Harsh sentences for rioters are sleight of hand

Vera Baird writes in today’s Guardian that apparent government intervention in the sentencing of those convicted of offences relating to the recent riots is “a sinister attempt to upend the judicial process“. We agree with her. The whole purpose of separation of powers is to prevent the politicisation of justice. If we forget that, we’re paving the way for a creeping authoritarianism that uses each expression of frustration and outrage it provokes to invade our lives more and more deeply, thereby reinforcing and feeding off itself. Nonetheless, we see another dynamic at play here, one that’s not being picked up nearly so readily by commentators.

Every column inch spent debating the sentences meted out to those at the bottom of society is one column inch not focussed on the abuses of power taking place at the top. A culture which allows MPs to murmur ‘oh, sorry’ for flagrant misuse of expense allowances, enables Vodafone to be let off an estimated £6 billion in taxes, which has still made no real inroads into curbing the excesses of the financial sector, and which is still in the process of figuring out quite how deeply corruption is a part of Rupert Murdoch’s relationship with the corridors of power, is fooling us all if it convinces us that the events defining our democracy are taking place in courtrooms, or even on high streets.

Any good conjuror will tell you that the magic lies in directing the attention. Show an amazed audience what you want them to see, and what they want to believe, and they won’t even notice the mechanics of the trick going on right in front of their noses. We must be aware enough not to be distracted by the side show and fall for a similar trick.

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