Ms Harman’s Tame Kangaroo

Bacon’s ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’ (Essays IV) introduces several propositions:

‘[T]he more man’s nature runs to [revenge], the more ought law to weed it out: for as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law, but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.’

Towards the end of the essay he draws a further distinction:

‘Public revenges are for the most part fortunate […] But in private revenges it is not so…’

Because ‘justice’ in its untamed state is private, plural, interpersonal and damaging to the Law as an institution, private revenge is inimical to the latter in a more systemic way than, say, the breaking of some individual prohibition. So revenge is like dry rot, ground elder or a virus. As part of any civilising project it needs to be done away with or, at the very least, controlled even as the tarmac is being laid down over the chaos.

Hobbes similarly insists on keeping separate the plurality of the multitude in its natural state, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unity of the people civilly instantiated in (not just represented by) whatever ‘public’ institutions are in place:

‘[M]en distinguish not enough between a People and a Multitude. The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed; none of these can properly be said of a Multitude. […] In a Democracy, and Aristocracy, the Citizens are the Multitude, but the Court is the People. And in a Monarchy, the Subjects are the Multitude, and (however it seem a Paradox) the King is the People.’

(De Cive, XII 8)

And here by contrast is the ‘little and narrow mind’ of the ineffably stupid Ms Harman, New Labour’s deputy leader, as revealed to Andrew Marr, acceding to the exceedingly ‘weak pleasure’ of threatening poor Mr Goodwin’s pension with a lynch mob:

‘The Prime Minister has said [Mr Goodwin’s pension] is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted. It might be enforceable in a Court of Law but it is not enforceable in the Court of Public Opinion and that’s where the Government steps in.’

What’s underway here, as with Brown’s imaginary insurrection, is an attempt to tame the wild, to turn it into a colony. Her comments mimic a parental turn of phrase: ‘No, because I said no.’ However, whereas parental authority is quite clear (as far as stroppy toddlers are concerned the parent makes the Law) Ms Harman’s version moves about, shifting and evading responsibility, blame and anything else that might be awkward at some point.

First the Prime Minister is reported as having said something in a very performative sense, as though he were a Ruler making Law. But he’s not. Or at least not by himself. So it’s actually just an opinion. Therefore the authority (such as it is) is not legal or even deontic but doxastic.

Next Ms Harman denatures the Law, splitting legal accountability into ‘a Court of Law’ and ‘the Court of Public Opinion’. But the latter doesn’t exist and the former is already, in Hobbes’ sense, the People. In which case to go beyond that bold embodiment into something new involving what Ms Harman calls the ‘public’ but by which she really means the mob is to invite insurrection or what Hobbes calls ‘sedition’, ie the overthrow of civil governance by ‘the multitude’. Whilst to suggest as well, as she does, a connection between such a court and government is to invoke either a People’s Court such as might follow a popular revolution or, disturbingly, the Volksgerichtshof of Adolf Hitler.

But of course Ms Harman steers well clear of all that. Her Court will have no claws, not even theoretical teeth, despite what she implies. So Mr Goodwin’s right to take his booty will indeed be ‘not enforceable’ before her kangaroo court, which is hardly much of a threat. And he will take it anyway. People won’t much like that but they’ll live, and HMG will share their pain. They may fail to take to the streets. However, that will be no victory for any sound good sense. Rather it will be the memory of an almost fascist urge to victimise and punish, albeit not followed through. At least on this occasion.

Here to close is Mandeville’s Grumbling Hide in which the lawlessness of the multitude is incorporated into the polity itself as though it were the grit within the pearl within the oyster:

Virtue, who from Politicks
Had learn’d a thousand Cunning Tricks,
Was, by their happy Influence,
Made Friends with Vice: And ever since
The Worst of all the Multitude
Did Something for the common Good.

Presumably in his prelapsarian pomp, which is why he was given his knighthood in the first place, Mr Goodwin was just such a piece of grit. Or at least he was thus regarded. By a venal and dangerous government which at that stage believed in what it now disowns.

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