Terence Blacker: Give prisoners a stake in our democracy

 

Share
Related Topics

Talking in a prison library not so long ago, I was startled to learn of the prisoners' favourite writer. Almost all of them read, liked and believed the work of David Icke, the former goalkeeper who has said that he is the son of God, that senior politicians are satanic paedophiles, and that the world is ruled by lizard-humans, who include George W Bush, the late Queen Mother and, more mysteriously, Kris Kristofferson.

It was surprisingly difficult to make the case against Icke. I sensed that, listening to me, the prisoners had already decided that I was a lizard, and that my argument was simply more lizard-talk. Besides, a belief system in which power rests in the hands of a mindless, scaly elite seemed to suit their situation.

Right now, they might have a point. A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has united Britain's normally factional political and media classes, turned Jack Straw and David Davis into brothers-in-arms, and caused the mighty choir of press and online moralists to sing with one voice. This almost unprecedented level of accord has been prompted by the suggestion that the British Government – and others in Europe – should clarify whether prisoners have a constitutional right to vote in elections.

The Prime Minister has confessed that the mere thought of convicts voting makes him "physically ill" – quite a claim. He is in charge of a government which likes to claim that over the past decade the state has "abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties". He can oversee the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, know that more young people are out of work than ever before, slash and burn his way through the welfare system, turn a blind eye to the closure of libraries across the country, and maintain throughout a plump smile on his smooth, rosy features.

Yet the idea that criminals should play a part in democracy apparently risks a nasty mess all over the carpet of 10 Downing Street. Disingenuously, those who argue against the voting rights of prisoners have invoked that old favourite, the danger posed by unelected European judges to the British Parliament. At heart, though, their argument is not about sovereignty but about the right to punish. Those who have done wrong, they believe, have forfeited their most basic democratic right.

It is faintly alarming to hear politicians discussing who should be allowed to vote for them and who should be excluded from the process. Once democracy becomes conditional upon the good behaviour of citizens, it is fatally compromised. As soon as a general principle is in place which sees law-breakers deprived of their right to vote, it can be modified at will by politicians.

Why not, for example, deprive a convicted criminal of the right to vote for the rest of his or her life, as happens in some parts of the world? Perhaps certain crimes should automatically invoke a democratic penalty, and those crimes could be changed over time to reflect the mood of the moment. Democracy is not an easy system – it involves giving a voice in society to those many of us would prefer to remain silent – but the current clamour on behalf of decent, law-abiding citizens is in reality atriumph for a bullying, tabloid morality over logic, decency and forgiveness.

Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, was on the right track when he attacked the "bang 'em up approach" to prison. Locking up people without seeking to change them was, as he said, "what you would expect from Victorian England". It is the reason why reoffending rates among released short-sentence prisoners has been on the increase.

How strange it is that the same note of common sense and sympathy is not heard in the debate about prisoners' voting rights. If justice is to include, along with punishment, the prospect of some sort of reparation, it is right to allow those inside a small but important stake in the society outside, as represented by the ballot box.



twitter.com/TerenceBlacker

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A press image from the company  

If men are so obsessed by their genitals, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities of sex?

Chloë Hamilton
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory