Attentive Holyrood watchers are used to razor-slim majorities. While technical amendments can romp home with thunderous general acclaim, on politically more sensitive matters, particularly those from which sections of the opposition hope to squeeze electoral and rhetorical advantage, single-digit margins of victory are familiar arrangements of the Scottish Parliament's proportional political abacus. Today was no different. I'm delighted to say that this morning Holyrood finally rejected Labour and Tory plots to install a presumption in law that Scottish courts send knife-carriers to jail for a period of at least six months. The vote to reject Labour's Swine Pursuivant's amendment (aka Richard Baker for the uninitiated) divided our tribunes 63 - 61 against.
As regular readers will know, during the Criminal Justice & Licensing (Scotland) Bill's stately progress through Holyrood's hesitant legislative halls, I've consistently argued the case against Labour and Tory knife crime policy as wrong-headed, unproductive, illiberal, costly, unjust and unnecessary. Their political positioning and rhetoric, I suggested, also invoked a particularly macabre and gruesome form of identity politics, vividly encapsulated by the Committee testimony of John Muir.
The initial Conservative position - advanced by the not-long-to-be-lamented Baillie Bill Aitken - proposed a totally absurd level of penalisation - a two year presumptive prison sentence for those detected, armed with a bladed object. If ever a policy position showed up its proponent as agitating in jest, indulging in an entirely spurious and unserious use of politics to release certain degenerate, subconscious spanking desires, this was it. I also have my suspicions about the earnestness of Labour's position, although prima facie it is less obviously Quixotic than the broken-lanced sally affected by the mule-mounted Baillie Bill. I try to cleave to the sense that reasonable folk can reasonably differ on policies, that we should talk about our disagreements without immediately crying Garde Loo! and tossing whatever foetid and incontinent allegations happen to slop into the more gutterminded stalwarts of our politics. Somehow, however, I can't help but doubt that all of the tribunes on the red benches are convinced by this policy and suspect that its primary use is a tactical, party political one. In short, a consciously dishonest attempt to cozen sections of the tabloid press and those parts of the population with particularly developed sympathies for retributive philosophies of punishment. Either way, it matters not now, with the scheme shelved for the time being. Judicial discretion will continue to be the order of the day when knife-carriers are hauled before the Bar. The Green Party's Patrick Harvie put it rather nicely in the debate attending the by-section votes this morning, saying:
"There are some things legislation is not good for. Distinguishing between a frightened wee boy who made a mistake and knows he has and a genuine thug who poses a threat is something legislation can't do - the courts have to do that."
A welcome dose of epistemological modesty from the legislative benches. All in all, this result is testament to the happy fact that the wildly punitive Scottish Labour and Tory parties cannot command a majority in our parliament. Yet today will also be a missed opportunity. Per yesterday's post, this afternoon parliament has voted on another presumption - this time to end prison sentences of less than three months. I'm befuddled, however, positively fogged over to understand the rationale behind the Liberal position, supporting three months, but opposed to the six month presumption advanced by the SNP. A bemusing missed opportunity - but definitely progress. On both accounts, one should also give Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish Government their due. It would have been easy, all too easy, to fold in the face of the emotionally charged knife crime campaign and the hostile coverage of the SNP's "soft-touch Scotland" which is sure to follow. Voters interested in a progressive politics on criminal justice, rather than anti-intellectual and reactionary pandering, take note.