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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Independent Voices
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine