Time for a message.
The cricketers call it Hawkeye. I am not sure what the equivalent term is in tennis but in any case the principle is much the same. If it is hard to tell whether a ball would have hit the stumps, or whether it pitched on or over a line, sophisticated photography gives the answer. Appeal as much as you like. The camera never lies.
It is a great pity that we do not have something similar in politics. There, too, distinctions have to be made and the right line is not always obvious to the human observer. Take statements about race as an example. Place the assertion; "The sex abuse of young women in Rotherham arose because of attitudes in certain parts of the Pakistani community", at the end of a dusty report and it comes under the head of a valid (or if you disagree with it, invalid) conclusion. Reword it as "Those Pakis are a threat to our women", and put it into the mouths of drunken young thugs on a night out and it becomes a nasty racist slur. Yet the content is not so very different. It all depends on the context, and it requires a degree of common sense to see the distinction, common sense which is often missing in relation to matters on which people feel strongly.
Until recently the answer to this was simple. Priority was given to not offending particular racial groups so that anything which hinged on racial or religious distinctions, however seriously meant, was regarded as taboo. That led to a number of absurdities. The police failed to properly investigate crimes linked to a particular communities for fear of giving offence. Little old ladies were searched for weapons because, unless they were searched too, how could you search the people who really need searching? It became politically incorrect to draw certain conclusions even though they were clearly right.
It was all folly. Once social conventions replaced the truth as a basis for political analysis, things were bound to drift off course. That was not just a problem because issues in certain communities were overlooked. It was also prejudicial to all those from minority communities who believed in and adhered to British values. How fair was the suspicion that less might be required from immigrant communities to them? What a stupid and weak-minded mess.
That particular solution having exhausted itself, we are now in danger of seeing things go in the opposite direction. I am no follower of Mr Farage but one of the achievements of the movement he spearheaded is that it has broken the shibboleth against talking frankly and honestly about race and religion, and that issues linked to these topics can be much more openly debated. That is a good thing as far as the political process goes but it brings us back to our problem of delineation. When do views about race cease to be acceptable statements of opinion and become hate talk? Is there a danger that the new respectability of the first will spill over into acceptance of the second?
There is little doubt that the answer to that question is "yes". There has been an increase in racially motivated crime since the Brexit vote and anecdotal evidence tells of long-standing members of the British community feeling unwelcome here in a way that they did not feel before. A right-wing tide is spreading across the West and that too encourages our own citizens in that direction.
So, what to do? To go back to the previous system where much of the debate about matters involving race was stifled or distorted is not an option. That particular cat is very much out of the bag and anyway the stifling of open debate helped create the very pressures which have given rise to present problems. No, we cannot go backwards. What about new laws then? That hardly seems necessary. Use of threatening, abusive or insulting words with an intention to stir up racial hatred already carries seven years under the Public Order Act 1986. That certainly seems plenty to be getting on with, and there is little point introducing longer sentences which the courts would never use. Nor would it be sensible to start tinkering with the burden of proof so that people are convicted of serious offences even though they might not have committed them. A different way has to be found of sending the message that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.
It is at this point that we should turn our eyes to Cambridge. Not Cambridge is as it is now, the world Mecca of academia and research, but Cambridge as it was in 1970, a hotbed of left-wing political revolt. Let us go back to the Garden House riots when a Greek evening at a local hotel was broken up by violent demonstrators. They weren't very violent by the standards of international dissent, although one policeman was seriously injured. 'Hot-headed rioters' was probably nearer the mark but with a clear intention to frighten and cause damage, and police with dogs had to restore order. Still, sentences of up to 18 months sent the firm message that behaviour like this would not be tolerated by the courts. It was hard on those convicted, youths with strong political beliefs who probably got carried away by the excitement of the occasion. Still, the heavy sentencing paid off and student dissent, which had been becoming a public nuisance, was never the same again.
We need something similar now. Not just big sentences for really serious crimes. Those are merited in any case. The courts also need to take a few minor offenders and send them down for substantial periods. It will be unfair, of course, but their pain has to be balanced against the public good. There are those who have drawn from the Brexit vote the conclusion that picking on members of minorities is somehow all right. It is time for courts to send an unmistakable message to the opposite effect.
First published in Shaw Sheet