By Jingo! Gove and Making Heroes

Michael GoveWhen Michael Gove speaks, a storm brews.

The Education Secretary has stated that left-wing myths, denigrating traits such as patriotism, are perpetuated by comedies such as Blackadder, which are used in the classroom to teach history.  He continued to remark that “only undergraduate cynics would say the soldiers were foolish to fight”.  Gove then attacked the academic integrity of Richard Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge, who Gove accused of not conducting himself like “a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate”.

This is not too much of a surprise, and many passive readers will be aware that Michael Gove is keen to promote a new, and quite antiquated, nationalistic history, which has all the trappings of a discredited “Great Man History”.  Even yet, the rhetoric that Gove has employed to make his point is extremely aggressive, considering that he states that his opponents act like “undergraduate cynics”.  Particularly of interest is Gove insistence that Britain’s participation in World War One equates to a “just war”.  The use of that term really is quite shocking and it may be apt to go into this at greater length in another post, as many readers may be interested to discuss this term in the future.

Starting with the rhetoric, it is not an exaggeration to describe Gove’s article in the Daily Mail as an emotionally manipulative diatribe about World War One,  This period is still considered “living history”, and a particularly sensitive topic to the nation’s memory and history.  In this vein, Michael Gove states that Richard Evans “has attacked the very idea of honouring their [British soldiers’] sacrifice”, while he quotes himself as seeking to “give young people from every community the chance to learn about the heroism, and sacrifice, of our great-grandparents”.  This is not carrying a debate with professional conduct – although Gove has not been known for encouraging consensus in his ideas and reforms for education.  Using such provocative language to not just discredit his thoughts, but personally singling out Evans again, is extremely unwarranted and constitutes a personal attack on a reputed historian – simply for holding a contrary perspective.  Encouraging children to hold a plurality of opinion is certainly an unsafe tradition under such an arbitrary Education Secretary.

“Even to this day there are Left-wind academics all too happy to feed those myths”, Gove determines.  It is true that history is often twisted to suit ideology or inclination, and it is the role of the teacher to present an easily digested, accessible, and neutral perspective of how history may be perceived.  Present an equal case, give children and students the events, and encourage them to draw their own conclusions.  British history is not so fragile that it cannot accept criticism or receive scrutiny for its role in WWI, the events leading to it, and Britain’s leading role in colonialism, imperialism, and expansionism around the world.  Rather than deify the war efforts of the nation, we must continue to both commemorate and reflect, and politicians do not have to sing eulogies to the fallen for this sacrifice to be noted.  Instead, it should be seen as a symbol of experience and growth that Britain can learn from its history, not wear it.

Patriotism (and conscription) via obligation and shame, yet defending "the liberal western order"

Patriotism (and conscription) via obligation and shame, yet defending “the liberal western order”

There are certainly a lot of people who will equate this, as Michael Gove himself states, to an attempt to denigrate values of heroism and courage.  While there are certainly a lot of factors behind the beginning of the First World War, and a myriad of reasons why soldiers went to war, there is no attempt in this post to state that British soldiers should not be remembered both as valiant and forsaken.  What is important is that we must remember the war from a calmer perspective and with moderation.  Any person was capable of heroism or villainy.  Generally, they fell between the two.

People fought on the war front, and the home front: many died for a cause they believed in, many died for a cause they did not believe in, and many lived with both memories of pride and sorrow.  The point of this article is not to debate the reasons behind the war.  Instead, it is to argue that, even though World War One occupies a sacred spot in the shared memory of Britain, we should remember men and women, not heroes and villains.  There were valid reasons for war, just as there were valid reasons for not going to war.  By transforming WWI into a dichotomy between heroes, who supported war and now stand on pedestals, and villains who were therefore against it – we dehumanise those involved in a tragic war.  Why did so many British, Commonwealth, and allied soldiers fall?  To defend the liberal western order: apparently, because controlling a quarter of the world via an empire is the epitome of a considerate democracy, despite Germany giving greater suffrage than Britain at the time.  Richard Evans has since responded in much the same vein against Gove’s decree that Britain sought to defend this liberal western order.

