In the summer of 1981 I worked on a building site.
It was the summer of Botham’s Ashes and Lady Di’s wedding; of bad hair, big shoulders and terrible music. But the weather was wonderful and in my small corner of the world there was some great lads, great banter, huge mugs of tea, the Sun newspaper, and endless ribbing about me being a law student…you can imagine how it was. I lived the cliché for a few weeks and loved it…
Then one Friday afternoon the foreman asked me how much overtime I had done that week. I said “none” and he said, “I’ll put you down for ten hours”.
I cannot remember what I said, but I remember feeling very uncomfortable. I’mentioned it to a mate and he just said “great, drinks are on you!”
My dad said that either I should go with it as I was part of the team or I should leave, but I definitely should not tell the boss. I took the extra money that week, but the next time it happened a couple of weeks later my unease was greater still and I walked off the site.
Why mention it? Because I really do not like the way we are demonising sections of the society we live in. The aggressive name calling, stigmatising and judging of people be they so called “scroungers”, illegal immigrants, policeman on the take or phone hacking journalists…It makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.
Let me be clear I do not have any sympathy with excessive and systematic abuse of trust. If people have suffered that must be acknowledged; but I have a lot of sympathy for people who work in an environment where low level criminal activity has been tolerated, even encouraged, for years and where no-one seems to be harmed.
It is wrong, of course, and I am not saying it is right or a good thing. I am just saying I can see how it happens and, frankly, how it could so easily have been me.
What if there had been a whistleblower in 1981. What if my site team were set up by the manager and as the foremen finished the fraudulent return so several police officers came crashing into the huts and arrested us all.
In that first week I would have been guilty as hell and bang to rights. I’might then have had a criminal record and I’might never have become a lawyer. At that point, and trying not to sound melodramatic, my life might have been destroyed.
I knew then in my heart of hearts what was right and what was wrong and I tried to deal with it in my way.
I also knew what great lads I was working with and what a special team they were. They taught me so much about people and I can remember many more things I learnt on that building site than I can remember about any law lecture I attended that year. They worked hard and were good people.
However, like I say, I don’t want to seem like I am condoning criminal behaviour, I just want some perspective and judgment to be applied.
Right now it is very likely that some police officers will lose their livelihoods for being too close to a journalist and journalists might lose their livelihoods for listening to a celebrity’s phone messages. If you have ever lost a job you will know that this can be completely devastating. Some people never recover from it. Are we really saying in the cold light of day that the behaviour we are discussing is so rotten, so impossible to accept and so unforgiveable that we have to criminalise otherwise good people and punish them and their families?
I’m not sure I want to be part of that.
Our prime minister, it is said, was once part of a student “gang” that trashed the odd bar. The next day cash would have to exchange hands to make up for some of the loss and inconvenience. The behaviour was probably criminal, but I really wouldn’t want him (even him) to have had his life blighted by his stupidity and thoughtlessness.
I think we are losing a sense of proportion. I think we are losing the ability to sanction in a way that acknowledges wrongdoing, but which also allows for reparation and for forgiveness.
And I really do not like the sanctimonious preaching from some quarters wielding the stick of twenty-twenty hindsight. You were not there, you do not know how it was; while you are entitled to your point of view, please do not point it at me. Besides, I was always taught that it was very poor manners to stand and point.
So, I am only speaking for myself, but with my criminal past in mind, who am I to judge? And who are you?