In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

He huffs and he puffsJohn Upton

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.

In November last year, to the relief of the Government, Myra Hindley died. Hindley, who had served 36 years, was the most high-profile victim of a series of Administrations which, in pursuit of electoral success, have taken up tabloid-inspired positions on the sentencing of murderers. A few days later, the Law Lords delivered a landmark decision in the case of Anthony Anderson, a double murderer who had brought an application for judicial review of the terms of his sentence against the Home Office. Had Hindley lived, the Lords’ judgment in Anderson’s favour might also have led to her release from prison, where she was serving a mandatory life sentence.

The Anderson ruling took away from the Home Secretary the power to make the ultimate decision as to how long a mandatory life prisoner should serve; instead, it became one for the courts and the parole board. It was this judgment, based on the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998, together with the subsequent tabloid outrage, that provoked David Blunkett’s latest strike against the criminal justice system. He announced that legislation would soon be introduced severely to restrict judicial participation in determining the length of sentences for murderers, a group whose harsh treatment is considered by the Labour Party far too valuable a political currency to be left to the perceived lenience of the judiciary.

In April this year, Blunkett proposed that Parliament should impose a ‘framework’ for judges to follow when determining how long an offender should spend in prison. The legislation will say that for the ‘sexual, sadistic’ murder of children or terrorist murder, life will mean life in all cases, as opposed to the current practice of a minimum 20-year term. For the murder of a policeman, a prison officer or for racially motivated murder, the minimum term will be 30 years. Other murders will have a 15-year starting point, ‘on which judges can build’.

These fixed terms of imprisonment are a direct snub to Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who last year published a directive for judges recommending 15 years as the minimum term for the most serious categories of murder. The proposed new legislation allows judges only a vestigial role. If they wish to deviate from the new framework, they will have to give a full justification of their decision in open court – a kind of Maoist shaming ritual. The effect of the new law will be that individual cases will cease to be treated as such: murderers will be condemned as a class.

On one level, Blunkett’s crass proposals can be seen simply as giving Sun and Express readers what they want. But that would be to let him and New Labour off the hook. More significant and sinister issues have become apparent during the course of this dispute. New Labour didn’t get where it is today by being soft on those who offer resistance to the Project. In the absence of an effective Opposition with which to brawl, the Government is picking fights elsewhere; and the judiciary is being punished for daring to entertain jurisprudential notions which do not accord with those endorsed by the Sun. We are witnessing the extraordinary spectacle of a Labour Home Secretary legislating against judges because they are too liberal.

The Anderson case is worth considering in some detail. As well as demonstrating Blunkett’s love of headlines, it is one of the most conspicuous illustrations we have had so far of the developing antagonism between two of the three components of our unwritten constitution: the judiciary and the executive. In passing, and most distastefully, it also shows the continuity between the policies of the grotesque Home Secretaries of the Thatcher years – Brittan, Waddington, Howard et al – and those of the nominally left-wing incumbent.

As a crime, murder is rarely examined with dispassion, and it will come as no surprise to discover that it involves complexities, ignored by the Home Secretary and the tabloid press, which are crucial to any informed discussion of the role of judges and politicians in dealing with those convicted of homicide. According to the legal definition, a murderer does not need to have intended to kill in order to commit murder. He or she (though murderers are almost always men) may even have intended not to kill, but only to cause serious physical injury. The category of ‘murder’ includes acts which vary hugely in their levels of culpability: from the premeditated ‘sexual, sadistic’ killing of a child to hitting over the head with a chair someone who dies a month later because of an undiagnosed weakness of the skull; from the contract killing of an organised crime boss to the administration of an overdose of drugs to a terminally ill patient. All these actions can attract a mandatory life sentence.

This is in sharp contrast to the sentencing regime available to judges for those found guilty of a range of offences – manslaughter, rape, grievous bodily harm – which attract the other form of life sentence, discretionary life. When, as is frequently the case, a murder charge is reduced to one of manslaughter, the trial judge may select from a range of sentences, including a fixed prison term, a hospital order or life imprisonment. Those who kill and are convicted of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, for example, are no less dangerous than those convicted on a full murder charge, yet judges have discretion in one instance and not in the other. In view of anomalies such as this, in 1989 the House of Lords Select Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment recommended the abolition of the mandatory sentence for murder.

This recommendation has not been found acceptable by vote-hungry governments, however. ‘When capital punishment was abolished,’ Blunkett has said, ‘it was intended that a strong, rigorous alternative needed to be introduced and maintained,’ the implication being that before 1957 all murderers were executed and that after abolition, during some unspecified golden age, every murderer received a whole life sentence. His assertion loses some of its force when you look at the figures. Statistics published by the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment show that of the murderers sentenced to death between 1900 and 1949, when the defence of diminished responsibility became available, 91 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men were reprieved. Of those reprieved, twice as many served terms of imprisonment of less than five years as served terms of more than 15.

Blunkett’s attack on the judiciary is not based on reference to inconvenient facts, however. He has also said that he shares ‘public concern that some very serious criminals seem to be serving a relatively short spell in prison’, even though his own department has recently found that a higher proportion of criminals are being sent to prison today than at any time since the 1950s, and that the average length of sentence has increased from 15 months then to 22 months now. Yet more than half of those questioned as part of a British Crime Survey focusing on public attitudes to the punishment of criminals reckoned that average sentences were a third shorter than they actually are. It is disappointing that the Home Secretary isn’t dispelling these misperceptions with the same vigour with which he is currently ratcheting up the level of public hysteria over crime.

In modern times, the type of sentence to be passed for murder by the judges has been prescribed by statute. Until 1957, the sentence was one of death. Under the Homicide Act of 1957 the death sentence was passed for capital or multiple murders while other types of murder received a life sentence. By the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, it was provided that convicted murderers should be sentenced to life imprisonment. Since then successive statutes have given the Home Secretary the power to decide on the release date of a convicted murderer. In 1983, Leon Brittan applied a policy of fixing a minimum number of years to be served, a ‘tariff’ which satisfies the requirements of retribution and deterrence.

At the time of Anderson’s appeal, the Home Secretary’s power to control the release of mandatory life-sentence prisoners was governed by Section 29 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which was the latest expression of the sentencing procedure that had evolved since the abolition of hanging. According to this, after a murderer had been convicted, the trial judge made a recommendation as to the length of sentence that should be served. The judge was uniquely well placed to do this: he had a detailed knowledge of the facts of the case and of the offender. He then submitted his recommendation to the Lord Chief Justice for review. The Lord Chief Justice provided advice based on his knowledge of cases drawn from the whole of the jurisdiction, so encouraging a uniformity of approach to sentencing across this class of crime.

The two judicial opinions were then submitted to the Home Secretary, who alone had the power to fix the tariff. He was entitled to ignore both recommendations. In Anderson’s case, both judges recommended a tariff of 15 years; the Home Secretary imposed a sentence of 20. In 1995, Michael Howard explicitly referred to the quasi-judicial nature of his role: ‘The prisoner is aware of the judicial view and has the opportunity to make representations. He is then told of the tariff set. If there is any departure from the judicial advice, he is given detailed reasons.’ It was a confident admission that the executive was usurping the function of the judges.

How did the situation arise in which a minister could become a sentencer? Although, in our system of law, the sentencing of those convicted of crime has always been regarded as a judicial rather than an executive function and the separation of powers as a touchstone of our political freedoms (hence the constitutional questions thrown up by the Anderson case), our unwritten constitution has never in fact embraced a rigid doctrine of the separation of powers, and the relationship between the legislature and the executive is at times so close as to make them almost indistinguishable. On the other hand, the separation of powers between the judiciary and the legislative and executive branches of government has been a bulwark protecting civil liberties. It can be trumped, however, by the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament. Whatever arguments there might be concerning the Home Secretary’s exact role in the sentencing of murderers, Parliament had the power to decree that it was so.

But then, in 2000, the Human Rights Act, which gave effect to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in UK law, came into force. For the first time, a notion of the special protection of human rights based on references to a higher legal order than that presided over by Parliament had been allowed to enter British constitutional theory. To that limited extent, Parliamentary sovereignty was impugned and traditional constitutional relationships re-ordered: the Act enables the courts to take action when the Convention is breached, by endowing them with strong interpretative powers, for example. However, it also retains the status quo where Parliamentary sovereignty is concerned. Because we continue to adhere to that doctrine, the Act has much less force here than under the written constitutions of other countries, where courts are able to strike down legislation seen as unconstitutional. The most potent sanction available to the British courts is to declare an incompatibility if it is found that a law has contravened the Convention. The Act has enabled the judiciary to enter into competition with the executive and the legislature, but without giving the courts any means definitively to resolve an issue. It has just enough effect to be a significant irritant to government but not so much as to cut through the debris of our traditional constitutional arrangements.

It is against this background that the Law Lords had to deal with the highly politicised question of Anderson’s appeal. The appeal hinged on whether the Government’s power to determine the length of prison sentences served by murderers was compatible with the Human Rights Act. In delivering their judgments, the Lords reviewed many sources, including domestic and European authorities and their application of the ECHR, as well as Commonwealth case law and legislation.

Article 6(1) of the Convention provides that ‘in the determination of his civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.’ In 1990, as a result of the European Court of Human Rights’ decision in Thynne, Wilson and Gunnell v. UK, a case involving a psychotic rapist, Parliament made the judiciary and parole board alone responsible for decisions concerning the release of discretionary life prisoners. In accordance with Article 6(1), the Strasbourg Court decided that the Home Secretary was not an ‘independent and impartial tribunal’ when setting a tariff. As a result, the executive can no longer control the date of release for a category of prisoners that includes some of the most dangerous criminals. The Strasbourg judges arrived at the same decision in respect of people under 18 years of age detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, resulting in the same response from Parliament as in the Thynne, Wilson and Gunnell case. Meanwhile, recent changes in the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland mean that ministers there now play no role in the sentencing of murderers. There has been no suggestion that those convicted under these new regimes are receiving lenient sentences.

In the Anderson judgment Lord Steyn dealt with this particular canard in relation to mandatory life prisoners. He noted that if the role of the Home Secretary in setting the tariff were to end, ‘it does not follow that life imprisonment for murder may never, even in the worst cases imaginable, mean detention for life.’

This Government’s insistence that the involvement of the Home Secretary in the tariff-fixing process is legitimate was fatally weakened last year by the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Stafford v. UK. Stafford, a murderer, had been released from prison on licence. In 1994 the Conservative Home Secretary revoked the licence because Stafford committed criminal offences after release, though these were unrelated to the original crime. As a result, Stafford was sent back to prison. In 1996 the parole board recommended his release. This was rejected by the Home Secretary. The European Court ruled that this period of continued detention was unlawful. In effect, it amounted to the imposition of a sentence without trial. Before this decision, it had been successfully argued that a mandatory sentence could be differentiated from a discretionary one, so the executive could still intervene in the mandatory sentencing process. In Stafford’s case the European Court came to the sensible conclusion that there was no distinction between mandatory and discretionary life prisoners as regards the fixing of the tariff. ‘The continuing role of the Secretary of State in fixing the tariff and in deciding on a prisoner’s release following its expiry,’ it commented in the course of affirming this position, ‘has become increasingly difficult to reconcile with the notion of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.’

This view was reinforced by the decision of the European Court in the case of Benjamin and Wilson v. UK. Benjamin and Wilson were prisoners serving discretionary life sentences who were detained in a mental hospital. The power to order their release lay with the Secretary of State, who contended that he had adopted a practice of rubber-stamping whatever the Mental Health Review Tribunal recommended. The Court stated:

Although both parties appear to agree that the Secretary of State, following entry into force of the Human Rights Act 1998, would not be able lawfully to depart from the Tribunal’s recommendation, this does not alter the fact that the decision to release would be taken by a member of the executive and not by the Tribunal. This is not a matter of form but impinges on the fundamental principle of separation of powers and detracts from a necessary guarantee against the possibility of abuse.

In Anderson’s case, the Government conceded that the Home Secretary, as a member of the executive, was definitely not ‘independent’ for the purposes of Article 6(1). The issue before the House of Lords was therefore whether the fixing of the tariff element of a mandatory life sentence was to be classified as the ‘determination of a criminal charge’. If so, was this a judicial function? If it was, it followed that the tariff could no longer be fixed by the executive.

Buoyed by the judgment from Strasbourg and the example set by the rest of the UK, Lord Steyn asked whether the fixing of the tariff was a judicial function and concluded that it was:

First, only a court or an independent tribunal may decide on the guilt or otherwise of an accused person . . . Secondly, only a court or independent tribunal may decide on the punishment of a convicted person . . . The underlying idea, based on the rule of law, is a characteristic feature of democracies . . . The power of the Home Secretary in England and Wales to decide on the tariff to be served by mandatory life sentence prisoners is a striking anomaly in our legal system.

The Home Secretary’s arguments in the House of Lords centred on the contention that the setting of a tariff is an administrative rather than a judicial function. This sits rather uncomfortably with the image of Lord High Executioner which Blunkett assiduously cultivates. Unsurprisingly, their Lordships found the Government’s arguments difficult to swallow. (‘The persuasiveness of the advocacy of counsel for the Home Secretary cannot hide the fragility of the argument presented.’) The appeal on behalf of Anderson was allowed.

The court made a declaration of the incompatibility of Section 29 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 with the Convention. ‘If a court,’ Lord Hutton said, ‘declares that an Act is incompatible with the Convention, there is no question of the court being in conflict with Parliament or of seeking to override the will of Parliament. The court is doing what Parliament has instructed it to do in Section 4 of the 1998 Act.’ It is, he said, ‘for Parliament itself to decide whether it will amend the statute’. Here it is possible to see the judges as disingenuous – in order to sugar the pill, they are maintaining the fiction of an unassailable Parliamentary sovereignty. For while it is true that, strictly speaking, Parliament has the final say and can choose to ignore the declaration, in reality a finding of a breach of the Convention has a highly persuasive effect. It is not only the roles of the executive and the legislature that are being reordered.

And so, in the face of a finely argued and well-presented judgment, the Home Secretary sulked off, like a bully who has met his match. If he could not have the power, then neither could the judges. Instead of amending the legislation in line with that in Scotland or Northern Ireland, or even taking the opportunity to examine the validity of the distinction between mandatory and discretionary life sentences, he announced the tough new ‘sentencing principles’, which exclude the possibility of judicial meddling as far as is feasible, and which may themselves be in breach of the Human Rights Act. ‘I am putting the situation back to what most sensible people thought it should be, which is that Parliament lays down the rules, the judges apply them,’ he huffed.

At best, Blunkett’s attitude can be interpreted as that of a man struggling to get to grips with the fluidity of concept that is a feature of Britain’s unwritten constitution. He appears to hold the archaic view that the sovereignty of Parliament is unquestionable, and that the executive may use a wide discretionary power, the regulation of which depends on the inherent sense of fair play of ministers and civil servants. These are notions derived from the rusting hulk of a Victorian ideal which depended for its effective functioning on a rigidly hierarchical state.

At worst, the spat is a sign that the Government is, in the words of a Bar Council spokesman, ‘trying to institutionalise the grip of the executive around the neck of the judiciary . . . We will gradually erode the separation of powers, which is something that for hundreds of years has been seen as a strength in our democracy.’ It is difficult not to agree that Blunkett’s actions appear to have less to do with a failure to appreciate the subtleties of constitutional checks and balances than with a deliberate garnering of power at whatever cost.

We have only to look at the initiatives announced in the wake of the decision to impose the new legislation to see our worst fears confirmed. Hot on its heels has come the suggestion of a Sentencing Guidelines Council, on which will sit, among others, victims of crime and police officers, two groups not renowned for their objectivity when it comes to crime and punishment. Its greatest effect will be to neuter the Sentencing Advisory Panel, a judicial body that already co-ordinates sentencing practice but will now be subservient to the newly formed council. Worse still is Blunkett’s suggestion that prosecutors be given unprecedented powers to comment in court on the sentence to be passed. This is an exasperatingly ill-conceived, populist measure. It utilises a courtroom technique that worked well in Nazi Germany but should have no place in the criminal justice system of a liberal democracy.

While Blunkett is trying his hardest to keep the masses happy by providing them with scapegoats, the judges are increasingly loath to accept their old role as friends of the political establishment. This is a welcome shift which may go some way to off-setting the darkly authoritarian tendencies of New Labour.

Every other country in the European Union, the ten prospective new entrants and major members of the Commonwealth such as India and Australia have written constitutions which define clearly and precisely the balance of power between the legislature, executive and judiciary. At a time when it has never been easier for the state to act oppressively in the name of freedom, it would be Blunkett’s most significant, albeit unintentional, achievement if his intemperate rants and his introduction of repressive legislation made us seriously question whether we are still prepared to rely on the reasonableness of those who govern us for protection against the abuse of power. It would be rash to wait until murderers are no longer the only people whose human rights are under threat.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.