Being called for jury service is rarely a welcome experience. It may cause complications for work and family life, especially if it is a case that takes weeks or months. Jurors are required to treat the evidence they hear as strictly confidential and may be prosecuted if they fail to observe the rules. In cases involving violence or murder, they may have to look at photographs of a disturbing nature that remain with them for some time after the case is over. At the end of trials where the accused is found guilty, it is not unknown for jurors to be subject to abuse or threats from friends and relatives of the accused as they leave the court building.
Four Scottish jurors who served on the longest-running criminal trial in the UK – it lasted almost two years and cost an estimated £7.5 million – spoke about their experience (but not about their deliberations in the jury room) in a BBC Radio Scotland programme. They reported lasting psychological effects. Having to sit in silence for extended periods, especially for those who were naturally sociable and outgoing, was unsettling. Some found it very difficult to return to work after the case was over. One decided to leave her previous job and train for a new career. Another said that although the judge had thanked them for the care and attention they had given to the case, there was no post-trial support after what had been a stressful experience.
The particular case was a complicated fraud trial. A few prosecutions of this type have collapsed because jurors, for a variety of reasons, have been unable to continue. The competence of juries to understand and assess the evidence in fraud cases has been questioned from time to time, but trial by jury is still regarded as a bedrock of the criminal justice system. Those who want a change argue that jurors cannot be expected to have specialised knowledge of financial scams, money laundering and tax evasion. The sheer volume of documentation that has to be considered can be daunting, even for experts. As the internet increasingly becomes a major site where fraud is perpetrated, the capacity of juries to come to an informed conclusion is likely to become even more problematic.
The word 'class' is used less frequently in public discourse than it used to be. This is partly because the traditional categories (upper, middle, lower) have been blurred by social, economic and cultural changes over the last 50 years, but also because many politicians prefer to play down the reality of a divided society. They talk about 'social inclusion' rather than the continuing evidence of fragmentation. That explains why they seem hopelessly out of their depth when faced with something like the Grenfell tower tragedy, which starkly highlighted the nature and persistence of the class structure in modern Britain.
Just occasionally, however, the word 'class' does receive an airing. In an obituary of the distinguished broadcaster, Liz MacKean, who died recently at the age of 52, mention was made of something she said at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013. She referred to the existence of an 'officer class' at the BBC, which rewarded itself with excessive salaries and severance payments. We have subsequently learned of a substantial gender gap in the remuneration of male and female presenters.
Ms MacKean was a victim of this 'officer class' in a much more personal way. She was a highly respected reporter on BBC's 'Newsnight' programme and had compiled evidence about Jimmy Savile's career as a paedophile. Gutless senior managers, afraid to question the status of this 'national treasure', refused to screen her findings. Even after Savile died in 2011, and more evidence had been unearthed, a planned report on the subject was pulled at a late stage. Several Savile 'tribute' programmes were given priority. Ms MacKean regarded the censorship of her work as 'a breach in our duty to the women who trusted us to reveal that Jimmy Savile was a paedophile.' She quit the corporation in disgust, claiming that the BBC had tried to smear her reputation. The Pollard inquiry totally vindicated her and found serious failings in the BBC's handling of the Savile affair.
Surveys have shown that class remains a potent force in key sections of British society. Those who achieve high positions in the media, the judiciary, the civil service and government are disproportionately likely to have attended independent schools and 'elite' universities. Inter-generational advantage flourishes. The various manifestations of popular culture (language, fashion, entertainment) seek to disguise the extent of social division but the underlying structural supports remain firmly in place. In Scotland, we fondly imagine that the situation is much better here compared to that of our southern neighbour. An honest sociological study of Edinburgh would soon blow that illusion out of the water.
Jeremy Corbyn's recent summer tour of Scotland came at a time when some of the gilt had come off the SNP's gingerbread. The loss of seats at the UK general election in June was followed by sustained attacks on the Scottish government's record in key policy areas and a decline in Nicola Sturgeon's personal popularity.
By contrast, Corbyn demonstrated that he is an effective campaigner, producing a much better result at the election than commentators anticipated and surviving repeated attempts within his own party to dislodge him from the leadership. Many people would have thrown in the towel in the face of all the abuse that has been directed at him, not least by powerful sections of the media. He has shown determination in the face of adversity. Presumably his Scottish tour was intended to strengthen the modest revival of the Labour party north of the border, while exploiting the current weaknesses of the SNP.
And yet he continues to face huge problems, which enthusiastic rallies for the faithful and born-again idealists cannot disguise. His central message – an attack on austerity and on the evils of inequality and social injustice – is one that has considerable appeal, particularly to those who are struggling financially or have become thoroughly disenchanted with conventional politics. A radical voice seems a refreshing change. But Corbyn is using the language of the 1960s to address problems that, half a century later, require a different sort of response.
The world has changed. Above all, the capacity of government – any government – to shift the economic levers which control the distribution of wealth has declined. Globalisation means that many multinational companies can exercise considerable influence over national political decisions. Thus, for example, a tax regime that is regarded as hostile to business could easily lead to production being moved to another country, with a consequent loss of jobs. The fact that the power of multinational companies may be seen as 'undemocratic' does not alter the depressing reality of the situation.
Jeremy Corbyn comes across as sincere and well-intentioned, but hopelessly naïve. His belief in the perfectibility of human beings shows that he has failed to learn the lessons of history. He is holding out promises to the poor and marginalised that he could not possibly deliver, peddling a brand of sentimentality that actually does a disservice to those he is seeking to help. Hard thinking, not soft words, is what is required.