Law breakers and lawmakers

Why prisoners should be able to vote.

Should those who are convicted of crimes so serious that they receive a custodial sentence be able to vote?

Should prisoners have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws that they have either admitted to breaking or been shown beyond reasonable doubt to have broken?

According to newspaper reports today, the blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote is at last to be lifted. The spin is that this is because it is too expensive for the government to remain in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The European Court of Human Rights ruled back in 2005 that such a blanket ban was not acceptable under the ECHR. (The 2005 case was brought by the indefatigable John Hirst, who can take the most credit for keeping the issue of prisoners' votes alive.)

However, one should not take the government's protestations about financial costs at face value. Blaming the pesky expense of undeserving legal cases is a time-honoured excuse for anyone retreating from an otherwise unsustainable position.

David Cameron is said to be "exasperated and furious" at having to lift the ban. It appears that it was looked at "from every legal angle", but apparently there was no alternative.

Hogwash. That is simply not the legal situation. It is perfectly possible for the UK legislature to derogate from the ECHR, should it really want to. Indeed, the UK has done so before in respect of anti-terrorism measures. Of course, such a move would be extraordinarily illiberal. But it would not be impossible if the Prime Minister actually was "exasperated and furious".

Instead, the better explanation is that this is a liberal measure being implemented under the cover of illiberal noises. This is a far preferable approach to policymaking to that of the Labour Party from 2001 to 2010, which often did just the opposite.

And it is indeed a liberal measure. There is no sensible or normative basis for the casual and routine desocialisation (and sometimes dehumanisation) that constitutes our current criminal sentencing and penal regime. Future generations will be aghast that we somehow think the best response to antisocial activity is to make it structurally more difficult for people ever to socialise properly again. Deprivation of liberty should not mean deprivation of other rights.

(In saying this, I am not being sentimental about criminals. I have no qualms about someone being incarcerated – even indefinitely – if that can be shown to be for the safety of the public.)

There will now be questions about how lifting the ban would work in practice. Would the votes go to the prisoners' home constituencies, or will there be (literally) voting blocks in the constituency where the prison is located? (On Twitter, @PeatWorrier said that his personal preference, for maximum interest, would be for prisoner seats, along the lines of the old university constituencies.)

Can certain, highly serious crimes be omitted? Can electoral offences be omitted? And so on.

A great deal of detail needs to be worked out now that the blanket ban will be removed.

But the coalition government is to be congratulated for this liberal measure, regardless of its supposed "outrage". It is the right thing to do. And it is a pity that the deeply illiberal Labour government from 2005 to 2010 was simply not willing to do it.

In principle, those convicted of a crime so serious that they receive a custodial sentence should not be rendered outlaws or excluded from society.

Prisoners should generally have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws. After all, they also have an informed view on how laws affect people's lives, and – in any case – they are citizens, too.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He was a government lawyer at the Treasury Solicitor from 2003 to 2005. He blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue