15 April 2010

Is this a dagger I see before me?

Amid the blethering and ballyhoo which attends the Westminster election campaign, it is crucial that we don’t lose sight of the ongoing work of legislation and government in Holyrood. For the Scottish Parliament’s committees, its very much business as usual. And such business! My own favourite Committee, Justice, was ruminating and voting on amendments to the Criminal Justice & Licensing Bill, including the headlining political acts of a presumption against prison sentences of less than six months, Labour proposals to install a presumption in favour of jailing knife carriers for six months and a more or less symmetrical Tory position, in favour of two years in prison. Labour are so vividly excited by their uncosted, irresponsible and ineffective promise of jail for all, that they even irrelevantly tucked it in their neon Westminster election manifesto. In the Scottish Parliament, it wears a different cape, the sinister cloak of Amendment 10. As we know, Baillie Bill Aitken has his own Zorro outfit, and his mammy stitched the name Amendment 10A into its hem. Unfortunately, it proved an ill-fitting garment and the Committee was not seamlessly all of a piece. Only the Baillie himself voted for his whoopdeedoo two year mandatory jail scheme, with the wobblebottomed Labour tribunes abstaining and the reliable bloc of three SNP MSPs and the Liberal Democrat’s Robert Brown opposing. So that particular phantasm has at least, dare I say mercifully, fallen by the legislative wayside. The committee is balanced differently from the parliament, being served by 1 Conservative member, 1 Liberal Democrat, 3 Labour, 3 SNP members, with a Conservative convenor with a “casting vote” in circumstances of a tie. This differential balance was reflected in the decision on the next amendment deliberated upon by this judicious crew – the fatal Amendment 10. Up spoke Labour’s Swine Pursuivant - the ever-egregious Richard Baker - in support, touting his six month minimum. He was on his usual fatuous form, “dealing” with opposition points in turn, like a ramshackle, gibbering student debater.

“There has been debate about the cost of our proposal due to its impact on prison places. Robert Brown has said that it would cost £23 million. However, that presumes that the policy would have no deterrent effect, which we do not accept, and it needs to be balanced with other factors including the recent estimate that, last year, injuries resulting from knife crimes cost the national health service in Scotland £500 million. Furthermore, we do not accept the counsel of despair on the impact of prison. The argument is made that rehabilitation cannot take place in custody over that period, but we believe that that notion should be challenged and that greater efforts should be made to engage in rehabilitation in prison. Why should we accept the status quo, if that is what it is?”

After these remarks, the Committee voted – SNP-Liberal vs Labour-Tory, tying at 4 votes apiece. Here, Baillie Bill’s tie-breaking second vote came into its own, propelling amendment 10 through stage two parliamentary deliberations. It should not survive the third stage, however, when the parliamentary coalition of the Greens, Liberals and SNP members should lay this particular proposal aside for good. Last time I mentioned this subject, I promised to return to John Muir’s witness session before the Committee on the 23rd of March. It was a sufficiently interesting encounter to justify recalling it now. What follows may be taken as rather inflammatory in some quarters, but the argument is worth making.  Let us begin with a quote from Richard Baker in the Committee this week:

“To those who question the practicality and cost of the proposal, I simply point to the powerful evidence that the committee heard from John Muir, who eloquently and persistently stated his case and that of other victims. The real question is what the costs will be of not pursuing the change in the law, which is why I move the amendment in my name.”

That “eloquently” is unforgivably patronising. Even being sympathetic to John Muir, when he visited the Committee he went on wild detours mounted on his own hobby-horses. Much of the interest he had as a witness was owed to the fact that he wasn’t eloquent. He had no command of detail. He roved between insisting that statistics were effectively “makey-uppey” and then leaning on them to justify his position. He gave us a peroration on how weak-kneed prison is, how it should be a Dante-esque den of punishment. He bristled about being “talked down to”, while treating the evidence session like a particularly tedious monologue. At times, this “eloquence” Baker refers to manifested in the odd spot of verbal performativity – where Muir gave a few unnatural, highfaluting words and phrases a go – before recognising himself that they made him look absurd. He was, in short, full of inadequacy, class consciousness, and clearly felt like a fish out of water. The Committee members were equally uncomfortable relating to him. He was so wholly different from the usual, besuited, middle class, professionalized people who appear before the parliament’s committees – it was a joy to watch. They deferred, very carefully, coddled, nodding as if Muir’s views on mandatory prison sentences were of any more interest than a pub bore, propping up his stool.

Broadly, they weren’t. Here is a man whose son has been killed, still full of anger and resentment, still justly so. That I can understand. Deciding to plonk him down in front of the committee to share his views was an excellent thing to do. A real rebuke to treating these issues too abstractly. That is fine as far as it goes. But don’t let’s indulge in a particularly gruesome form of identity politics, where a dead man’s father imagines himself or is treated by others as if he has all the wisdom and knowledge of the world about how to make Scotland a safer place. Asked by Robert Brown about the known problems with prison, that the deterrence effect is a willow-the-wisp, or in half-response to his fellow witness, Chief Constable David Strang’s opposition to mandatory prison measure -  Muir asked, blazing, “what about my son?” Again and again, he raised this terrifying spectre of a dead young man, its empty gaze challenging all those who disagree with mandatory prison terms. I’m absolutely not saying that Muir's experience is irrelevant to what the parliament is considering. But we should be cautious, very cautious, about the easy translation which John Muir and the Labour Party suggest. Muir’s citation is aggressive, wide eyed, fundamentally the exhumation of a corpse to silence the living, echoing again and again Muir’s earlier appalling remarks that “Anyone who disregards moves to toughen the sentencing laws on knife crime will be seen by the public as having victims’ blood on their hands.”

This isn’t a question where one thing leads neatly onto the other, of cause and consequence. It seems to me poor service to a tragic situation to use it to promote a separate agenda, which is not about making people safer in the long run or about being honest about the problems  and limitations of prison, given what we are willing to spend on them.  “What about my son?” is finally an existential wail to which politics can furnish no answers. Neither, I suspect, can punishment. It too is a willow-the-wisp, all the more beguiling for its apparent satisfactions.

Although I anticipate that the SNP and the Liberal Democrats will win the battle on mandatory prison sentences for knife carrying, I don’t think we’re winning the war. I argued previously that the party still leaves the impression that it concedes the softness which the Tory and Labour position perpetually flings in their faces.  I reiterate my point from last month, ever more urgently -- “There is a sense in which allegations of limpness have to be fended off by demonstrating that you are as hardy a punisher as the rest of them. The sagacious Liberal Democrat, Robert Brown, strikes the right note in his remarks, however, arguing:

“These figures show that rates of reoffending are appallingly high. Offenders frequently come out of prison as more hardened offenders than when they went in – and all at huge cost to the public purse.”

It is this point that the SNP should be hammering the penal morons with. What is Baker’s answer? More prison? What has Baillie Bill to say, beyond blinkered reiterations of the purposeless formulae of punishment? In this respect, the SNP could do worse than remembering – and reminding the commentating classes – about the Scottish Prisons Commission’s report Scotland’s Choice, and what it had to say about brief spells in jail. The SNP’s argument for ending short-term prison sentences will never emerge from its defensive position unless the premises of Labour and Tory policies are robustly rejected. Why is it tough on crime to perpetuate a social policy that generates crime and violence? We have the figures. What is their answer? Do they deny the significance of recidivism? Have they even thought about it? What about Kenny MacAskill's character - “the totally misguided person who thinks a knife gives extra protection”. Do Labour and Tory really think that such characters don't exist? Alternatively, if they are willing to concede that they do exist, do they honestly hold that such a soul would be improved by two years in prison? Do they think his crime is so egregious that a Sheriff should have no discretion to distinguish the daft from the deeply dangerous? I haven't lost all faith in the Scottish Labour Party's capacity for the application of right-reason. Surely Henry McLeish cannot be the only man in the red ranks who disagrees with Richard Baker.”


  1. Yikes!

    Less Macbeth than Dostoyevski.

  2. What particularly prompted the 'Yikes!', Ratzo?

  3. That electrifying description of the testimony of John Muir LPW.

  4. Ah.

    It needs to be said. Fundamentally, a personal loss cannot justify any ignorant attempt to inflict your ressentiment (however understandable its source might be) on a whole country, nor sanction an unimpeachable saintliness when you become a stooge for those who would squeeze political advantage from your sorry personal experience. Labour are patronising and manipulating the poor man. Looking on, its an increasingly grotesque display.

  5. agree entirely. also the ref to Zur Genealogie der Moral, etc.