20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 24


The puerility issue

Colin Welch

From the unenlightened people like Mrs Thatcher and me the Brighton murders produce demands for the death penalty. Even we, of course, can see something very shabby about re-imposing it only after an outrage which happens to have taken place in England rather than in Ulster. Hundreds have been murdered in Ulster without denting the complacency of the enlightened. Ulster's dead are just statis- tics, soon forgotten or subsumed in an `acceptable level of violence' — an idea rightly condemned by Mr Hurd. But let the murders take place here, and torrents of English indignation flow for a time. But Ulster people are by now inured to the English double standard, and might wel- come whatever firm action selective in- dignation engendered.

The enlightened warn us: do not act in hot blood. This is our trouble: too squeam- ish to act in hot blood, too slothful and indifferent to act in cold, we don't act at all. We are paralysed like Grillparzer's proud Hasburgs, whose curse it was 'to move too late, to stop halfway, to take half-measures hesitatingly'.

Unenlightened reactions are damned as `mindless', like the violence of the IRA which, as Conor Cruise O'Brien again points out, is nothing of the sort. It is carefully designed as a means towards one end after another. After destroying Stor- mont, violence alone has induced us here, Tories included, to contemplate, in fear, ignorance and despair, a variety of 'politic- al solutions' which, by making bad worse, would create the conditions for an IRA triumph. Force has powerfully influenced our own soft reasoning. We should at least test whether public counter-force, both hands at last freed, might have some effect on the hard reasoning of the IRA. The death penalty would give them something new to reason about.

Every murderer hanged is one murderer the less, one less prisoner to escape or be hi-jacked from prison, free again to terro- rise his own community and everyone else's. No one need fear that a hanged murderer will come back to avenge himself on those who testified against him. The flow of testimony might greatly increase if witnesses could be sure, which they can't be at present, that convicted murderers will never be seen again.

Will hanged murderers become 'mar- tyrs', as Mr Heath suggests, inspiring hundreds of .new murderers to replace and avenge them? If so, we would certainly have to hang the replacements too. Yet Paul Johnson once pointed out that hang- ings in Ireland do not always produce this effect; the names of the 'martyred' Phoenix Park murderers are clean forgotten there.

Meanwhile we have martyrs of our own, and the prospect of many more to come. The sophisticated time-bomb apparently used at Brighton makes the murderer's task easier and less risky. He can strike anywhere, and be far from the scene when the bomb goes off. I don't know whether we could increase his difficutlies, but we could certainly increase his risks if caught. Would it not be madness not to do so?

T note the widespread conviction that lthere will never in the ordinary way be a Labour government again. Mrs Thatcher, Mr Heseltine and others at Brighton ex- pressed it; so have sages like Bernard Levin and Peregrine Worsthorne. Thus Levin: 'The more vicious and absurd the Labour Party becomes, the more certain is the voters' rejection of it.' Thus Wors- thorne: 'Could the disaffected ever again constitute a majority, or anything like it? Or is their number in the foreseeable future likely to be enough for effective violence but not enough for winning par- liamentary elections?' He predicts an en- during majority of the well-off, monopolis- ing electoral power, 'quite happy with the status quo and determined to preserve it'. Violence is thus left as the temptation and last resort of the forever outvoted 'dis- affected'.

Such speculations are less convincing to those who recall, with Professor Antony Flew, that 40 per cent of votes cast is enough to achieve unchecked sovereign power: Labour did it in 1974 (Hitler and Allende did it with far less). Also sceptical will be those inclined by observation, reflection and misgivings to believe that Auberon Waugh's article, 'The shadow of Glenys' (Spectator, 6 October) contained profound truths.

Labour is said to be making itself always more repulsive to 'ordinary people', pre- sumably as hitherto defined. Mr Wors- thorne says it: that by making common cause with other disaffected parts of socie- ty, like feminists, unilateralists, environ- mentalists, ethnic minorities, gays and so on, Labour may weaken itself 'by putting ordinary people off .

Yes, but supposing 'ordinary people', as at present defined by mature people who think themselves or their peers ordinary, come to be balanced or outnumbered by generations of 'extraordinary people' growing up largely unnoticed around them? What then? We must alter the definition of 'ordinariness' and our percep- tion of what is or is not acceptable to it, and accustom ourselves to the prospect of the extraordinary, having become ordin- ary, taking power.

The decade of the 1960s (or perhaps more precisely of '65-'75) is often remem- bered by surviving ordinaries as a horren- dous episode which ended in tears, after which reason resumed her sway and wiser counsels prevailed. This is but a comforting illusion. The poisons then injected into our system, though doubtless diluted, course still through its veins. Those who then rebelled 'mindlessly' (yes) against all au- thority and discipline are now moving themselves into positions of authority, expected to maintain a discipline they cannot approve or understand. (We already have an opposition leader who was 20 in 1962 and was — no, is — a fan of Buddy Holly.) They are parents too; if their own parents were a bit barmy, they are probably barmier still. The revolting students of the 1960s are the revolting teachers of today, reproducing themselves by teaching as received wisdom what they furiously asserted against the wisdom re- ceived from their own teachers. Those who then foamed against all established opin- ions and standards now themselves estab- lish opinions and standards. Small exam- ples: David Bowie is reverentially re- viewed on the 'arts' page of the Financial Times, Bowie and other masters at great length in an issue of the Times in which elsewhere Barrington-Ward and other withered wiseacres of a Times past are incongrously celebrated with prosy chuck- les and maunderings. To define the world of the 1960s is to adumbrate the damage it did and is still doing. It was a world in which hallowed connections were severed or weakened: between crime or naughtiness and punish- ment; between effort, skill, accomplish- ment and reward. It was a world in which all the laws which make civilisation possi ble were damned as oppressive, not ex- cluding even those of grammar, spelling and mathematics. It was a world without the slightest idea of how society or wealth were created or preserved. From this world were banished as hostile the aged, the past and all the mentors who spoke therefrom; thus, as Auberon said, its inhabitants had and have 'no means of discerning how ignorant or asinine their opinions may be'. It was a world of raging sentiminetality, of `licence', a word endowed by Nadezhda Mandelstam with tragic forebodings, of `puerilism', Huizinga's term (quoted by James Lasdun in Encounter) for that adolescent barbarism which marches, wears badges and demonstrates. The puerile may lose the charm of youth without ripening. Forever disaffected, they may constitute the majority or sufficient minority required by a Labour Party in- creasingly vicious and absurd. Soft alike in head, heart and will, their soft polity will be mincemeat for the hard Left and the hard IRA, as Russia's soft licentious re- volutionaries were to the hard Lenin.