Shoot them first, pardon them afterwards

Mr WotsisnameFew of us can remember the name of our newish Secretary of State for Defence, whose profile remains so low that one's in danger of treading on it.  However, he has now surfaced briefly in the media in order to reverse the policies of his predecessors by deciding to grant 'pardons' to British soldiers executed during the first world war for cowardice, desertion, and similar offences.  This has naturally been welcomed by the surviving relatives of the men concerned, who have long argued that it was a parody of justice to execute these men.  Many of them were suffering from shell-shock (or, as we would probably now be required to call it, post-traumatic stress disorder) and probably physically incapable of continuing to perform their military duties in horrific conditions in the trenches.  (Others, of course, may just have been cowards, and who shall blame them?)  We should rejoice that their families have at last been given satisfaction. 

At the same time, it's impossible to feel entirely happy about this brazen attempt to re-write history by imposing twenty-first century values on the actions of people in the early part of the twentieth, nearly 100 years ago.  Most of us (in Europe, anyway; some Americans, Iranians, Chinese, etc. are not so sure) nowadays regard all capital punishment as a barbarous injustice, regardless of the offences for which it used to be imposed:  if those subjected in the past to what we now regard as injustice are all to be 'pardoned' (legal-speak, of course, for acknowledging that there has been a miscarriage of justice, nothing to do with forgiveness), we ought logically to 'pardon' everyone who has been executed in the past, starting perhaps with the men, women and children executed for stealing a loaf of bread or a handkerchief.  How widely are these pardons to be scattered?  Even if we shrink from pardoning every last serial murderer ever sent to the gallows, there are question-marks over many others subjected to judicial execution.  William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, was probably wrongly convicted (it's doubtful whether he was a British citizen capable of committing treason against Britain at the time of his 'offences'); Casement might not have been hanged if his reputation had not been besmirched by the sly publication of his diaries revealing him to have been either gay or bisexual;  even Charles I only committed the same offence as Tony Blair, i.e. believing in his Divine Right to exercise the Royal Prerogative, and even the prime minister's severest critics might hesitate to advocate that he should be beheaded.  We don't on the whole send people to Australia as a punishment any more;  should we now 'pardon' the majority of the original British settlers whose descendants subsequently made such a spectacular success of the Fatal Shore?  It might be thought more appropriate that they should pardon us.

Well, I suppose the pardons granted to those unfortunate WWI soldiers have done no harm and a certain amount of good;  and thinking up plausible candidates from the past for similar pardons now is a harmless parlour game, for which we have to thank Mr — er — Wotsisname.


3 Responses

  1. Read some of the harrowing accounts at and then tell me we should't give them a pardon.

    Brian comments:  I didn't say that we shouldn't pardon these men.  If it helps to give peace of mind to their surviving relatives and descendants, by all means do it.  But  we shouldn't kid ourselves that re-writing history by the retrospective imposition of our contemporary values on a different era in the past is an intellectually reputable thing to do.

  2. I think a public beheading of Blair is an excellent idea.  I don’t believe in capital punishment myself, but for that I’d buy tickets!

  3. John says:

    There's an excellent article by Matthew Parris for the Times which addresses the real issues behind this: "A clever trick: say sorry, condemn the past and look good, with no cost". 

    It really is a tardy and tawdry attempt to feel good and revisit the past. While ignoring the real consequential issues of today, which are the proper responsibility of government.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for pointing me at that article, which makes some telling points (and is pretty well in line with my own comments on the posthumous pardons).  I also agree with Matthew Parris about the Private Finance Initiative and its malign consequences.  I differ from Parris, though, and from Trotsky, regarding their assertion  that any army needs to have available the death penalty for desertion, mutiny or cowardice, in order to maintain the discipline essential for military effectiveness.  It seems to me that in this day and age, the army just has to get by without the death penalty as best it can — as, of course, on the whole it does, anyway in the case of Britain.  But there has to be a severe penalty for all these offences if any government is going to be able to use armed force as a last resort in a good cause.  Seeking to reverse such penalties many years later when values have changed is ultimately pure sentimentality, although reasonably harmless.