Let us have a sensitive, and informed, debate about World War One, without the rampant nationalism – all countries involved lost fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.  Let us step back from partisan mud-slinging, and rationally consider how and why this dichotomy of opinion has arisen regarding World War One.  While memories of WWI live on, and mean so much to us, we should be careful not to rewrite history so belligerently without debate, and to commemorate the past without treading over the graves of those lost.  We must remember that other peoples, both past allies and enemies, suffered too – Britain is not alone to shoulder that remorse or regret.  We must also continue to conduct British history with maturity; Britain’s role in WWI should never be held to be so sacrosanct that we cannot accept criticism or debate today.

Gallipoli - part of a "just war" and tragic.

Gallipoli – part of a “just war” and tragic

As for Blackadder and other satires, they can be an important tool for encouraging children to take a passionate interest in history.  True – they do not occupy the role of “real history”, but there are few who actually consider satirical and dry comedies as historical documentaries.  Yes, informative history that assesses sources and debates events is the standard way for teaching history – but teachers acknowledge that they must win students’ hearts before they can encourage their minds.  While we may not expect children at the age of fifteen to gain an incisive appreciation for history, we can at least cultivate an interest in history that can persevere into their adult life, when their ability finally matches their curiosity and potential.  Until that age, teachers need to keep that spark of interest alive.  Rather than berate children about the nationalistic message behind a particular war, as according to new government policy, let us use creative and fun approaches to engage children and adults so they want to learn more.  Once children want to learn, the battle is won, and once we accept that Blackadder is not being used to teach “left-wing” morals, and is just a popular comedy that encourages many to form an interest in history, we can actually focus on a more important agenda – how to teach world-class, and world-encompassing, history.

Further reading:


Recent Developments in Syria

There is no chance for a snappy title or a fun twist to events this time. For the sake of sensitivity, no images have been used, and sincere apologies in advance for the subject which may make readers uncomfortable.

While the articles on this blog are designed to try and entertain and engage the reader, sometimes the situation is just too grave and consternation replaces the lighter humour that is often injected in these posts. This post seeks to address recent developments in Syria in the form of chemical attacks which have reportedly killed hundreds – even up to a count of 1,300 by some sources. Loss of life is always regrettable and should always be avoided unless absolutely necessary; there does not seem to ever be a reason for murder on such a scale. A chemical attack such as this is amongst the worst kind of attacks imaginable – it is indiscriminate and kills men, women, and children, it was used with civilians as the target, and it spreads fear and terror in its wake. There is no excuse for such measures and all peoples should rightfully condemn such brutality and malice.

One of the big questions is what the international response will be. The BBC lists some of the world media reaction to these recent Syrian events, and the consensus seems to be that, though peacekeeping intervention and diplomatic influence should be used, Syria is unimportant to Europe or the United States. If this were the case, it really would be the case that limited warfare (abhorred though it is) truly has been breached with the use of unconventional warfare. There certainly can be no occasion for the international community to turn a blind eye – or use empty words and rattle empty scabbards feebly – because of idleness or disinterest. In a global world where countries and people share the same interests, democratic values and liberty should be defended as a common cause. No peoples such live in fear of their government, or exist under the arbitrary rule of dictators and armed forces. In this vein, there should certainly be no excuse to ignore atrocities which can safely be considered crimes against humanity.

An unpopular point that must be mentioned – and hopefully the reader will consider the point in full before reacting. There is little (or no) doubt that a terrible attack has been committed, and that there is no plausible reason for such a disaster. Such an attack can be intended only to cause terror and take life indiscriminately: it is an attack founded not upon eliminating the military capacity of a combatant force, but upon hate. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence. There are many more lives to be lost – some of which will be in direct consequence to the terrible loss of life on the 20th August.

Who gains from such an atrocity though? This article states that various parties could potentially gain from such a cruel, base, and calculating attack. The Syrian government has been recorded as having the ability, and even the aggression, to effectively deploy chemical weapons against its civilian populace. It does appear the most likely of theories if the chemical attack is confirmed (as it is highly likely to be). The use of chemical weapons by a current government seems to be political suicide, however. Even if the use of chemical weapons would prove successful in curbing (or culling) dissent, the international community surely could not withstand such blatant atrocities. Such a government would surely have triggered a countdown to its own collapse and its leading members’ arrest. Still, this does take for granted that the government relied on rational choices, and the current situation suggests that careful compromise and moderation has not been the order of the day. However, for the sake of considering all possibilities, it is still feasible (though less likely) that the rebel faction triggered the chemical attack themselves. They would certainly have more to gain from the events than the government. As has been highlighted: “Why would the Assad government, which has recently been retaking ground from the rebels, carry out a chemical attack while UN weapons inspectors are in the country?” The rebels would surely do well from gaining further international support for their cause if an unpopular Syrian government was blamed for an atrocity, especially if the rebel cause is not proceeding smoothly at the time of writing. It is feasible, if unlikely, but readers should always consider alternatives, however horrible and terrifying.

