If you ask your friends which institutions define Britain, each will give you half a dozen answers, and the divergence will be small. It’s a reasonably safe bet that democracy, free enterprise and trial by jury will be on every list.
One has to do with politics, another with economics, still another with justice. But they all have something in common: all three depend on nearly universal popular participation to be successful, or even operative at all. Hence they have to presuppose considerable sophistication on the part of the general population.
A universal-franchise democracy can’t function properly if most people are incapable of casting their votes in an enlightened and responsible manner. Free markets will destroy themselves if deprived of underpinning moral tenets shared by most and obeyed by all. And the jury system will fail in the absence of a large majority of those who have the mind and the knowledge to understand the fundamental principles of justice.
The trial of Vicky Pryce illustrates the last point with the precision of an illuminated manuscript. Chris Huhne’s scorned wife was being tried for perverting the course of justice. This vindictive lady had agreed to take her husband’s speeding points. When he then left her for another woman (technically speaking), she shopped him and, as an inevitable consequence, herself.
The outcome of the trial hinged on a simple argument. The defence claimed that Pryce should be exculpated because she acted under marital coercion (‘her man is what done it’ in colloquial language). The prosecution sought to prove she had acted as a free agent, thus striking a laudable blow for the basic Christian doctrine of free will (‘fair cop, guv, she done it herself’).
The issue at stake seems relatively straightforward, and yet Miss Pryce’s 12 peers failed to reach a verdict. In the process they submitted, in writing, 10 questions that made Mr Justice Sweeny admit that in his 30 years on the bench he had never seen anything like it.
For members of the jury manifested their ignorance of such little things as presumption of innocence, the desirability of ignoring evidence, the meaning of reasonable doubt and so forth. (‘Reasonable doubt is doubt that is reasonable,’ explained His perplexed Honour, reasonably.)
They also proved that they are either too illiterate or too stupid to understand such things even after they had been explained to them in plain English, as all these had been. Some of the questions hinted at severe mental retardation or at best a minuscule attention span, such as the one about Miss Pryce’s religious convictions, which hadn’t been mentioned by either side.
The immediate reaction in the press has correctly focused on the validity of the jury system, with most pundits and Jack Straw suggesting it’s wrong to condemn this institution on the basis of one trial. I wonder on which planet they have been living, or else what they are on.
One trial? You can’t open the papers these days without reading about yet another gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated by juries who simply don’t understand what justice is and how the system is supposed to work.
Thus an argument that a murderer had an impoverished childhood has been known to produce mitigated sentences or even acquittals in Western courts; race has been seen as an extenuating circumstance; and political motives have been accepted as being more noble than simple savagery.
As courts in the West demonstrate their inability to deal sternly with criminals, the jury system looks more and more antiquated. Jurors have to be drawn from the available pool of humanity, which, alas, has been poisoned by decades of ‘liberal’ cant and our moron-spewing education.
As a result, courts are beginning to act as rubber stamps of egalitarianism, rather than agents of justice. Society predictably responds by a climbing crime rate that requires statistical larceny to pass for anything other than a social catastrophe. (One example: in 1954 there were 400 muggings in all of Britain; 2001 produced 400 in Lambeth, a South London borough, in one month.)
A possible response to this deficit of justice would be to limit the size of the pool from which jurors are drawn. Exactly how it’s to be done is a matter of debate, with all sorts of possible qualifications to be considered, from IQ to education testing, from property ownership to tax-paying record, from age to linguistic competence. (Incidentally, the same debate on suffrage is long overdue.)
What is beyond doubt is that some further qualifications are necessary if trial by jury is to serve its purpose, that of punishing the guilty and thereby protecting the innocent. Appeals to the centuries of success ring hollow: modernity has severed its spiritual, intellectual and moral continuity with tradition. ‘O tempora, o morons,’ as Cicero almost said.