‘Votes for prisoners’ is about our liberty, not their human rights
When the Archbishop of Canterbury waded into this euro-muddle yesterday, coming down decidedly on the side of the axe-
He is all in favour of clerics pontificating on matters of politics in exactly the same fashion as he exhorts politicians to mouth on matters of morality. But why, O why are bishops and archbishops so pathologically inclined to the left and congenitally disposed to believe that all that comes out of Strasbourg is divine writ?
His Grace wrote on the question of votes for prisoners last year, and he hasn’t changed his mind one jot or tittle.
The European Court of Human Rights (not an EU body) ruled back in 2004 that the blanket prohibition of prisoner voting was discriminatory and breached the European Convention on Human Rights. Labour kicked this issue well and truly into the long grass, and the Coalition has simply inherited the inevitable. The issue now is whether the Government will comply with the ruling, or face compensation claims of tens of millions of pounds from prisoners whose human rights have been infringed (according to the ECHR).
As His Grace said months ago, it is not a breach of a prisoner’s human rights to be denied the vote because to vote is not a human right. If it were, babies would be given a ballot paper at the breast, and schoolchildren would not be deprived of their inviolable pursuit of democracy. Voting is an entitlement of privilege granted to members of a democratic society which forms part of a social contract. When that contract is broken, as it undoubtedly is by the law-breaker, it is not unreasonable for the entitlement to be removed.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was supported by the Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby, the former bishop of HM Prisons, who said: "Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence or reform ... It is making someone an 'outlaw', and as such has no place in expressing a civilised attitude towards those in prison."
This is bizarre. It is a little like saying that depriving someone of communion makes them a heretic, when the heresy manifestly precedes the excommunication; indeed, it is causal.
But this is not about votes for prisoners; it is about ‘Who governs Britain?’. It is about our democracy, or traditions and our liberty.
If, as is widely reported, the mere thought of enfranchising convicts makes the Prime Minister ‘physically sick’, then his nausea must be abated.
It was a sovereign Parliament which placed in the Statute Book the Forfeiture Act of 1870, which was debated by a sovereign House of Commons and a sovereign House of Lords and granted Royal Assent by no less a sovereign than Queen Victoria. This Bill was itself based on the traditional English 14th-century understanding of the concept of ‘civic death’, and has been sustained right up to the sovereign Representation of the People Act 1983.
It is not for a bunch of unelected and ill-qualified
As odious as the ‘jailhouse lawyer’ John Hirst may be (and that ‘may’ is not an expression of vague possibility, but an assertion of an undoubted depravity), he is only playing the game enjoined by all lawyers on behalf of their criminal clients: to milk the state and impoverish the public purse to line their own pockets. If there be no means of achieving that within the British judicial system, they are compelled to pursue their grievance to a higher court - all, of course, at the cost of the taxpayer through legal aid.
And that higher court is not the ‘Supreme Court’, which is manifestly not supreme, but the European Court, which has been getting ever more supreme at the same time as the nations of Europe have been getting ever closer.
In British tradition, voting is an entitlement of the law-abiding, not a right of the lawless. To convert our entitlements into rights dispenses with the need for a social contract, for our rights become inviolable while the concept of duty and responsibility is negated, the rule of law is undermined and justice perverted. Parliament has been subsumed to alien powers; the Queen has been usurped by foreign princes and potentates; and our politicians have been emasculated by unconfined judges. That is the issue before Parliament today: are we free to determine our laws and live in accordance with our customs and traditions and rights which go back to Magna Carta and include the Bill of Rights 1689 which declares the supremacy of Parliament over all courts? Or are we now unavoidably and irrevocably subject to a deficient court with designs on European domination through judicial activism?
The Attorney General Dominic Grieve has previously said it would be ‘ludicrous’ to give prisoners the right to vote.
Today he will not oppose the Convention, for he holds that it is not at fault. Along with Kenneth Clarke, Mr Grieve is one of the Conservative Party’s foremost proponents of the ECHR. The fault, he avers, is in the interpretation.
But unless he offers today a mechanism by which the Convention may be interpreted in accordance with a British understanding of jurisprudence – that is, a mechanism by which the UK’s Supreme Court may override the European Court of Human Rights – he will be seen to be standing in support of the loathsome John Hirst. This is not an issue upon which one may remain neutral: there is no via media. If the Attorney is not against it, he is for it.
Parliament must be the final arbiter of our laws. It is time to revisit the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UK’s adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, irrespective of whatever pussyfooting occurs today in Parliament. In the (highly) unlikely event that the UK is suspended or expelled from the Council of Europe (and so the EU) as a result, so be it.
Of course, that will not happen. Like the Prime Minister, His Grace is nauseous. But his nausea results from being marched to the top of the hill (again), only to be marched all the way down (again).
It is one thing to have a Supreme Court that isn’t supreme and a democracy that isn’t democratic. But it will not be for much longer that people will put up with a Conservative Party that isn’t conservative.