Sunday, 27 May 2012

Democracy isn’t about easy answers- that’s why we should give prisoners the right to vote.

Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs this week that he will resist calls from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to give prisoners in UK jails the right to vote. The issue was, he said, one that should be decided by ‘parliament and not a foreign court.’

He was responding to a question from Democratic Unionist Party leader Nigel Dodds asking if he would ‘succumb to the diktat of the ECHR?’ The diktat in question was a ruling handed down by the ECHR giving the UK six months in which to outline its plans for changing the law to give prisoners the vote.

In reply the prime minister said that people who have been sent to prison ‘should lose certain rights’, including the right to vote, parliament had, he said, ‘made its decision’ not to give prisoners the vote and he was fully in agreement with that position. The opposition are also in agreement with the present position, Labour shadow cabinet member Andy Burnham said the ECHR had ‘crossed the line with this one and we need to take a stand. It is an unacceptable intrusion into domestic policy.’

Labour will support any government challenge to the ECHR ruling in the belief that, as Mr Burnham put it, there is ‘ a very important principle’ at stake and that parliament needs to sent a ‘clear message to Strasbourg’ over who calls the shots.

The solitary voice of sense, well almost, in what was a turgid and overly emotional debate came from Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams, who said that when working to rehabilitate prisoners ‘ maintaining links with society, such as the right to vote’ is an important part of the process. He then rather blotted his progressive copybook by adding that prisoners guilty of really awful crimes like rape, murder or terrorism shouldn’t be given the vote.

There are, I think, two distinct issues here, on one of which I am in full agreement with the line taken by the government.

David Cameron is quite correct in challenging the high handed actions of the ECHR, it is for parliament and nobody else to debate and if necessary amend the laws of the UK. The fact that it has seen fit to issue an ultimatum from on high only adds further fuel to the fires of suspicion raging in most of the tabloid press about all things European.

Where David Cameron is both wrong and demonstrably cynical is in using the debate on whether or not we give prisoners the vote to play shamelessly to the tabloids and his own back benchers. There is a certain type of Tory for whom sticking two fingers up to the EU evokes sub Agincourt fantasies of crying god for ‘Harry, England and St George’ as they gallop off to bash the French and the Huns.

Cameron, like all cynical politicians, knows a dog whistle issue when he sees one; and when he does see one he plays it like Charlie Parker. After all if the Turnip Taliban, as he once described his party’s traditionalist grassroots members are busy foaming at the mouth about the ECHR they aren’t sniping at him for being a modernizer who consorts with Liberal Democrats.

For the record I believe that the UK should give prisoners the vote, not because someone in Strasbourg has told us to; but because it is the right thing to do.

Like Stephen Williams I believe that if the prison system is going to seek to rehabilitate its inmates, rather than just warehouse them between crime sprees, then they need to stay connected to society. I also believe that whatever the nature of their crime a criminal is still a citizen, it is the job of parliament to protect his or her rights just as it protects mine, not to conspire towards their removal.

Dictatorship is built on the idea that there is a simple answer to every question, if you march in time salute the beloved leader everything will be fine, the state will even find you a convenient scapegoat to blame when things go wrong. Democracy, by contrast, is about asking awkward questions and accepting that at some stage we will all have to sacrifice something that it is in our material or ideological self interest to maintain for the greater good.

That is why even the most loathsome criminals deserve the right to cast their vote, cherry picking those ‘we’ think are ‘nice’ (meaning redeemable) enough to be given it isn’t a liberal compromise, it is the first step along the stony road to a place where the franchise is something handed out as a reward for obedience.

It is better that a small number of people who have committed heinous crimes to be given the vote, than for us all to be complicit in the greater crime of making the right to vote into a gift to be handed out by a remote elite to those people they think can be relied on to do as they are told.

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