Sometimes you just have to rant. I have spent near a lifetime teaching staff ‘to do lofty’, to conduct debate only in moderate tones. Then you encounter something like politicians posturing on prisoner voting. And the dam breaks. This is not only humbug: it is dangerous humbug.
Let me make my own position clear. I do not care if prisoners have the vote or not. There are arguments for and against. The ban on voting stretches back to the 19th-century concept that prisoners suffer temporary ‘civic death’. That sounds a bit old-fashioned. After all, we go to some lengths to rehabilitate almost all prisoners back into society. Why deprive them of the vote when we encourage them to keep in touch with their wives, partners and children? However, as far as I am concerned, if the UK wants to join the other European countries that are against prisoners voting then, but for the decision of the European court, let us line up with Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia and Russia.
However, parliament is not just considering the issue of prisoner voting; it is debating it in the light of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v UK. Admittedly, Hirst is not an attractive figure. In 1979, he launched an unprovoked attack on his landlady with an axe. He had a coffee and cigarette while he waited for her to die. The judge at his trial called him ‘an arrogant and dangerous person with a severe personality defect’. It took Hirst until 2004 to get out of prison; there was more violence. For all that, the obligation of states to follow decisions of the European court is integral to the framework of the European Convention. States cannot pick and choose.
The concept of prisoners voting generates mysteriously violent reactions. David Cameron famously said that the very idea makes him ‘physically sick’. Given what else he must have encountered in his red boxes, this seems odd frankly. He must spend a lot of time retching at the detail of other human rights cases. For example, Cameron must know about the allegations of Mr Belhadj, one of the leaders of the new Libya. He is suing the UK for complicity in his extraordinary rendition and torture. He told the Guardian: ‘I was injected with something, hung from a wall by my arms and legs and put in a container surrounded by ice. They did not let me sleep and there was noise all the time.’
And do not think that my allegation of cant is just directed at the government. Jack Straw, the minister responsible for the Human Rights Bill, has joined forces with David Davis to oppose compliance with the court. Sadiq Khan, shadow lord chancellor, got jeered for his contribution to the parliamentary debate: ‘Labour’s policy is, and always has been, that prisoners shouldn’t be given the vote... We opposed the Tory-led government’s previous plans to give all prisoners serving less than four years a vote because many serious and violent criminals would have been allowed to take part in elections.’
This is a little misleading. Hirst was decided in 2005. Labour, in government, had plenty of time to respond. Its policy now is that we should comply with the decision but it is coy as to how. The coalition intervened in another case before the European Court of Human Rights, Scoppola v Italy, to see if it could wriggle out of Hirst. It failed and now it is seeking to do its best by putting forward three options for compliance on paper and hinting like mad that it would not be distressed if parliament rejected them all.
There should be three elements to the UK’s response to Hirst. First, this is not a major issue. If parliament wants to take a restrictive view on prisoner voting, it has plenty of leeway to introduce pretty minimal compliance. Second, we are bound to follow European court decisions. I am just back from eastern Europe. Out there, ordinary people and human rights activists need us to support the convention and the court. Russia, for one, does not. Other countries that were in the former Soviet Union struggle. Finally, the argument should be conducted within the framework of the convention. To pose the decision in Hirst as a fundamental assault on democracy is gross hyperbole.
What is really important is that the European court has brought principle into the decisions and actions of the governments of Europe. We should be among those mature enough to support the European court even when we could argue with its decision. To allow this case to be exploited as a reason to leave the convention would be a tragedy – for ourselves as much as the other countries of Europe.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice