23 November 2009

Who knows about booze and prison?

On Thursday 26th of November, interested tribunes will congregate in the Chamber for their stage 1 debate on the following motion:

S3M-5177 Kenny MacAskill: Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill—That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill.

Usually the star turns at these justice debates are members of the Committee who get private divisions off their chest in the hollow expanse of the debating rooms. Them, and sundry ministerial attendance and their respective opposition counterparts. Few others nudge their bottoms out of their offices. Perhaps they watch the exchanges on their internal parliamentary TVs. It will be interesting, therefore, to see what the turn out is on Thursday. As you can see – the motion is impressionistically broad, considering the wealth of themes which the Bill addresses, from coordinated criminality to the increasingly politically shrill exchange of thesis and antithesis on the question of short term prison sentences, and the proposed presumption against them. Given this is a political firecracker, I imagine attendance risks being a little higher than past outings.

In that context, tone is important. It is all very well to disagree – but how will Labour and the Tories do so? The SNP rely, broadly speaking, on technical, social scientific evidence. How to reply? One can, of course, pick away at the surety of the study. Raise doubts, and doubting, insist on public policy paralysis. Alternatively, instead of haggling over the research details – you can resort to normative “sod the consequences” sorts of arguments. “Off to choky, they deserve it!” – huzzah for prison, et al. The parliamentary arithmetic is important here. We can broadly expect a coalition forming for this policy among the SNP (47), Liberals (16) and Greenies (2), 65 votes. Enough, if carried through to the third reading, to pass the measure and sod the reactionary huddle of 62, if Tories and Labour get together to oppose the idea. This, of course, assuming that there are no dissidents in either court. The reactionary huddle can thus reconcile themselves to defeat from the get go. Presumably, their interest in the wider electoral economy is realising the defeat which suits their narrative best. Dull dog repetitions of “soft touch” seem to be the slant that both Baillie Bill Aitken and the Baker Swine Pursuivant are pursuing. They’ll have to outdo each other for parliamentary pitbull, hang ‘em and flog ‘em status. Although neither are terribly plausible ‘hard men’ at first glance, in the race to the bottom, bets are on as to which wheezy carcass will trundle the most briskly. Given the qualitative evidence of the People’s Baillie’s interest in keeping in shape through a “cheesy dance” regimen, my bets are on the Tory coot.

Debates on short term prison sentences contribute, I’d suggest, to developing approach to Government vrs opposition arguments in Scotland – where the SNP emphasise evidence vrs opposition gut(sy) reaction on difficult public policy questions. In minimum pricing for alcohol, we can see the argumentative structure replicated. You’ll have noticed that the SNP have shifted their public (but obviously, not parliamentary) advocacy of the policy towards the theme of health rather than criminal justice and licensing. While Kenny is hardly neglecting themes of his “cooking lager”, ideas of public health and a discourse of doctor knows best, represented by the healthy intervention of Nicola Sturgeon, is being dragooned into service against those opposed to the policy. By framing the debate in terms of professional knowledge-claims – either those opposed to the measure must produce their own professional knowers – or shift ground. Certainly, Libertarian folks in Scotland must be tugging at their roots so long as the policy forum is animated by technical questions – while neglecting directly implicated concerns of choice, liberty and state non-interference. Then again, Labour wouldn’t adduce such an argument anyway. And thus, their arguments are thrust back into the technical sphere or a return to the bag is necessary to scrabble around for charismatic hammers to thump the SNP government with.

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