In January of this year, I found out what it is like to be on a jury. Southwark Crown Court, the scene of many a famous trial, is the busiest in London. It was there, a few weeks later, that the man who until recently had been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. Chris Huhne's ignominious fall is a reminder that the rule of law requires equality before the law. The three Algerians who were convicted of robbery by the jury in which I served received exactly the same quality of justice as the former Cabinet minister. It is true that his former wife, Vicky Pryce, was badly served by the jury in her first, abortive trial. In my experience, however, the English criminal justice system works as it was meant to do. It is not meant to deal with the fallout from failed states in North Africa or elsewhere, much of which settles in London, the Mecca of the Muslim diaspora.
My jury service taught me three very important lessons about the rule of law. First, it is incompatible with relativismÂ â€”Â whether moral, cultural or epistemological. You cannot be a juror unless you accept the distinction, written in our hearts, between good and evil, right and wrong, innocence and guilt. We may disagree about which deeds fall into which category, or whether an action that is wrong should be criminalised, or how to make the punishment fit the crime. But a jury cannot do its work unless there is general acceptance that moral absolutes are absolutely necessary.
You cannot be a juror, either, unless you accept that these moral absolutes can and must be upheld over and above cultural differences. In a court of law, "culture" in the anthropological sense of the word does not trump everything, as it often does elsewhere. Race, religion, tradition or language may figure in a plea of mitigation, but they cannot suffice as a defence to a criminal charge. Cultural relativism is anathema to the rule, or even the concept, of law.
Least of all may a juror afford to adopt a relativistic attitude to the concept of truth. You cannot do your job if you act as if all truths were "social constructions", or dismiss the distinction between fact and opinion, or pretend that human beings are incapable of objectivity. It is right to take a properly sceptical attitude towards the witness's solemn oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But that is only possible if there is such a thing as truth and it may be ascertained in a given case. A court of law is no place for the nihilist who denies all values or the solipsist who creates them for himself.Â