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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 2 · 30 January 1992

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Libertyville

Stephen Sedley (LRB, 19 December 1991), in the course of reviewing various proposals for a Bill of Rights for the UK, makes a series of sharply critical assertions about Charter 88. He claims that there is now such diversity in the different proposals for enacting a Bill of Rights, ranging from the IEA to Liberty, that there is ‘already no accepted minimum programme and the ground is being cut from under Charter 88’s feet.’ Further, because Charter 88 supports the apparently obsolete project of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, we are trapped in a ‘time-warp which is making the Charter project … a danger’.

A danger to what? It is important to remember that Charter 88 is a broad-based movement for constitutional reform, not a limited pressure group for a Bill of Rights. The Charter seeks a number of institutional changes, including accountable government, decentralisation and proportional representation. Charter 88 supports incorporation as a bare minimum demand – our aim is for a wider and more radical Bill of Rights as part of a written constitution. We are also committed to building a culture of liberty in Britain: something which is a vital underpinning for formal rights and the basis for a new and more open style of government.

How can we build such a culture of liberty? In the first place, through debate. Thus the Charter has gone out of its way to encourage as wide a spread of arguments as possible. Hence our making the comparison of four major constitutional projects for Britain the centrepiece of our Manchester Constitutional Convention in November; hence also our inviting their authors – James Comford (IPPR), Frank Vibert (IEA), Tony Benn MP (sui generis) and John Macdonald QC (Liberal Democrats) – to share the platform. Far from the publication of new proposals cutting the ground from under Charter 88, they are creating the very ground that we have called for, and we are proud to have inspired them.

Dissatisfaction with our unwritten constitution and our closed and secretive governmental system now spreads across the political spectrum. This has made Charter 88 ever more relevant and successful. The Charter serves both as a radical movement for constitutional change and as the one place where a creative dialogue can take place between the different protagonists of change. It may surprise Stephen Sedley, but we shall have no effective constitutional change unless the IEA and Liberty can talk together to build a genuine consensus for change. If people as able and committed as Stephen Sedley stay outside this process and deride what can be accomplished, we shall still have constitutional change, for it is now inevitable, but it will be a constitution written by insiders and mandarins attempting to salvage as much of the old ways as they can.

Sedley’s specific arguments against a Bill of Rights involve an incoherence that verges on schizophrenia. He argues that, because we live in a very unequal society, formal liberal rights like those exemplified by the European Convention benefit the rich and powerful. Therefore, we should either have no Bill at all or one so radical that it prevents the rich exploiting the law to their advantage. As we are hardly likely to enact a Bill of Rights that will deny free speech to Rupert Murdoch through his corporations, Sedley’s approach is a sham. He may dismiss the Hard Left, but he is following their Mad Hatter logic in this case.

The argument is idle anyway, since we are already subject to the European Convention. But without a domestically-enforceable Bill of Rights, the result is long delays in obtaining redress and an absurd odd-man-out status in Europe. Undoubtedly the Convention should be improved upon. But Sedley’s arguments go well beyond certain well-known defects of the Convention: they challenge the very idea of liberal rights in a market society.

Whoever imagined that a Bill of Rights would not enable the rich and powerful to protect themselves, whether as corporations or as individuals? The relevant question is whether it will protect citizens who are neither rich nor powerful against both state abuse and harms done to their civil rights by others. The analogy is not with a law which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, but with one that permits both to do so. No great comfort, but at least the poor can get out of the rein. Stephen Sedley is afraid that a classical liberal Bill of Rights will entrench corporate power and private property in the apparently good cause of protecting the citizen from the state. He is also worried that such rights will prevent a radical government using the state for collectivist and egalitarian legislation. But where is the prospect of such a government? There is no reason why, within the provisions of a Bill of Rights, any social reforms actually on offer should not be accomplished, why wealthy individuals should not be subjected to higher taxation or company law reformed to ensure greater accountability. One cannot expect the reform of law to change society greatly, but equally no Bill of Rights is going to prevent radical change for which there is genuine majority support. So let’s stop debating non-issues and get back to the agenda of constitutional reform.

Paul Hirst
Director, Charter ’88

Looking it up

In his review of Hunter Thompson’s latest book (LRB, 19 December 1991), Mr A. Craig Copetas informs us: ‘As the American philosopher Yogi Berra once said to those who want confirmation of the obvious, you can look it up.’ Apart from the fact that ‘Yogi Berra’ should be ‘Casey Stengel’, that ‘once said’ should be ‘often said’, and that ‘you can look it up’ should be ‘you could look it up,’ the information is correct. One memorable instance involved a Stengel observation on historical demography. When Stengel turned 84 a reporter asked him how it felt to be that old, and Stengel replied: ‘Most people my age are dead already. You could look it up.’

Yogi Berra had perhaps a subtler philosophic mind than Stengel’s – I would call it deconstructively neo-Kantian – as indicated by such Berra remarks as ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ and ‘Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.’ There is also Berra’s thoughtful reply to someone who asked him what time it was: ‘You mean now?’

Additional light can be shed on the issues raised in the London Review by Zygmunt Frankel (Letters, 5 December 1991) concerning the relative merits of revolvers v. automatic pistols. In Hustlers, Beats and Others (1985, rev. ed., pp. 130-131), I recorded the following remarks made to me by an American professional criminal of long standing:

The only pistol you can count on is a revolver. Every real character [criminal] knows that. So do the cops. Did you ever see a cop with an automatic? When you read about a job where an automatic was involved, you know the guy was an amateur. Sometimes an automatic won’t go off. Yeah, not very often, but it happens. Once is all you need. When you pull that trigger your life depends on it. You can’t take that chance. You don’t have that worry with a revolver. And a revolver is balanced better. You can be more accurate with it.

Another thing, when you read about guys using .45s and such. That’s just amateur stuff. You’re giving up accuracy for a lot of power you don’t need. Sure, maybe it makes sense for an FBI man to use a .357 Magnum sometimes, ’cause sometimes he has to knock down a door and things like that. For me a .38 is plenty. But you can’t go much lower. A .32 is the bottom. You want a gun that if you have to shoot somebody, he goes down. Take a .25; that’s a gun that’s fit for nothing but a lady’s purse.

Most times what you’re supposed to do is just throw down on somebody [point the gun at him]. You don’t really use that pistol if you don’t have to. That’s show-off stuff too. And when you use it you don’t shoot if you don’t have to. You have to fade enough heat without maybe killing somebody, so what you do is you try to slap somebody cross the head with it. That’s another reason for a revolver. You slap somebody cross the head with an automatic, that mechanism gets loose and starts rattling, and maybe it jams next time.

Another professional gave me a further reason for favouring a revolver. Automatic bullets are steel-jacketed to avoid fouling the mechanism, and a revolver bullet, being softer, spreads out more. That is, at any given calibre, a revolver will put a bigger hole in you.

However, the above material was gathered approximately thirty years ago. About twenty years go some Young Turks began appearing in the American underworld, and now, quite possibly, they constitute a majority of our gunmen. They prefer a gun that horrifies the old-timer: it is not only an automatic but of small calibre, even as low as .22 calibre. The argument of this newer age cohort is twofold: 1. The only reason that a modern automatic will misfire – unless you are stupid enough to get the gun dirty, in which case you shouldn’t have a gun – is that the spring in the clip wears out and doesn’t push a bullet all the way up into the chamber. This can be avoided by a combination of measures: a. remove one bullet from the clip so that the spring is never fully compressed; b. ‘rest’ the clip at night by removing all bullets and letting the spring expand completely; c. every few months discard the clip and buy a new one (clips are inexpensive). Even one of those measures provides a great margin of safety. 2. The small calibre makes for extreme accuracy (there is no ‘kick’ when such a gun is fired), and that, combined with the rapid rate of fire, outweighs the virtues of a revolver. As one Young Turk said to me: ‘In the time it takes you to put two .38 revolver slugs in a guy’s gut, you can put five .22 automatics in his head – and that’s better.’

Ned Polsky
New York

Losing the war in Yugoslavia

In her piece on Yugoslavia (LRB, 21 November 1991), Branca Magas fails to raise the question which is at the core of the present conflict: do the Serbs, ‘both the most numerous and the most dispersed nationality’ in Yugoslavia, have the same right as other nationalities in that country to choose a state in which they will live? Some of Ms Magas’s comments suggest a negative answer to the question. The creation of a Greater Serbia, she writes, ‘which entailed the inclusion of a substantial non-Serb population’ in a Serbian state, ‘fed the appetites of the Serbian bourgeoisie’. But what about a Serbian state or states which do not entail the inclusion of substantial non-Serb populations and which do not ‘feed the appetites’ of any baddies of any class? This is a question of the utmost importance to the Serbs living in the areas of Croatia and Bosnia where they are a substantial majority. Now Ms Magas would, I hope, not deny that there are some such areas. The census of 1981, conducted by the Yugoslav Communist authorities whose legitimacy she accepts, shows what these areas are. Given her endorsement of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, she would probably not argue that the creation of a Serbian state or states would infringe the sovereignty of the state of Croatia. The present government of Croatia not only denies any sovereignty of the federal state but also denies having any, even historical links with it. As the Serbian President Milosevic (whom she strongly dislikes) keeps insisting, the creation of any sovereign states, whether Croatian or Serbian, effectively destroys this Yugoslav ‘house of nationalities’, as Ms Magas fondly calls it. This indeed may be her reason for objecting to the creation of a Serbian national state. But then she would have to object to the creation of a Croatian national state, which she never does.

Ms Magas correctly notes that the Yugoslav Communists saw the Serbian desire for their national state (‘Great Serb nationalism’ in their jargon) as a ‘permanent threat’. This was indeed a most serious threat to Communist rule over Yugoslavia. But does this entitle Ms Magas or anyone else to deny the Serbs a right to choose a state in which they will live? If Ms Magas’s ideology prevents her from asking questions such as these (they may be too bourgeois), perhaps it is time to find another expert on Yugoslavia who could ask and, perhaps, even try to answer them.

Aleksandar Pavkovic
Sydney

Planetary Sparks

The Pocock idea (LRB, 19 December 1991) of a New Zealander taking hold of a small globe and being unable to see further than Australia, Antarctica and water is the sort of conception that would normally be ventilated only by a wall-eyed geographer. New Zealanders, while inheriting the insular ego of the English and the Scots, have also their smug, avuncular universality, and ‘overseas’, in New Zealand, covers a view of the globe that reaches out at least to Europe, to Iran (a big customer), to China, to Japan, to the United States and beyond. Today the growth of satellite and air communication is rapidly reducing the apparent vastness of the Pacific waters.

Our island volcanoes send out some planetary sparks – which may light planetary fires. Just five examples: we sent the vote to women in 1893; we sent Rutherford to Cambridge to fire world physics; we sent Birchfield to Oxford to list the words for a planetary language; we sent the All Blacks to inspire a world sport; we sent Pocock to Johns Hopkins as the pope of historiography. There’s no end to it: at this very moment four hundred potential planetary sparks in my old school in Auckland are students of Japanese.

Lawrence Hogben
Soyans, France

Bardicide

Gary Taylor argues (LRB, 9 January) that in dramatising the murder of Cinna in Act III of Julius Caesar Shakespeare altered Plutarch in order to present an apolitical poet as innocent victim of the plebeians. It is Shakespeare, he suggests, who makes the people fickle and easy to manipulate, and his crowd, ‘unlike Plutareh’s, is uncontrollably irrational and cruel’. I doubt if anyone who has read Plutarch recently would agree with this. True, Shakespeare highlights the fickleness of the plebeians, but Plutarch speaks plainly enough of ‘a fickle and unconstant multitude’. In both his accounts of Cinna’s murder (and in the Life of Antony) he refers to the ‘fury’ of the people. And Taylor’s contention that ‘Plutarch does not say how the plebeians slew Cinna’ holds good only for the Life of Caesar. In the Life of Brutus, which Shakespeare certainly used, we read that the Senate ‘made no inquiry of them that had torn poor Cinna the poet in pieces’. There is, of course, another poet in Julius Caesar (IV.3 – he is not a poet in Plutarch). His attempt to intervene in politics is not very successful.

Ronald Gaskell
Cape Cornwall

Gary Taylor simply transcribes a dramatist’s fine verse and prose into the blunt sign-language of the career-critic. He changes the story – changes it in ways which deprive it of all the drama Shakespeare carefully gives it – and does so by ignoring virtually all the words, and implicit signs, in which it’s written.

Shakespeare’s Cinna is a fool to allow something to lead him forth of doors when he has no will to do so. He is a fool to answer the plebeians so consistently and pompously by echoing every word they say: there is no technique which better conveys condescension masking as chumminess, and no form of frightened defence better calculated to provoke attack. The desire to kill him is there in the plebeians before he even reveals what his name is, or what he does: had he announced that he was Cinna the pastry-cook they would have torn him for his bad puddings. His foolishness might lead us to suspect that he is indeed a writer of bad verses; at the very least, he is, in his poor management of the plebs, asking for it. The scene of his death is, in short, funny – that uniquely Shakespearean kind of funny that we see when Macbeth says (of Banquo), ‘Would he were here!’ or when Leontes tells Hermione that her actions are his dreams. Cinna is no political innocent: he’s a political idiot, and connives at his own death as surely as does the similarly insensitive Brutus.

For the rest, there are crowds and crowds: and I don’t see how you can put down the fictional one in the Forum by referring to the real ones in Tiananmen Square, or Moscow, or Prague. The one in the Forum doesn’t come to protest, nor does it stay to try and overthrow a government.

Peter Cochran
Cambridge

Off the point

Henry James in The Tragic Muse described an English family at an exhibition as ‘finished productions … ranged there motionless … almost as much on exhibition as if they had been hung on the line’. Philip Horne (LRB, 21 November 1991) finds this deflationary, leaving the family ‘high and dry’ as on a washing-line. But James’s public, on the rare occasions when they heard that domestic convenience mentioned, probably did not do so in the abbreviated form familiar today. For them ‘the line’ was the level at which paintings made most impression in a crowded exhibition. The family resembles the work – finished and motionless – of established portrait painters, and is thus comically inflated.

Nicholas Penny
National Gallery, London WC2

No, it wasn’t

While the cover portrait of Lord Lane (LRB, ) is a worthy attempt to point up the peculiarities of English justice, wouldn’t it have been even more effective to have printed it upside down instead of merely back to front? Or was this a subtle reference to A Mirror far Magistrates?

M.K. Alexander
Stratford upon Avon

Unauthorised

As the owner of all Cyril Connolly’s copyrights, and his literary executor, I wish to make it clear that the biography by Clive Fisher commissioned by Macmillans (Readers’ Requests, 19 December 1991) has definitely not been authorised by me. Clive Fisher wrote to me earlier in the year, and I explained I did not wish for any biography at the present time.

Deirdre Levi
Frampton on Severn,

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