in less than 6 months, published on Flickr mug shots of the 32 “Top Tax Criminals of 2012” . When I was a kid, I used to pass a big blue plaque every day in our local high street that read “On this site stood the Parish Cage or Lock-up”. My (incorrect) assumption throughout my childhood was that this was the site of the local Stocks, where petty criminals would have their heads, hands and feet secured, allowing passers-by to take free aim with eggs and tomatoes from the nearby Tesco’s that had passed their sell-by dates. I actually had a taste of this as a young (innocent) adult. In charge of a children’s summer camp one rainy August, my team organized a Summer Fare. One of the star activities was throwing anything that went mushy on impact at yours truly tied helplessly to a chair.
Publishing the photos is the same concept of public humiliation that I thought had gone out with the Stocks and Public Executions outside Newgate in the 19th century. What is more, all but one of the wretched cons are behind bars already serving out their sentences and they are unlikely to be seen around town for some time to come. So what was achieved?
There is one thing, though, that can be said in favour of the British system. Publishing the photos HMRC announced that they were serving a collective 155 years and 10 months in prison. Had this been been Greece, that wouldn’t have even covered the third off for good behaviour of a single one of them.
I am not an anarchist. I passionately believe that people should not be allowed to break the law with impunity. However, the punishment should fit the crime. Furthermore, governments should think about the negative effects on society as a whole of efficient but, essentially unethical, laws and practices. There has been a lot of publicity recently about the outrage of the British Parliament over the tax practices of US multinationals. As I reported a few weeks back, Margaret Hodge – who led a Parliamentary investigation – told the representatives of Google, Amazon and Starbucks: “We are not accusing you of being illegal, we are accusing you of being immoral”. I suggest you get your own House in order first, dear.