Manchester – Where the Law stops at the threshold?

Leader of Manchester City Council Richard Leese has temporarily stepped down after accepting a caution for hitting his 16 year old stepdaugher. I can’t see how he could possibly go back into post after this, but the reaction of the council and the Labour party are really shocking.

According to the details in the press, he hit her in a row, ‘causing a small injury’ to her ear. Assuming he used his hands and not a weapon, I think you’d either have to hit someone very hard, or use your nails to cause a visible injury to someone’s ear. He was held for 20 hours – from 11pm at night to 7pm the next day, which to me suggests the assualt was serious, although this is obviously just speculation.

The council has told the MEN that “We consider this a private matter which we leave up to Richard to deal with with his family”. The local Labour Party line, emanating from Councillor Pat Karney is that “Coun Leese was detained late Monday night following an incident at home. He was released last night with a caution and there is no further legal action pending. This was a private family matter which the family now consider closed.”

To all intents and purposes the Labour Party and the Council are the same thing – Labour having controlled Manchester since some point in the Middle Cambrian, and the underlying assumptions in these statements appear to date from around the same time.

The idea that someone seriously beating their children is a ‘private matter to be dealt with inside the family’ is, for a start, legally nonsensical. As Leese has accepted a caution, he has accepted a criminal assault took place. Criminal behaviour is that which the state deems it necessary to intervene in, and the incident is therefore by definition not private, and so of public concern.

We must be charitable to the Council and say that at least they don’t suggest he should continue to deal with this matter in the same fashion as he did on Monday night, but it’s disgusting that neither Labour nor the Council feel it’s necessary to offer any hint of condemnation. They are basically telling us that their leader hitting his stepdaugher is none of our business, and we should keep our noses out of it.

The philosophical notion underlying this is John Stuart Mill’s division of human affairs into the public and private spheres – one of the cornerstones of liberal political philosophy. The idea is that the state (and society in general) should regulate the former, but have no business interfering in the latter.

There are a lot of problems with this notion – for one it puts business and commerce into the private realm and suggests that wider society has no right to regulate it, even if it involves the creation of globally damaging environmental externalities, exploitation, or business models which collapse causing much wider public harm.

However, the critique that concerns us here stems from feminism. By defining the home as the private realm, classic liberalism provides a cover for domestic violence, sexual abuse and prevents legal sanction on some of the worst horrors that humans perpetrate upon each other.

Clearly we have in general moved on from this position as a society. It broadly agreed that society should intervene in the worst of these cases. But this idea of a public-private dichotomy still underlies much of our political thinking – even if we don’t necessarily name it as such. The Baby P case, and all that follows are part of an ongoing tussle over where the boundary between private and public lies – at what point should society’s representatives intervene, and what are the range of behaviours within which we will allow parents to just get on with it?

This is a contested area, and it is fully of difficult moral grey areas because we are undergoing a process of changing cultural attitudes to this issue. As a general principle, I’m against the state to interfering in people’s lives, but there are certainly greater evils.  On the public-private debate, I’ll just state that dichotomies are always dangerous, and on this issue I am sympathetic to the idea of wider community and extended family responsibility for childrearing – and moving away from a society comprised of atomised nuclear family units, but that’s another story.

What’s significant in the case of the repugnant Richard Leese is that in our collective cultural debate the line has clearly deemed to crossed into the home – the police are given discretion to intervene in cases of violence sufficiently severe to constitute assault, as happened in this case.  The statements from the council and from the Labour party are openly suggesting that to the contrary, this was not an incident of public concern: ‘There’s nothing to see here, please let Sir Richard get on with his family life in private’. No suggestion that what occurred was in any way wrong.

Imagine if Sir Richard had been caught frequenting a prostitute or having an affair. In both cases, no doubt the spin doctors would have also have portrayed this as being a ‘private matter’ – it’s one of the stock phrases – and in those situations they would legally be correct. However, the politician involved would be obliged to do a Tiger and make a show of public contrition for a ‘moment of madness’: assure everyone that it one-off, would never be repeated and that they were a reformed character. We would also expect a prolonged media circus where prurient details are extracted through large payments in cash, stolen or simply fabricated by journalists – all of it justified on the basis that a politician’s sexual conduct has obvious implications on their conduct in office.

Expect nothing of either sort in this case – sex between consenting adults is a different kind of private matter to beating children. No public apology is considered necessary, because we are much more worried if our leaders can’t keep their dicks to themselves than if they beat their kids.

In other cases where politicians have been caught doing something illegal, large or small – such as Harriet Harman’s motoring conviction, the standard form is that press statements contain an expression of regret and acknowledge the authority of the law because isn’t it nice to live in a proper democracy where even the great and the good get their collars felt every now and again.

Again, nothing of the sort here – instead a subtle suggestion that this wasn’t a proper crime because “there is no further legal action pending”, and that as a ‘private matter’ this wasn’t really any wrong as such. Labour do have past form on this – having decided in 2006 to retain the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ for parents accused of assaulting their children. This is against the wishes of all four children’s commissioners, the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The defence allows any act that would constitute assault on an adult to be allowed so long as it does not leave a mark, thereby giving legal sanction to the modus operandi of many abusive parents.

As I understand it, most of the cabinet ministers involved in this decision were not the sort of people who were so uncivilised as to beat their own children (restricting themselves to colluding in torture, massive aerial bombing and the like), but they had been hit by their own parents, and so were unwilling to take a stance that explicitly condemned it. As a result, our legal regime considers violence upon children by adults who are supposed to protect them to be completely acceptable. This is despite quite considerable public support for a ban on smacking, and evidence that it can do lasting damage. The statements from Manchester City Council, and from Labour are trying to turn the clock back even on this dubious state of affairs by suggesting that Leese’s assault on his stepdaughter is a private matter.

As mentioned earlier, this is an issue where we are undergoing changing cultural attitudes. The next time some idiot tells you that feminism never changed anything, point to the way we have changed our attitudes to the ‘private’ sphere of traditional liberalism and domestic violence. These are very recent developments – child sexual abuse was not part of public discourse 30 years ago, rape within marriage was legal in the UK until 1991*, and until recently the police used to attend spousal abuse calls by with the assumption that both parties were probably equally at fault. Looking at the comments below the MEN story, such attitudes are not uncommon in this case either, despite the fact that one of the parties is a man of nearly 60 and a girl of 16.

In such circumstances, the stance taken by public figures really matters. The Council and the Labour Party in Manchester could have chosen to take a stand and describe Leese’s behaviour as unacceptable and brutish, whereas instead they have insinuated that it is the kind of unfortunate incident that is common in families. By reinforcing such attitudes they have shown themselves to be regressive, and conniving in the acceptance of domestic violence, and deserve to be roundly castigated for it.

*The law was changed by a ruling in the House of Lords, not by an act of parliament. It’s incredible that this was only 19 years ago. According to the Wikipedia article there were three cases where the marital rape exemption rule was used in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it was only ever used once before then. Presumably cases usually weren’t taken to court because of the rule and prevailing social attitudes. What I want to know is – why the Tories didn’t immediately pass legislation after R v Kowalski in 1988? This is a bigger skeleton in their closet than Section 28 surely?