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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Scottish Labour's defeat to the Tories confirms a political transformation

The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist.

It was Scotland where Labour's recovery was supposed to begin. Jeremy Corbyn's allies predicted that his brand of left-wing, anti-austerity politics would dent the SNP's hegemony. After becoming leader, Corbyn pledged that winning north of the border would be one of his greatest priorities. 

But in the first major elections of his leadership, it has proved to be Labour's greatest failure. A result that was long thought unthinkable has come to pass: the Conservatives have finished second (winning 31 seats). For the first time since the 1910 election, Labour has finished third (winning 24). Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale stood on a left-wing platform, outflanking the SNP on tax (pledging to raise the top rate to 50p and increase the basic rate by 1p), promising to spend more on public services and opposing the renewal of Trident. But rather than advancing, the party merely retreated.

Its fate confirms how Scottish politics has been realigned. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. With the SNP as the only major pro-independence party, the Tories, led by the pugnacious Ruth Davidson, framed themselves as the pro-UK alternative - and prospered. In contrast, Dugdale refused to rule out supporting a second referendum and suggested that MPs and MSPs would be free to campaign for secession. The result was that Scottish Labour was left looking dangerously irrelevant. "Identity politics. Labour doesn't get it," a shadow minister told me. Its socialist pitch counted for little in a country that remains ideologically closer to England than thought. The SNP has lost its majority (denying it a mandate for a second referendum) - an outcome that the electoral system was always designed to make impossible. But its rule remains unthreatened. 

Corbyn's critics will seek to pin the baleful result on him. "We turned left and followed Jeremy's politics in Scotland, which far from solving our problems, pushed us into third," a senior opponent told me. But others will contend that a still more left-wing leader, such as Neil Findlay, is needed. Dugdale is personally supportive of Trident and was critical of Corbyn before his election. Should she be displaced, the party will be forced to elect its sixth leader in less than five years. But no one is so short-sighted as to believe that one person can revive the party's fortunes. Some Corbyn critics believe that a UK-wide recovery is a precondition of recovery north of the border. At this juncture, they say, SNP defectors would look anew at the party as they contemplate the role that Scottish MPs could play in a Westminster government. But under Corbyn, having become the first opposition to lose local election seats since 1985, it is yet further from power. 

In Scotland, the question now haunting Labour is not merely how it recovers - but whether it ever can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.