The London Review of Books has a piece by Stephen Sedley, ‘Plimsoll’s Story’ (subscribers only), which I thought was going to be one of those lengthy, dry articles I tend to skip, but it contains some interesting nuggets.
It’s a review of the three volumes that make up The Oxford History of the Laws of England 1820-1914 (see what I mean?) and the article’s title refers to Samuel Plimsoll who came up with what was later called the Plimsoll line, which indicates whether a ship is overloaded or not. This sounds a sensible and worthwhile idea. Especially when you know what a problem un-seaworthy ships were in the 19th century:
The carnage of the Victorian merchant shipping trade, prospered in or connived at by MPs, peers and ministers as one overloaded rust-bucket after another put to sea and was lost, enabling the owners to collect insurance moneys from a Lloyds’ flush with the prosperity of those vessels that did reach port, still beggars belief. While there was no law against overloading, there was a draconian one to punish seamen who refused to board an unseaworthy vessel. In the early 1870s, [Raymond] Cocks records, more than 1600 sailors were jailed for this crime. When the Peru sank, 15 of her crew survived because they were serving prison sentences for having refused to ship aboard her.
Sedley quotes someone (A contemporary of Plimsoll? The book under review?) saying “Plimsollism is another word for terrorism.” I wish there was a source for this, as it could be a great example of how “terrorism” has been bandied about as the way to vilify one’s enemies for a long, long time. And, these days especially, “terrorist” as an epithet is tantamount to saying the target deserves to die.
On the LRB blog the other day, Jeremy Waldron discussed the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden:
We defend targeted killing when the targets are terrorists, but the term ‘terrorist’ was used almost reflexively by colonial or repressive governments to apply to insurgents or enemies of the regime. South Africa called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and attempted the targeted assassination of various members of the ANC including Albie Sachs (who later sat, maimed by the attempt, on the South African Supreme Court). For that matter, think of the British government’s fondness for describing virtually every active opponent against colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s as a terrorist, including many who later became respected statesmen. Or think of the harm that might have been done to peace prospects in Northern Ireland if a shoot-to-kill policy had been used more widely against IRA commanders than in fact it was. Sometimes one has to refrain from ‘decapitating’ an organisation so that there is somebody left to talk to.
We must be approaching the time when we need some variant of Godwin’s Law for the word “terrorist”.
But back to the article which, by now, has moved on. It also describes in passing the growth of government as a result of all the oversight required by the 19th century’s many social reforms:
The Home Office grew in this period from an establishment of 22, supporting a home secretary who signed every letter himself, to a department of state controlling inspectorates, some of them highly skilled and employing a surprisingly high number of women, of mines, factories, explosives, prisons, police, reformatory and industrial schools, aliens, anatomy, animal welfare and inebriate retreats.
It’s easy to forget, amidst the modern day Conservatives’ bluster that so much of the “red tape” and “big government” they bang on about is the result of reforms that today we take for granted as having always been there. We don’t want to lose them.
The article also, in talking about the law, highlights some of the ways in which laws have been created unequally, written so as to favour those in power. For example:
One wonders why, in an era when property rights were all but sacred, trespass — except in search of game — was never criminalised by either the legislature or the judiciary. The answer, I strongly suspect, is hunting. It was — for that matter it still is — one thing for the hunt to hand out compensation to a smallholder who has just had his kitchen garden trashed by a horde of domesticated quadrupeds in pursuit of a feral one. It is another to let the smallholder or the police put the master of foxhounds in the dock and have him fined, eventually giving him more form than the local flasher. Even when Parliament in the 20th century finally lost patience with squatters and made trespass a crime, it did so only where the trespasser had defied a request to leave. So long as it thundered on, the hunt was still safe.
Finally, there’s a long paragraph on how difficult it was for women to be regarded as “persons” according to law:
When Parliament gave women the right to stand for election, Lady Sandhurst was unseated from the London County Council by an opponent who claimed that, not being a person, she could not be ‘a fit person of full age’. But when a Miss Cobden was elected and waited till the time for challenge was past before taking her seat, she was promptly prosecuted for being a person sitting as councillor when unqualified. She put up the seemingly impregnable defence that if she was not a person for the purpose of being elected she could not be a person for the purpose of being prosecuted. Naturally, she was convicted.
So, there’s often interesting stuff buried in what look like lengthy, dry articles. I must get quicker at reading.