Again, hate begets hate. The Syrian conflict may linger for months, even years, and gain in intensity. In the meantime, there is a civilian populace that lives in the shadow of terror and murder, where children are raised in an environment of danger and death. The international community must take action to ensure that the lives of every person are safe from those who have not just caused such misery and pain through conventional means, but unconventional, too. For the sake of preserving lives, and arresting those who would commit crimes against humanity, I hope that UN inspection teams to detect and discern those responsible, and that the detainment and trial of such criminals is swift. Hopefully, peacekeeping forces will soon be considered to protect the lives of civilians and bring all parties to the diplomatic table to end the bloodshed.

Further Reading:

James – Duke of York and Albany

As explained briefly in a former post on the topic, James II has been buried by the current historiography and demands a more critical eye than he has currently received. James II appears to remain somewhat of an unknown monarch in relation to many of the more popular kings and queens covered in the history curriculum, media, and the public imagination. Since the public’s hunger for knowledge far exceeds the information provided, it seems that even this well-intentioned attempt to present an overview of an often-ignored king may be well received and encourage further interest on the subject. Since it is always an injustice to summarise a person in a few words, it seemed appropriate to write two posts to capture a general overlay of James for the casual reader. This first post intends to cover his life before he was king.

James was born on the 14th of October, 1633 (using the Old Style) at St. James’s Palace. He was the second surviving son, preceded by Charles (b. 1630, later Charles II, 1660-85), and Mary (1631-1660), and older than Elizabeth (1635-80), Henry (1640-60), and Henrietta (1644-70). At the age of three, he was given the honorary position of Lord High Admiral – a position which he would take up in earnest following the Restoration. His infancy began in a period known as the “Personal Rule” of Charles I (commonly held as 1629-40), where the king ruled without calling Parliament. It has been seen as a time of relative calm, especially in comparison to the troubles in Europe, where religious and political strife had led to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). However, this relative calm was shattered by internal dissent over taxation, religious policy, and governance, leading to the Bishops’ Wars (1639-40), the Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the English Civil Wars, which began in 1642.

NPG 5104,King James II,by Cornelius Johnson

James was present when his father raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham, and nearly captured along with his brother at the first pitched battle of the civil war, the Battle of Edgehill (1642). Though only nine years old, he kept memoirs of the military actions, as he would later in his military career during the 1650s. After the initial battle, he stayed in the Royalist capital, Oxford, where he was made Duke of York in 1644. However, as the tide turned against the Royalists, Oxford surrendered in 1646, and James was confined in St. James’s Palace. He found his stay most uncomfortable, worrying about the plight of his father, and was stripped of all his retinue, “not so much as excepting a dwarf whom his Royal Highness was desirous to have retain’d with him”. In 1648, he escaped from the Palace with the Joseph Bampfield by pretending to play hide-and-seek, and dressed in women’s clothing to avoid detection. A barge master discovered James’s true identity when he witnessed his “most unwomanly behaviour” while attempting to put on his stockings, but he was convinced to keep his silence and ferry the young prince to France. This would be the first exile for James, and the last time he would see England while his father still lived.

While in exile, James gained a commission in the French army during the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59) and the Fronde (1648-53). Serving under the sublime general, Turenne, he gained a reputation for gallantry and bravery in the face of the enemy, and seemed both accustomed to life in France and at home with his role in the army. When the political situation changed, and an alliance between France and Cromwell’s Commonwealth seemed likely, Charles showed favour towards Spain, with the consequence of forcing James to resign his commission with the French army. Although chagrined, James obeyed his brother’s commands – a loyalty which showed no sign of decay throughout his life. By 1659, France and Spain had made peace and James considered accepting an offer to become an admiral in the Spanish navy. Ultimately, he declined, and in 1660, Charles II was restored as king after the collapse of the Commonwealth regime.

His life as Duke of York and Albany courted suspicion and rumour for a variety of reasons. Announcing an engagement to Anne Hyde, the daughter of Charles’s chief adviser, caused scandal for the proposal that James would marry a commoner. Accusations were made to Edward Hyde, the father, that he intended to mix “royal blood with ink”, and using his position to form dynastic ties beyond his station. Regardless, the marriage went ahead on 3 September, 1660. Two surviving children were the result of this union, Mary and Anne, both of whom would become monarchs.

“I do not believe there are two men who love women more than you and I do”, Charles remarked to the French ambassador in 1677, “but my brother, devout as he is, loves them still more”. The reputation of James as a womaniser rivalled both Charles and John Wilmot, the famous libertine, and earned the ire of more than a few in the court. In his Memoirs, Count Grammont recounted with humour many of the sexual exploits of the Duke of York, and Thomas Pepys – secretary for James in his capacity of Lord High Admiral, and no saint in the bedroom either – wrote in his diary of catching James’s gaze lingering over his wife.

Holding the office of Lord High Admiral, James took the responsibility quite seriously, and appeared to be dedicated to maintaining and improving the navy. He was personally present at the Battle of Lowestoft during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, where he was splattered by the blood of an unfortunate aide-de-camp who was hit by a cannonball. One of the greatest embarrassments of the English armed forces also occurred under his watch; the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway, burning many ships and even capturing the flagship which carried Charles II from France to his restoration, while the English navy could do nothing but watch. However, the responsibility was instead put upon the anti-war minister Edward Hyde, who was forced to resign from public life as a result.

A more heroic recording of his life relates to the Great Fire of London in 1666. As the Lord Mayor was not currently in the town, Charles II placed James in command of the firefighting efforts. James immediately began to set up posts to coordinate fire-fighting teams, pressing persons into aiding the rescue attempts, and organising the tearing down of buildings to allow firebreaks. Both Charles and James personally helped in attempts to tear down homes and put out fires, and a contemporary wrote that “the Duke of York hath won the hearts of the people with his continual and indefatigable pains day and night in helping to quench the Fire.”

Perhaps most importantly, an interest in Catholicism led to both James and Anne Hyde becoming attracted to a form of worship which was subject to great fears and suspicion in Restoration England. By 1668 or 1669, James took Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Church, although he kept this secret until the English Parliament introduced a new Test Act in 1673, designed to prevent Catholics from holding office. When James refused to take the oath – which included a passage denying the doctrine of transubstantiation – he chose to resign his post as Lord High Admiral rather than convert to the Anglican faith.


As Charles had no legitimate children, it seemed increasingly likely that the heir-presumptive would remain James: fears of the first openly Catholic monarch since Mary I were becoming increasingly realised and provoked. These fears may be said to have come to a head when Titus Oates and Israel Tonge fabricated lies of a “Popish Plot” in 1679, said to be designed for the murder and overthrow of Charles II. Despite great suspicion and cross-questioning from Charles himself, the accusations were given credence by a series of unfortunate events which supported such a plot. Eventually, the plot was said to include James as a conspirator, fuelling fears to such a degree that attempts to change the succession – and bar James from becoming king in favour of Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth – climaxed in the Exclusion Crisis of 1681. James was commanded to leave the country while political tensions burned bright. It was during this period that the “Whigs” and the “Tories” first emerged as names and loose coalitions: the Whigs being named after a band of rogues in Ireland and being in favour of changing the succession, and the Tories named after a group of outlaws in Scotland, who were opposed to any change, even if it meant that a Catholic would become monarch and Head of the Anglican Church.

Eventually, the Exclusion Crisis was averted by Charles II proroguing Parliament, and opposition to James as the next king appeared to almost evaporate as Whigs were deprived of public office. A half-hatched plan to assassinate Charles and James in the Rye Plot of 1682 led to the implication of many Whigs, and further arrests, dismissals, and exiles of notables meant that the monarchy seemed far stronger than it had been when it was restored in 1660. James was appointed Lord High Commissioner in Scotland in 1682, a vice-regent in Charles’s name, where he appeared to be quite even-handed and amiable. Finally, in 1685, Charles II died and James II began his turbulent and unexpectedly short reign.

