Anyone but the most publicity-hungry New Labour MP would have seen it coming. Offer the listeners of a popular BBC current affairs programme an opportunity to vote for a new law, at a quiet time of year, and you are likely to attract two kinds of proposals. On the one hand, you will get decent but unexciting ideas, such as a Bill to ensure that more human organs are available for transplant, which will appeal to what we might call the "Princess Diana" constituency. (It came second.) On the other, you will get mad, bad and thoroughly uncivilised suggestions, such as a change in the law to allow homeowners to hack burglars to death with machetes, always assuming that they do not have an illegal pump-action shotgun to hand by the bed.
Naturally the latter proposal - known as a "Tony Martin" law, in honour of the unrepentant killer of a teenage intruder - topped the Today programme poll last week, with 37 per cent of the votes. Now we can enjoy the spectacle of Stephen Pound, MP for Ealing North and the politician foolish to take part in this idiotic stunt, having either to introduce the Burglars (Extra-Judicial Death Penalty) Bill into the House of Commons himself or email it to the 20 colleagues who have won the right to introduce private members' bills in the new year. Oh, and he will also have to propose that we leave the EU, which is inexplicably hostile to the idea of executions, even when carried out by some namby-pamby method such as hanging or lethal injection. Indeed I am not sure why Radio 4 listeners were not allowed to vote for the reintroduction of the death penalty, which was proposed in the run-up to the ballot by a ghastly man who once held one of those meaningless titles Tony Blair imported from America - drugs tsar, or something equally preposterous.
This gentleman's impassioned plea for a right to string up child-killers and other undesirables - what we might call the "Ian Huntley" or "Saddam Hussein" amendment - mysteriously failed to make it on to the final shortlist. Instead, vengeful listeners were forced to express their wishes by the back door, so to speak, by voting for the right to waste intruders. Bizarrely, the law would apply only to homeowners, who would be free to use "any means" to defend their property - a telling detail that speaks volumes about the bourgeois nature of the proposal. Presumably one of the unintended consequences would be a black market in information, with burglars focusing on the upmarket rental sector, although I quite like the idea of smart tenants jumping from their beds with a blood-curdling yell of "Make my day! I've just got a mortgage!"
The whole thing is a slur on peaceable Radio 4 listeners like myself who do not, pace some of the more lurid headlines, want a "right to kill intruders". A couple of years ago, when I crept downstairs in the middle of the night to find a burglar on my porch, I had no desire to "blow him away" or employ any of the other, more repellent idioms that Tony Martin's supporters would no doubt find so appealing. After a rather tense few seconds, the would-be intruder glanced up at my burglar alarm, turned round and stole quietly down the path, while I picked up the phone and dialled 999. I was keen to have him arrested but in my wishy-washy, bleeding-heart-liberal sort of way, I just felt that imposing the death penalty myself would be a touch excessive.
The result of the poll clearly embarrassed Stephen Pound, who admitted that his "enthusiasm for direct democracy is slightly dampened". Excuse me, but shouldn't an MP know that one of the reasons we have a representative democracy, instead of an endless series of referendums, is to weed out nasty, loony, crowd-pleasing proposals like this one? Our parliamentary system acts as a brake on the worst human instincts, defends unpopular minorities and passes sensible measures like the present law, which already allows people to use "proportionate force" if they are attacked or threatened in their homes. "We do not live in the Wild West," a leading criminal barrister pointed out last week. Fortunately, it will take more than an irresponsible stunt on the Today programme, supported by fewer than 10,000 listeners, to get uncontrolled vigilantism on to the statute books in this country.Reuse content