There has been a perplexing and depressing trend in public life in recent years.
It became prominent when the government was getting all uppity about big corporations not paying their taxes. Not that the corporations were doing anything illegal of course. They had simply been doing what corporations and businessmen, and plenty of ordinary folk, have been doing from time immemorial - simply not paying more tax than the law said they had to pay. Clever lawyers and accountants helped them to avoid tax, but nothing illegal was being done.
So what do the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister do? They winge. They complain. They take the moral high ground, and start saying how utterly unfair it is that these companies should not play the game and pay taxes.
Now it used to be a plank of civil liberties that the government had no right to take money off a citizen without legislation agreed by those citizens' representatives, authorising that acquisition. Theft is theft whoever does it. How glad we have been to live in a country that respects the rights of the individual in this way. What the government of today resorts to however is not exactly theft, but moral blackmail, executive pressure, relying on the weight of public opinion supporting it. Which mostly, as people do not have much sympathy for multinationals, it does.
So Starbucks for example dutifully coughs up as if the State were a charity to which we should voluntarily give funds when it rattles the can under our nose.
I am no great supporter of Starbucks (awful coffee) but I would defend their right to the last not to pay tax if there is a way out of it.
The onus in these matters is on the government to get its legislation right, not to rely on public hand-ringing and moral pressure. Law and the justice system, not public opinion, should determine rights and duties in these matters.
Other examples of the same tendency come to mind. Recently Lord Rennard has been hounded by his party, the once (going back decades) marginally noble but now sickeningly politically correct Lib-Dems, not because he was found guilty of anything that the party's complaints system could prove to be an offence, but because he had done some things which apparently merited an apology. It was strange for a Q.C in a report to suggest that. But he was a Lib Dem Q.C.
I am not defending Lord Rennard in any way, but who is the judge in his case? The pressure of opinion and Nick Clegg's desire to do what he thought his party should be seen to be doing.
Not a very good example but it rings some of the same bells: Nicholas Anelka seems to be a rather immature individual, and his 'quennelle' gesture could well have been racist, but it might just have been anti-establishment, as he claims. It was certainly silly. Yet many were all for his being sacked by his club before his case had even been heard.
Whatever happened to innocent till proven guilty? Death by public opinion again. Public opinion has always been a hair's breadth from the lynch-mob, but now the commitment to justice seems to be weaker, the readiness of institutions and authorities to capitulate seems to be greater.
So it is not surprising that, on the other side, when a judicial decision by a jury is arrived at, the family of Mark Duggan complain bitterly and at least some want to overturn that decision. But if justice is not upheld by those in authority, we can hardly expect those of us lower down the social pile to respect its institutions.
Most worrying of all for the majority of us, the government is proposing to outlaw behaviour that is deemed to be a nuisance or annoying. Who is going to judge that? Another plank in the rule of law has been that a citizen should be able to know in advance when he may be committing a crime. How can anyone know if what he may do in a public place will be adjudged to be anything so vague as annoying?
The decision is again in the hands of one form or another of the executive.
Which is not far removed from public opinion, or political correctness. And that is not in principle any different from the lynch mob - only the level of violence differs. But in a society that seems to be slipping from the rule of law and the adjudication of wrongs by due judicial process, who knows how long that difference will be sustained?