– Any reader that wants to discuss or learn more about James II should feel more than free to tweet (@BroJayDee), message, or e-mail questions and queries ( The ODNB article by the excellent W. A. Speck (also author of James II – Profiles in Power) does an incomparably better job than this post and is highly recommended for readers with a strong or academic interest.

Further reading:

James II and VII: Mad Wig or Mad Whigs?

James II of England, and VII of Scotland, deserves a more critical eye that history has so far suggested. Despite the efforts of some fantastic historians, this monarch remains the victim of a lingering Whig interpretation which can be seen more as a crime to professional history than any effort for objectivity. Where debates are fiery over similarly contentious figures such as Richard III and Henry VII, James has remained in the dark. The majority of historians and the public still assume quite a simple black and white perspective of James II, especially in comparison to his rival and successor, William III (of Orange). As the harbinger of the last breath of an absolute monarch, and the head of a Catholic conspiracy which is still enshrined in the Royal Succession today, it seems to be an open and shut case that James was an autocrat. The long eighteenth century even starts when James is deposed – as if history required his removal before some kind of progression could occur. Well, it’s high time for the debate to flare up and change to be brought about.

Historiographically, he is not a highly ranked monarch. He never wins any popularity contests for the people’s favourite kings and queens. His greatest claims to fame are being the son of an executed king, the brother of a labyrinthine and unfathomable “Merry Monarch”, and being a deposed king himself. Adjectives to describe him include “autocratic”, “tyrannical”, “inept”, “arbitrary”, and “stupid”.

The danger is that this perspective has rarely been challenged and modern debate is extremely muted in comparison to so many other comparable ideological conflicts. Treatment of Richard III has been much more contended than James II – and the proof is in the most famous event of James’s short reign: “The Glorious Revolution”. This is a slight to how history should be treated today. Even greater a tragedy is a current exhibition which portrays the events as “the Bloodless Revolution”. The archaic Whiggish interpretation of “the Eleven Years’ Tyranny” – where Charles I ruled from 1629-40 without Parliament – has been all but removed from academic discourse for preference of a more neutral “Personal Rule”, but James II is the wretched villain of a “Glorious Revolution”? Perhaps a little revision of the political motives behind the leading name could offer a more neutral tone.

“Bloodless”? In regards to these events, “bloodless” is definitely not the right word to use. Reflecting upon the bloodshed between 1640-1651 (and sporadic events after such as Penruddock’s Uprising in 1655), 1688 definitely saw less loss of life. However, it did see deaths from skirmishes, as well as anti-Catholic riots in several towns. As a rule, history should not proclaim an event “bloodless” if there is death.

“Glorious”? There are a couple of ways of using the word. Perhaps it was glorious because James II was deposed; if so, perhaps this is a little too subjective and highly charged to be used reliably. Glorious because of the relative lack of bloodshed? Definitely a use of hyperbole where there were many supporters of the old regime. Since there are always at least two sides to every story, it would be better to just avoid the exaggerated language and allow debate to discuss the alternate perspectives in a more objective environment.

“Revolution”? The home and international political environment does show that there was discontentment in many quarters. Since James efficiently sabotaged the traditional alliance between the Crown and Church, and threatened a pro-Catholic policy of conversions and full religious toleration which would be extended through his newborn son, there was certainly a high level of dissent. However, there was no attempt to copy the events of the Civil War, perhaps because the events were still very fresh and driven into memory. Instead, it was highly likely that the chief incentive for change came from William’s desire to force (after previous attempts to persuade) England into an alliance against Louis XIV of France. The unstable political situation, a beleaguered monarch, and a need to secure more allies against an expansionist France, meant that William intervened militarily. “Invasion” or “conquest” would be more accurate, and “intervention” would be less subjective, but “revolution” it certainly was not.

It's more likely the reader will recognise this portrait. It's William III.

It’s more likely the reader will recognise this portrait. It’s William III.

It does no justice to James II that he is most famous for the people around him. He is a notable figure, and merits greater attention; not just in the role of pantomime villain to the greater successes of William III, but as a monarch and a person who acted as a vehicle of change. As a result, the public engages forms of history which have not been revised effectively. The Whiggish historiography that has inundated this period needs to be weeded out, removed, and replaced by a more revised and professional discourse which interacts with academia, public, and interest groups. Perhaps it really is the case that James II was a terrible monarch, attempting to bring in an absolute monarchy styled on the monarchy of Louis XIV. It’s not likely, and complex lives are never so easily summarised, but it could be the case. Likewise, it could be that James II was misunderstood, or that he could be seen more as a tragic figure than a reckless authoritarian. Until the political bias and Victorian dialogue is removed from the historiography, we will never really know.

The New Winds of Change in Egypt

Today, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt has been declared to no longer be in office by General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi. Decreeing that Morsi had “failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people”, and not meeting a deadline made by the army, the constitution has been suspended and an interim government has been announced. Adly Mansour, the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court since 1 July, has been given the reins of power until new elections, expected in a few weeks.


As the reader may know, this is a highly divisive and current issue, and there are many sides to the same story. The Muslim Brotherhood have been accused of governing with a strong bias towards their Islamist power base, and failing to rectify the poor economy that has seen chronic fuel shortages and rising food prices. The Muslim Brotherhood had also clashed with the Supreme Constitutional Court as they sought to force through constitutional change, and conciliation with opposition parties has been low through the first – and only – year of Morsi’s tenure. This post is not arguing that the President Morsi, or the Muslim Brotherhood, is the best party for Egypt, or that their actions have been credible. However, this post does argue for due democratic process, and this is something that Egypt, and the world, is not witnessing.

Perhaps the recent, and independent, intervention by the army should be highlighted. In a western society, it may be taken for granted that the armed forces are depoliticised and can take no action regarding the political process. Except in a national emergency, which is to be confirmed by a democratically elected government, the army should not even be deployed in regards to law and order. Keeping the peace and protecting the welfare of civilians is the responsibility of the police – who are civilians themselves. Soldiers are not civilians and there is certainly is no need for General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi to consider himself a kingmaker, under the pretence of serving the people. To repeat: the army has no role in the democratic process.


Consider that stations such as Al Hafez, Al Nas & Misr 25 have stopped broadcasting after el-Sisi’s address to the nation. There are wide condemnations when communications are restricted by a government when protests rise: is this intervention by the army any different? The Guardian reports that six journalists have been detained by police and are being transported to an unknown location. The military has also warned that the armed forces and police would deal “decisively” with any violence following the address. Armoured personnel carriers and tanks are being deployed, as well as armed soldiers, in key locations. These are ominous messages that may not herald a dark future for Egypt, but these messages do reveal a democratic process in Egypt which is incredibly vulnerable to military intervention and pressure.

The people should decide who is elected to govern their country. They did – Morsi won approximately 52% of the vote. Just over a year into his tenure, he has been ousted by a military coup (and it is a coup – do not think otherwise) for not heeding the calls of the Egyptian people. Most governments decry demonstrations when their tenure has been less than a four/five year term – Morsi got one year. Even Morsi held that peaceful demonstrations were lawful, though he also thought that he knew best. What the world witnessed tonight was a government which was toppled by the army. The army suspended the constitution and enacted its own temporary law after a coup. An interim government has been declared and put in place by the army. Where a democratic process should have demonstrations, petitions, protests, and parliamentary procedure, Egypt witnessed violence and a coup. While we hope that Egypt will see a brighter future, a stronger economy, and a more united people, these things can – and should – be brought about by elected politicians, and the people who those politicians represent.

Tonight, this post does not celebrate the downfall of a divisive president. Tonight, this post mourns a military coup in Egypt which promises no end to violence, crackdowns to dissent, and possibly even worse.

Current Sources:

Coup D’Etat In Egypt: Military Removes President Morsi And Suspends The Constitution

Misinterpreting Jane: Austen, Romance and the Media

To all loyal and interested readers — you must be tired of my writing already! As a treat for your eyes, here’s a reblogging of “Misinterpreting Jane: Austen, Romance, and the Media” by Serena Dyer (@Serena_Dyer). Have a read and I guarantee that you’ll find yourself in agreement – or I’ll eat my hat! (It’s a fedora; please don’t make me do that.)

Serena Dyer

With the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice earlier this year, the media and museums alike have been clamouring to make the most of the bicentenary, and rightly so. Jane Austen was a wonderful writer and an influential author, and should be celebrated. However, the creation of the ‘Jane Austen brand’ has contributed to the perpetuation of the idea that the Austen novel is synonymous with idealistic romantic literature. While making her immensely sellable, it has also prevented many people taking her seriously.

Writing on whether or not Jane Austen is a ‘romantic novelist’ has taken off recently with blogs like Robert Rodi’s Bitch in a Bonnet. Rodi’s work is typical of the counter-culture that has developed in response to the rising public popularity of Austen. Eager to save her, and reclaim her, writers like Rodi have denounced the ‘Jane Austen brand’ as “a great writer reduced to a marketing…

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Crime, Punishment, and Retribution: Avoiding the Death Penalty

The media is engineered to capture an audience’s attention with strong headlines, and on the topic of crime and punishment, this is especially so. ‘Dale Cregan: father of murdered WPc says he should hang’, reports the Telegraph. ‘Dale Cregan trial verdict: Cop killer should ‘hang’ says father of murdered Pc Fiona Bone‘, states the Mirror. The Metro follows with ‘Dale Cregan should hang for murder of PCs, says father of victim‘. On a different case, headlines an article with ‘April’s mum: Mark Bridger should hang for killing my daughter‘. From how the articles portray themselves, newspaper readership is one bloody-minded collective, filled with righteous wroth and fanatical loathing in equal measure.

Granted, the two cases are heinous. There cannot be a legitimate case for condoning either convicted felon for their acts, and whether the two persons were found criminally insane or just plain bastards, they have to be removed from society to protect individuals within it. There has to be the fear of punishment to help deter crime, and even the use of punishment to appropriately match the crime. How much punishment is too great a topic to fit into this article, but it would be a great theme to address another time. For now, let us concentrate on these calls for the death penalty.

The death of a loved one, caused by the actions of another, is surely an emotionally unbalancing event which we all hope to avoid. In almost every sexual assault, rape, abduction, and murder case, there are friends and family who will wish for vengeance. The physical, emotional, and mental trauma carried from such crimes encourages our deepest condolences, sympathy, and empathy.

Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court.

Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court.

But before we don the black cap, we must show some restraint. Unlike Exodus 21:24, we do not have to demand an eye for an eye. The punishment does not have to match the crime, only fit it. There must be humane treatment of even the worst of society, and the law must be blind to personal vendetta and sanguinary zeal. To quote Aristotle, “law is reason free from passion”. We just cannot let our anger, our loss, and our retribution, take lives.

Looking below, you will see a map of all the countries that forbid, or allow, capital punishment in some form.

Blue - abolished the death penalty / yellow - abolished in all but exceptional circumstances / orange - abolished in practice / red - retainers of the death penalty

Blue – abolished the death penalty / lime – abolished in all but exceptional circumstances / orange – abolished in practice / red – retainers of the death penalty

As you can see, strong supporters of democratic societies do not favour the death penalty (except for parts of the USA – you may sigh). The two ideas are pretty mutually exclusive: a democratic government which exists to serve the people should resist the urge to terminate said people, even for the worst of crimes, and even if they support Chelsea. The idea of executing another person is such a chilling idea and no more appropriate, or acceptable, than torture or the revocation of habeas corpus. Even the biggest villain deserves a fair hearing, and a just, but fair, sentence.

An argument used against the death penalty is the possibility of innocence, especially when the evidence provided is not completely secure. The case of Derek Bentley showed the horror of hanging an individual who was posthumously pardoned after decades of lobbying. Not only is this a terrible crime to the victim of execution, and his family and friends, but to the country itself. The state does not have the responsibility to dictate when citizens can live and die – no democratic government should ever rule with sword in hand.

Instead, we need to do the best with what we have. We should not – cannot – torture, abuse, castrate, maim, or kill criminals. The judicial system has to remove those persons from society for our safety, based on a humane law system that can never fall into the dark slide of capital punishment. Through careful monitoring, even rehabilitation, those individuals may return into society. There are some that never will; their attempts for parole may fail and the nature of their crimes too great to ever be trusted in society again. What is most important from a judicial perspective is that these persons must be given the right to mend their ways. Making criminals dance the hemp fandago, even for the most despicable of crimes, can never be the way.

As for us – we have to try and be mature. We have to overcome our grief and honour the memories of those who have become victims of such crime. We must show ourselves superior to the crime and overcome the temptation to become part of it. Our society is stronger than that. Even as the media pulls hysterical headlines, and Facebook pages crop up demanding the death penalty, remember – execution is never the answer.

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