The age of criminal culpability varies from one country to another.
For example, in 35 American states it’s as young as seven. That, however, is deemed too old for South Carolina, where it is six.
In Germany and Austria, no one under the age of 14 can be held criminally responsible. In the UK, where on this evidence children mature earlier, the cut-off point is 10.
I am sure legislators in all those places can argue in favour of their laws cogently and persuasively. So much so that I shan’t even attempt to take them on.
But let’s shift the argument from criminal to intellectual culpability. At what age do people become fully responsible for their views?
The question isn’t purely academic. For we’ve been trained to go over politicians’ biographies with a fine-toothed comb, looking for objectionable things they said or did in their young age.
Fine. But how young is too young to be held accountable for one’s past indiscretions? I suggest we approach this problem in the spirit distilled, in equal measure, from forgiveness and realism.
For example, I’ve read in the paper today that Liz Truss, soon likely to be our new PM, campaigned to abolish the royal family in1994. She made a fiery speech to that effect at the conference of the LibDem Party to which she then belonged.
The article didn’t mention her preferred method of abolition. Since I am too lazy to look up the actual speech, I’m prepared to give Miss Truss the benefit of the doubt and allow that she didn’t advocate regicide.
Still, even less violent manifestations of republicanism ought to disqualify her from holding any office in the Tory Party, and certainly that of its leader. Unless, of course, she was under the age of intellectual culpability.
To Wikipedia I go, where I find that Miss Truss was a 19-year-old Oxford student at the time. She went on to join the Conservative Party upon graduation in 1996 and has remained within its ranks ever since.
Now, think of yourself at 19. Did you hold a few unsound ideas at that age? How many of them do you still hold? My own self-respect is too brittle to indulge in this kind of retrospective self-analysis.
Those few ideas I do remember advocating at that age are making me blush even as we speak. Everything I then understood about the world could have fit into one book – of matches.
This gets Liz Truss off that particular hook, as far as I’m concerned. When I was the age she is now, 47, I had long since got rid of most of my stupid ideas. Hence I’m prepared to forgive her subversive republicanism, a crime committed before she reached the age of intellectual culpability.
Our brains don’t even get wired properly until a couple of years on either side of 25. This biological fact should dispose us to charitable leniency – but also to merciless denunciation of silly or wicked ideas surviving into a later stage in life.
Thus Miss Truss, already an accomplished politician, was 40 when she campaigned for Remain. I argued against it at such length then that I’d be too bored to repeat myself now. Suffice it to say that, whatever you may think of the intrinsic merits or demerits of the Remain position, it’s certainly not conservative – nor even Conservative.
In fact, it’s an implicit paraphrase of the same republican cause that Liz advocated with such vigour as a hormone-laden lass. For, should Britain belong to a single European state (which is what the EU will become or die in the attempt), there would be no legal distinction between Liz Truss and Liz Windsor.
Both would be socially and politically equal citizens of the EU, endowed with the same nebulous rights and charged with the same onerous duties. Again, whatever you may think of such a development, it definitely represents the kind of constitutional sabotage that no real Tory can possibly countenance.
Once Brexit prevailed, Miss Truss jumped on that bandwagon, but is she entitled to a free ride on having changed her views so radically? I’m not so sure. Feeling uncharacteristically charitable, I’m prepared to sit on the fence on this one.
But I jump off instantly when it comes to views I regard as not just misguided, but as evil. Hence, when a man remains a communist well into his 30s, not to say 40s, only then to undergo a change of heart and claim a conservative allegiance, I don’t accept him as an ally.
Required for such a metamorphosis isn’t a change of opinion, nor even a change of heart, but a drastic change of one’s personality. That means ditching every intuitive and temperamental presupposition of which our ideas are woven – a sheer impossibility, in other words.
One exception exists: a religious epiphany, a sort of Damascene experience. Crudely put, this is like picking up a lottery ticket off the pavement and then winning a zillion pounds.
The gift of riches would then come not from within, but from without. It would be a gift in its strictest sense, something presented instantly by an outside donor, in this case chance. No personal effort would be involved, no hard work, no painful philosophical ruminations.
However, barring that, I refuse to accept into the fold (my own, that is) any communist or other evil radical who added the ‘ex-’ preface in his mature age. That’s like saying that at age 38 he thought mass murder was perfectly acceptable, only to decide it wasn’t after all at 39.
As for Miss Truss, the jury is still out. Let’s see what verdict it will return. However, if I were her defending counsel, I’d be worrying.
P.S. On a related subject, I’ve just thought of the definition of old age. It’s when you stop worrying about undressing women and begin worrying about dressing yourself.