Dead Men Left

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

"Bastions of reaction"

Back in the day, when New Labour was just a glimmer in Roger Liddle's eye, the more absurdly theatrical of the British state's institutions would provoke a near-Pavlovian response amongst the Left. That "dignified" part of the constitution, as Bagehot described it, with its ridiculous wigs and mummeries, covered up for a draconian class bias. Packed with Tories of the old school, both the judiciary and the House of Lords were seen as little more than a plot to subvert democratic Labour governments intent on improving the lot of British workers.

And of course, Old Labour was largely correct. Ralph Miliband, Marxist father of Blairite minister David, laid out the case in his 1969 book, The State in Capitalist Society, showing the limited and concertedly elitist circle from which the upper ranks of the judiciary were drawn. The following decade, John Griffith's seminal The Politics of the Judiciary revealed the judges' political bias in operation through a range of detailed examples. Further confirmation was provided throughout the 1980s, with judges (for instance) ruling in improbable fashion against Ken Livinstone's "Fares Fair" scheme, exposing their bigotry in rape cases, and happily interpreting law to favour Thatcher's Conservative government. No better confirmation of the House of Lords' true character was needed than the procession of Tory "backwoodsmen" coralled to push Thatcher's detested Poll Tax through the legislature.

It has come to a pretty state of affairs, then, that both institutions have provided a bulwark against Blair's authoritarian zeal. Perhaps the Lords' rebellion yesterday was another example of their anti-Labour bias, even after New Labour's reforms; likewise, the judicial ruling on David Blunkett's internment laws might be seen as the senior judges' Tory instincts playing up yet again.

Maybe Peter Hain, who is usually dragged out as the Cabinet's token "radical" on such occasions, could release a statement to this effect: once again, a progressive, reforming Labour government is being undermined by undemocratic bigots. It might indicate some small last drop of shame that even New Labour has not dared make this case.