11 February 2011

Scofflaw, footpad, pirate, shady crook...

Scofflaw, footpad, pirate, shady crook. Thou shalt not vote, recalcitrant. Hie ye back to your cell of disenfranchisement, there to reflect upon the philosophy that the lawless cannot craft laws. Capitis deminutio maxima. Which this House hereby pronounces for doom. 

Tragically, it now seems unlikely that Her Majesty's government will adopt my wizard wheeze to form prisoner constituencies. For my part, I've little vinegar in me for the issue of prisoner enfranchisement. I find the "principled" argument that those who break laws forfeit their rights to participate in legislation to be pretentious and patently a backwards intellectualisation of a previously held position. Love and Garbage put it neatly in a comment on Better Nation. If law breaking is the justification for depriving individuals of their votes, what is the rationale for allowing late night urinaters, spanked by Justices of the Peace, to keep theirs? Although the example is trite, it at least serves to make one thing clear. The delineating concern here is not really one of law breaking at all. Nor am I particularly keen on accommodating folk to the general notion that if you repudiate the social contract, the social compact repudiates you. Others may share my rather shapeless discomfort with such stark exclusionary figurations. Equally, the idea that giving prisoners the vote will have some efficacy as a force for rehabilitation seems equally absurd. Isn't this unnecessarily high flown for what is fundamentally a quotidian question? My answer to that question, left to my own devices, would be to afford all prisoners the vote, enfranchised in a spirit of indifference. As for all of the outraged conscience paraded in Westminster yesterday: be still my throbbing colon. A quick squint through Hansard revealed that no SNP MP spoke in the debate but three of them (Stewart Hosie, Mike Weir and Eilidh Whiteford) supported David Davis' motion:

That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.

Asked about this last year, Alex Salmond was disappointingly incoherent:

FMQs 23rd of September, 2010

Alex Salmond: The Scottish Government does not agree that convicted prisoners should be entitled to vote while they are serving a prison sentence.

Stewart Maxwell: Like many in the Parliament, I am totally opposed to rapists, murderers and drug pushers getting the right to vote. They have given up their right to participate in decent society by their actions. It is a disgrace that forces outside Scotland are trying to force such a change upon us ...

Robert Brown: The First Minister is missing the point. The UK is signed up to the European convention on human rights, so it is under the obligation to follow the protocol that refers to free and fair elections. Is he not aware that the European Court of Human Rights has made a decision on the matter? Is he suggesting that, if Scotland were independent, it would opt out of the European convention on human rights? What is the Scottish Government's position on that?

Alex Salmond: A couple of things would improve if Scotland were an independent nation. First, we would have the same protection against compensation claims as any other country has at the moment, instead of theoretically being liable for 10 years of compensation claims—members will remember that in connection with another thorny issue. That would be a distinct improvement if Scotland were independent. Secondly, I know that the Liberals are understandably keen on the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. However, I cannot believe that, back in 1997 when there was blanket signing up to the ECHR, those of us who argued very strongly that human rights should be observed across the European continent thought that one of the key issues would be to give convicted prisoners the right to vote. For most people, that does not seem to be what we would consider to be an important human right.

Not one of the Maximum Eck's better days, I'd submit. I assume his stumble-mumble point about 1997 in the last paragraph refers to the Human Rights Act, passed by the Westminster parliament in 1998, but it is difficult to tell. As he would assuredly discover if he looked into it, elections were put under the authority of the European Court of Human Rights by the third Article of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1963. It reads as follows, in pompous legal diplomatese:

"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature"

Politically, I can understand the Scottish Government's position. One might expect signs of sensitivity in the SNP about the soft-on-crime millstone which certain parties are keen to make a necklace gift for them. Moreover, it is a matter for the Westminster parliament, in which the party has only a tiny clutch of votes. Why fashion the projectiles of Labour boors for them? While I thoroughly denigrate Stewart Maxwell's ridiculous little Scotlander bilge, in fairness we should also add the idea that Salmond and Shoal may actually burn hostile to prisoner voting and the calculation I mention is purely a secondary consideration. My sense, however, is that this is a classic example of Eckly weakness when it comes to the future, with the patently implausible reassurance that in Salmond's independent Scotland, we'll discover a land where all contradictions are resolved and what is indissolubly complex shall become simple...

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