The great (neck breaking) debate

The death penalty debate is one of personal agendas, desperate publicity, and is an inevitable dialo

I am falling into a trap. I know that by talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, no matter how it is discussed, it gives credence to something that I might not think deserves credence.

But here it is: it's unavoidable, given that I've seen it on television, heard about it on the radio and read about it everywhere, from newspapers to Twitter and beyond. So I think you have to talk about it, even if that means giving certain people the publicity they so desperately seem to crave.

Sometimes, you have to fall into one trap, to avoid falling into another trap. The other trap, in this instance, is to imagine that by not talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, that somehow it will go away. And those of us who don't believe the death penalty should be restored should be prepared to debate it. If we don't, we run the risk of being the political elite, looking down on the plebs and dismissing their views as being unimportant from our lofty perches - and that won't do at all.

That's exactly how some people would like to portray the kind of people who don't think it's a good idea to bring back the rope, or lethal injection, or whichever humane or inhumane method of terminating the life of an undesirable person is proposed. An impression can be created in which our political masters and the detached elite are unwilling to talk about issues that matter to ordinary people, creating anger. You may argue that this kind of detachment is not limited to matters of lawful homicide and applies to a great deal of the business of government - but on such an emotive issue as this, it can benefit one side of the argument to portray their opponents as deliberately ignoring the wishes of the 'general will'.

The problem faced in this particular debate right now, I think, is one of momentum. This whole business came about because of newly relaunched epetitions to the Government; those proposing a return of state-sponsored neck-breaking were obviously quicker out of the blocks than those arguing for the status quo. Of course they were: who launches a petition to keep things as they are? If you don't agree with the petition wanting to restore the right of the Government to kill those citizens it deems unworthy, then you just ignore it. The active position defeats the passive one, in this instance.

Which is why I've seen petitions started to retain the death penalty. Again, you could argue that these people are allowing the other side of the argument to win, by acknowledging that there's a debate to be had in the first place, but it's probably a debate worth having, if enough people are going to be shouting about it from one side. If no-one is shouting about it from the other, it could create a false impression that more people are in favour than actually are. I suppose it seems strange for anyone to want to sign a petition to retain the lack of a death penalty, as it is to sign a petition to retain the lack of killing every first-born male child, but doing so might, perhaps, reveal that this debate - if we must have it - is not as cut-and-dried as it's being portrayed in some quarters.

In the meantime, the debate - if we can call it a debate -is carrying merrily on, during the summer recess and the silly season, providing an easy subject matter for radio phone-ins and struggling columnists alike (oh look). It gives the opportunity for those with an agenda to pursue it, and beyond that, to appear on television and radio and in print with increasing regularity - which may not be desperately disappointing for their egos, one suspects.

Is this all just a lot of fuss about nothing? Do people really, really want to bring back the Rope to sort out who deserves to live and who deserves to die, particularly at a time when so much police corruption is being investigated? It will be interesting to see if the debate has legs, or whether it's just a handy distraction from phonehacking, the miserable economic situation and other questions of competence during the summertime. Regardless, it's important to take it seriously, and not dismiss it, I think, whatever your view.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era