Friday, February 11, 2011

A Night At The Political Theatre

"Humans, for the most part, don't have a clue.  Don't want or need one.  They're happy.  They think they have... a good bead on things".  - Agent K

Try to imagine what value (x) would require in the following sentence to secure broad public approval.

Prisoners should be allowed (x).

I reckon maybe you'd get away with beds, food or blankets, although I'm fairly sure that even oxygen would secure a fairly chunky "No" vote, delivered with the stridency of Ian Paisley refusing a free ticket for Celtic Park.

Yesterday's parliamentary vote on the issue of prisoners' voting rights should be seen in light of these simple electoral maths - politicians who approach the treatment of prisoners from anything other than the most Draconian angle will not long hold office.

After all, what was the issue at stake?  There's no political push to enfranchise prisoners; no awful liberals campaigning from their ivory towers for ballot boxes in Barlinnie.  The issue arose because the UK has been found to be non-compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights by the court duly appointed to adjudicate.

And here's the deal - we're non-compliant because the ban on prisoners voting is arbitrary.  That is, it isn't laid down in legislation or included in the punishment part of sentencing.  As it stands, prisoners have the right to vote because it's never been officially withdrawn from them.  (Update - it's not quite as simple as that, but it's also not significantly more complex. See comments).

A solution wouldn't be hard to devise, I imagine...  A Bill here, a legal precedent there, and everything's hunky dory.  That's one reason why the European Court issues such rulings, after all: to give us the opportunity to bring ourselves into compliance and avoid all the lawsuits.

Funnily enough, our political class chose not to legislate.  What did it do instead?

Why, it leapt to its feet and issued belligerent vows to skullfuck some sense into those wishy-washy, foreign, fucking, European, touchy-feely, lily-livered, criminal-coddling, European, foreign judges who think they have the right to tell Britain what to do with their touchy-feely, European, foreign, wishy-washy criminal-coddling.  Westminster MPs thrust their fat faces into every passing camera and made damn sure they were seen to be chewing their desks with white-hot, bejowled rage...  And voted to do nothing about it.

To be clear, this means that it's a matter of months before some chavvy chancer picks up a two-grand cheque from HM Government if no action is taken, and our politicians know this full fucking well.  Many are in fact counting on it.

Ah, the British Parliament - standing athwart inevitability shouting Take the public's money for our short-term political benefit!

You might ask why they would do anything so inane.  Surely our leaders would be better to confront any problems that arise head-on and deal with them in the quickest and most sensible way?

Well, not in the UK, where emboldened ignorance and boiling indignation are electoral gold.  I've seen no polls, but I'd be stunned if public approval is running at less than 80% on this issue.

Me, I couldn't care less whether prisoners can vote or not.  Let them, don't, it's no skin off my nose.  What I see in all of this is a nation that takes massive pride in its own ignorance and perpetually offended fake victimisation.

I mean, take human rights as a concept in law.  Are they good or bad?  The public doesn't know, and it sure as hell doesn't want to know.  Read up on the basics then try explaining them to a relative or friend, and I guarantee that they'll look at you like you've just shat on their knee.

I had a long Twitter back'n'forth with a bloke yesterday who was complaining that too often, rights are a way of obfuscating simple political concepts, alienating the public.  Twitter ain't the venue for a chat on the political utility of rights, but this seemed to me to miss the point.

It's been a long time since, but I spent many years working in the courts and if there's one thing I can tell you about the experience, it's this - the public regard the law and legal process itself as essentially a scam; an elitist, pointy-headed affront to "common sense".  The people, essentially, don't understand criminal or civil law and aren't interested in hearing about it; find it confusing, in fact, and suspect strongly that their confusion is the result of some kind of plot to pull the wool over their eyes.

It's impossible not to form the conclusion that many would prefer to see Batman sort it all out.

I don't blame anyone for that - I don't understand half of what goes on in the courts and I'm frequently horrified by everything from lax sentencing to acquittals due to procedural balls-ups.  Even then, I don't call for the junking of law and rule by political decree, which is the strong aroma emanating from our debates on rights, prisoners and justice.

I don't know whether we'd be better served by the European Convention, the Tories' much-vaunted Bill of Rights, or by some constitutionally-mandated assumption of freedoms.

What I do know is that a society that makes a virtue of illiberal behaviour will treat its citizens illiberally; a culture that demands injustice in the name of common sense will perpetrate injustices.  I know that a citizenry that puts all of its faith in infantile concepts like force and "common sense" will receive plenty of the former and little of the latter.

For real, yo - a society like the UK, which seems to make most of its political decisions based upon mortal terror that somebody, somewhere is getting something for free, isn't headed for better and brighter things.

I've said this before and I'll continue saying it until people start parroting it back to me in annoying, sing-song voices:  I believe strongly in democracy, and that if the citizenry know what they want, then they should get it good and hard.  If our ideal representatives are angry stuffed-shirts, belching meaningless outrage into the Palace of Westminster for political theatre, then we don't deserve any better.

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