Thursday, 10 February 2011

Votes for prisoners

MPs have voted against the motion to extend voting rights to prisoners, defying the edict of the European Court of Human Rights. I was still unsure what I felt about this subject until recently. Just over five years ago I touched upon it on my old blog and had no doubts at all:

But it seems to me that while they are serving their sentence, repaying their debt to society, whatever you want to call it, they should also be excluded from the benefits of being part of that society. Voting is one of those privileges. Why should someone who has committed a crime have a say in how society functions in the meantime? When they’ve been released, yes, absolutely they can have their vote back but while they’re in prison? No. It defies sense. It’s the sort of frilly proposition you’d see raised and carried at a Liberal Democrat convention. “Oh, those poor prisoners, serving their time and they don’t have political representation.” Well, you make your own choices don’t you?

I'm not quite so convinced by this argument now. I still generally feel that if someone is in prison it's for a legitimate reason; they have been removed and excluded from the niceties of society for a specified period. Losing the right - temporarily - to political representation is one of many rights that can be suspended during this time. That said, however, I've been considering some of the other arguments and I think they make a stronger case. The best argument I have read was by David Aaronovitch in The Times (subscription only I'm afraid) who built his case around the common sense question: who gains from denying prisoners the vote? The unavoidable answer, when you really think it through: nobody.

Ultimately, regardless of what someone is in prison for, it's safe to assume that everyone would prefer they come out a better person than when they went in. That won't necessarily happen of course, but removing the right to vote certainly isn't going to help. Maintaining a link to greater society is part of the rehabilitative process along with access to the tools of education. I would not be in favour of removing libraries and access to training from prison so why the right to vote?

So yes, I changed my mind. It happens, occasionally.

Cameron, multiculturalism, etc.

I think it's very unfair to accuse David Cameron of being racist on the basis of his multiculturalism speech. Why, he celebrates the multi-ethnic tapestry of British society and mixes personally with people of different colour and background every day. There's that black chap who polishes his shoes. Then there is that Asian man who brushes the fluff off his top hats. Both staff, of course.

I jest. A little bit.

The fundamental problem with any debate about multiculturalism is that neither side is working from the same definition. To its advocates multiculturalism is a wonderful illustration of tolerant, multi-ethnic modern Britain: people of different colour, religion and national origin working and living peacefully side by side. To its detractors, it is evidence of fragmented communities: a society lacking cohesion with certain minority groups living in isolation from the mainstream with no common language or culture.

I have always tended to view it more as the former but recognise that there are clearly pockets of this country where the latter holds true. It is silly to pretend otherwise. There is also a high degree of sensitivity around discussing this issue candidly for the fear of being branded 'racist' - an accusation that Cameron faced in some (predictable) quarters. My earlier joke notwithstanding, I do not think that the Prime Minister is racist - it's too easy for some to paint him as such seeing as he's a wealthy white Tory from a privileged background, but that doesn't naturally make him a bigot - and I do not think it is racist to point out that that there are sections of communities in this country that have not fully integrated into British society and do not want to either.

The real problem: how have such elements been allowed to fester and what can be done about it? This is the crux of Cameron's criticism: the suggestion that cultural division has been purposefully engineered by do-gooding liberal lefties. If this is the case, what alternative policies are the government going to implement?