Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Love the sinner

Lord Longford, the politician and would-be social reformer, died a decade ago today. For much of his later life, he seemed out of sync with public opinion, whether because of his stance against the gay rights movement or his early campaign for the release of Myra Hyndley, who, with Ian Brady, murdered five young persons in the mid-1960s. A collection of diary entries from the last years of his life, in the 1990s, show how committed Longford remained to Hyndley’s release, and to the idea of hating the sin but loving the sinner.

Francis, or Frank, Pakenham was born at Pakenham Castle, Northern Ireland, educated at Eton and at New College, Oxford, where he shared digs with Hugh Gaitskell. Aged 25, he went to research education policy for the Conservative Party, but this experience only served to lead him towards socialism. For a while, he also worked as a teacher, a don at Oxford, and wrote leaders for the Daily Mail.

In 1931, Pakenham married Elizabeth Harman with whom he had eight children - several of whom today are well-known writers (Antonia Fraser, for example, and Rachel Billington). In 1936, he was beaten while protesting at a Mosleyite meeting. In 1939, he joined the Territorial Army but was invalided out. Also in the 1930s, he joined the Labour Party and converted, with his wife, to Roman Catholicism.

After the war, Pakenham failed to win the Oxford parliamentary seat for Labour, but was made Baron Pakenham of Cowley and appointed a junior minister in the Labour government of 1946-1951. Subsequently, in the 1960s, Pakenham was Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords, and Secretary of State for the Colonies. In 1961, he inherited from his brother the Irish titles of Earl of Longford and Baron Longford and the UK title of Baron Silchester. He was created a Knight of the Garter in 1971.

Pakenham was a prolific author, writing on religious and biographical topics, and he was a noted prison visitor. This latter activity led him, in particular, to a long-term and highly controversial campaign to have the Moors murderer Myra Hindley released from prison. He also courted further public controversy with his negative positions on homosexuality. He died on 3 August 2001. Further biographical information can be gathered from The Guardian or BBC obituaries or from Wikipedia.

At the behest of his publisher, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Lord Longford kept a diary for the calendar year 1981, and this was published the following year as Diary of a Year. In 2000, Lion Publishing brought out a volume called Lord Longford’s Prison Diary based on diaries he wrote between 1995 and 1999. The book is, the publisher says, not only ‘a witness to his extraordinary commitment to and compassion for prisoners, but also a disturbing insight into what goes on in British jails in the name of justice’. Visits to well-known prisoners - Hindley and Brady, mass murderer Denis Nilsen, and spy Michael Bettany - are recorded, as are visits to sex offenders, rapists and conmen, whose names are only known to their victims.

More from the publisher’s burb: ‘Longford, more than any other outsider understands the criminal psyche. He remains one of the few public figures with a belief in the power of prison reform, but also believes that too many people are sent to prison who could be more effectively helped outside. This diary constitutes powerful evidence for his view.’ Here are two extracts.

3 December 1995
‘Yesterday one newspaper carried a prominent piece which was headed, ‘Hindley Will Make West Feel Life is Worth Living, Says Longford’. I am being asked continually if I am going to visit Rosemary West and give the same answer: I have never yet refused to visit a prisoner who requested a visit and I never will. If Rose West wishes to see me I will certainly go.

At the moment of writing, Rose West is in the hospital wing of Durham Prison, as is Myra. Myra broke her leg some time ago, and according to the paper she is being treated for a brittle-bone disorder. I met her new solicitor recently who told me she was in good form. I hope to receive a birthday card from her this week.

Rose West is being treated, not surprisingly, as a suicide risk and is widely reported as being very depressed. Her solicitor, however, insists that she is not depressed at all and hopes to move shortly to a normal wing.

The coming week I shall be making five speeches to mark my ninetieth birthday . . . There is an obvious danger of my turning these occasions into a series of ego trips. I am determined, however, to put some kind of message across. The best opportunity will occur at the press launch [of the paperback, Avowed Intent, a volume of Longford’s autobiography]. I have not had such an opportunity for years and I am not likely to have one again. Curiously enough the Rose West drama has given me an unrivalled opportunity to assert my ideal of ‘hating the sin and loving the sinner’, which has previously been lacking outside the House of Lords. For whatever reason Rose West does not seem to arouse the intense hatred which the tabloid press has taught the public to feel for Myra.’

17 December 1995
‘Another hectic week. One major television appearance, four radio programmes and a speech on penal matters in the House of Lords. One radio interviewer introduced me thus: ‘My next guest is Lord Longford, to talk about Myra Hindley, pornography and Rose West.’

I have not yet found anybody on these programmes to say to my face that Myra ought to stay in prison. I was accused by one friend afterwards of being arrogant and dismissing so-called public opinion. Maybe so. But when you have known somebody for twenty-seven years it is difficult to be patient with a ‘man in the street’ who only knows what the tabloid press tells him about.

Once again I am profoundly conscious of the gap between informed opinion and uninformed public emotions. I keep coming back to the taxi driver who told me that he felt cheated out of revenge when he heard that Fred West had committed suicide. But he knew that it was wrong to feel that way. I have to accept the fact that feelings similar to those of the taxi driver will always be widely held by the so-called general public.

Those who deal with prisoners at first-hand, the Prison Service and the Probation Service, for example, cannot fail to recognise them as fellow human beings. But to the so-called general public they will always be an alien and even menacing force. It is the business of those who care for humanity and justice to make far more effort than they have made previously to guide the public in the direction of the enlightened taxi driver. It is easy for someone like myself to say we must hate the sin and love the sinner, but it is hard enough to achieve that balance after a lifetime’s experience, still more after a moment’s reflection.’

No comments: