Sunday, February 27, 2011

Iain Dale - A Tory??

This rant comes you to courtesy of the Conservative commentator, blogger, publisher, journalist and broadcaster Iain Dale. Busy little devil, isn't he?!
Iain is denouncing the ability of prisoners to get access to the Courts, specifically over the issues of the prisoners vote and of being slung into solitary. Hmmm.
Even in these un-ideological times, one lodestone of Tory belief is the "rule of law". Without it, we return to rule by Divine Right and other general insanities. The rule of law is obviously - as a generality - a Good Thing.
So wedded are Tories to the rule of law that a number of them make a fair living out of kicking the crap out of criminals in general, and prisoners in particular, whenever a microphone wanders in their direction. Laws, they assert with full pompous tenors, should be obeyed.
So, where does Iain fit into this Tory pantheon? Because access to the Courts, and the ability to challenge and check untrammelled State power, is pretty fundamental to the rule of law.
Feel free to disagree with Europe, geographically, economically or just plain arbitrarily. But if a Court whose jurisdiction we fall under makes a judgement then the rule of law says that we must comply. Picking and choosing which laws to abide by is a charter for government oppression as well as giving a blank cheque to criminals.
Not that prisoners will receive a cheque any day soon. The latest domestic judgement (which Iain applauds) is that we won't be given any compensation for being denied the vote, as the government is waiting to change the law. Fine, we can be patient. But Iain decries this very effort, objects to the fact that prisoners were even able to get to the doors of the court at all. So, the rule of law is fine, so long as it doesn't apply to prisoners or governments? That must be a strange landscape for a professed Tory to find himself in.
Iain’s second beef was with two terrorist prisoners, who tried to challenge being slung into solitary on the basis of rumour and suspicion. Iain wants this type of thing relegated to prison "housekeeping", no one’s business except that of the screws. He certainly doesn't want such matters hoisted into the legal light of day before the courts.
Only someone who has never been behind a cell door - let alone been in solitary - can take such a casual view of these matters. There is a disciplinary process, where accusations and evidence can be argued and judged. It's not quite the kangaroo court it once was. But these two should found themselves slung into solitary - indefinitely - on the basis of "intelligence", which is neither challengeable not provable.

Objecting to terrorists and all their works is fine by me. Slinging nutters into prison may even be helpful. But once there, how they are treated must accord with some semblance of legal decency. Leaving prison staff to decide who goes into solitary, without any recourse by the prisoner, is to invite abuses of power of the grossest kind.
It is to revert to a long discredited belief that "the law stops at the prison gates". It not only doesn't, but it shouldn't. To object to these two men attempting to challenge their prison treatment is to hand untrammelled power to staff behind high walls. It is to argue from the basis that the rule of law should avert its eyes from prisons.
Iain is a sharp, entertaining and in no way loony sort of Tory, but on this one he could benefit from reconsidering his knowledge of the internal workings of prisons and, more importantly, his views of the rule of law.
And as an aside, is it not broadly a Good Thing that a few hundred prisoners went to court over the Votes case? Imagine, these are people universally decried for their alleged contempt of the nation’s laws, and now they seek the protection of the Courts. A person who feels that they have legal standing is empowered, is drawn back into society and its structures, even if in a tiny step. But now that the courts have told them to sod off, whatever lack of interest they may have had in society and its laws can only be weakened.
The specific cases of prisoners and the courts can be debated in goodwill. But as an indicator or social inclusion, of social meaning, of belonging, then access to the court in principle is vital.
And prisoners, perhaps oddly, have an incredibly fine-tuned sense of fairness. We know we are being screwed over by the government, which has decided to treat the law with contempt. Just what message are we meant to take away from that..?


  1. Off topic, but...

    Your header states "The only blog by a serving British prisoner".

    Then, what's this?

    Tommy Sherriden's Blog

  2. With regard to the issue of prisoners votes there has been a somewhat clever PR exercise by the government.

    The complaint is that laws are being made by judges and not by the democratically elected law makers. Leaving aside that the point of fundamental rights is that they should not be overturnable, this complaint by the government is laughable.

    The Human Rights Act was passed by parliament. It places certain requirements on judges. It also places certain requirements on the government. The current issue is not one of judges circumventing parliaments law, it is a case of judges telling the government they are breaking parliaments law. In which case it is not the judges making law, it is the government breaking the law made by democratically elected lawmakers and being held to account. Somehow making it seem like this is a violation of parliamentary sovereignty is quite an impressive leap of imagination.

    The same issue applies to accusing the courts of making the law regarding prisoners when they require (under the Human rights Act) that tribunals in prisons meet the standards of Article 6 and can be subject to judicial review under s.6 (or 7 can't remember right now) of the HRA.

  3. Good post Ben. I would add:

    Democracy sits upon a stool of three mutually opposed legs: freedom, equality in law, and Justice; whereby each depends on the others for integrity. If all citizens were truly equal at the human level, democracy would be redundant, since one clone would be as representative as any other, hence voting would become needless after the first opinion; and if one clone was true and honest, there would be no need of law, since all would be guiltless. In our natural world, individual freedom is a bane to synthetic equality; therefore democracy is a perpetual dynamic compromise between its constituent antagonistic rights. To make democracy purposeful, individual freedom is necessary; and to stem the risk of chaos, brought about by our vain identities, just laws are imposed to contain our free impositions upon each other. True Justice however, requires artificial balance to ensure fairness via reciprocity, thus the accused must have ‘equal status in law’ to the accuser; which necessitates the presumption of innocence, until proven otherwise. By its very nature of compromise, democracy can never be perfect, hence it is a contradiction to utopia; but nevertheless is the best real solution for a just society that aims to maximise fairness in accord with the weight of public opinion.

    Politicians who secure power through the appeal to utopian ideals, promise perfection, which is the enemy of the good, by trying to force the natural dynamism of democracy to fit their own manifestos. Whether they seek more freedom, or more equality, or more Justice, or combinations thereof, they invariably must do so at the expense of one or both of the other democratic complements. Hence under utopian ideals, democracy risks losing its stability, for any position other than the natural equilibrium position, is unstable relative to it. Utopian systems have a nasty tendency to prop up their induced instabilities, by increasing laws in both number and severity, which in turn compromises both Justice and freedom, thence strains the natural dynamism of democracy until it becomes stagnant.

  4. Cambridge University students magazine Varsity has done a good article on prisoners votes...

    Sentenced to Vote

  5. Really can't add to the above except to say that Neither Law nor Human Rights should stop at the prison gate!!

    You go Ben......