Locked in!

When politicians start ruling on what is and isn’t democratic, you know the political system is broken. When that politician is Boris Johnson, you know the political system is diseased unto death.

In a properly functioning political system, it should never be necessary for anyone to rule on the democratic legitimacy of any action or process or policy. It should be obvious. There should never be any doubt because the criterion for assessing democratic legitimacy is so simple and all-encompassing – the people decide.

That’s it! That’s the only rule. At every opportunity, the people decide. Wherever there is doubt, the people decide. If the people have the final say, it’s democratic. If the people are prohibited or prevented from having the final say, it’s undemocratic. If the role of the people as the final arbiters in all matters concerning the nation is in any way limited or constrained, it is undemocratic. If politicians seek to usurp that role, that is undemocratic. If the status of the people as the source of all legitimate political authority is fully recognised – in principle and in practice – that is democratic. If that status is contemned, that is undemocratic.

The very last people who should rule on what is and isn’t democratic ere those who wield the power that is authorised and legitimised by being ruled democratic. That is a recipe for despotism.

I’m sure Boris Johnson entertains a conceit of himself as a benign despot. I have not the slightest doubt that when he looks in the mirror, the face he sees staring back at him is the face of a strong leader such as has historically come to England’s aid in her time of need – rather than the pouting, smirking balloon-face of a petulantly malicious child-clown that the rest of us see. His is a mind in which despotism is easily rationalised as a firm hand on the rudder of state. In that mind, democracy is whatever serves this warped, deluded self-image.

Boris Johnson supposes himself a born leader; the inheritor of all the qualities which define the heroes who inhabit the Great British Myth from Saint George, Slayer of Dragons to Saint Margaret, Destroyer of Communities. If he is destined to lead, the people must be fated to follow. Is that not the natural order?

If there is one thing worse than a wannabe autocrat in a position of political power, it is the people who pander to the delusion in order to turn political power to their own purposes. Purposes which are rarely of the benign sort which might be pursued by less devious means. Purposes which can be discerned by noting the things that are declared ‘undemocratic’.

We should be able to dismiss the nonsense about there being a “very clear promise” attached to the 2014 referendum stating that it would be a “once in a generation event”. This is a lie. There never was any such promise. Nor could there be. No politician can constrain the inalienable right of self-determination. Even if such an undertaking had been given and could be valid, in order to be so it would have to be enshrined in the legislation relating to the referendum, or in the Edinburgh Agreement. Next time some British Nationalist comes out with this drivel about “once in a generation”, ask them to show you the relevant legal provision. Ask them to tell you the precise wording of the alleged promise. Just don’t ask them how it could possibly be democratically legitimate as this would require an understanding of democratic principles that is evidently absent from British Nationalist ideology.

We should be able to discount this “once in a generation” lie. But we have to allow for the British media’s efforts to give such lies the status of truth, if only by means of repetition without challenge. The BBC and the British press will, as a matter of habit and practice, insinuate the idea into the public consciousness. That’s their job, as they see it.

But this may not be the worst of it. We are well-advised to attend carefully to what British politicians say so as to discover what they are thinking. And the most telling part of Boris Johnson’s reported remarks is not the the old lie about a “once in a generation” promise. A disturbing hint of what noxious notions are gestating in the British Prime Minister’s mind is to be found in the following,

I think that it’s odd that both Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP claim to be attached to democracy when their mission is to smash up the oldest and most successful political partnership in history, in the form of the Union …

Boris Johnson: ‘No reason’ for second Scottish independence referendum

The bit about Jeremy Corbyn is just another lie, of course. Corbyn is avery bit as much a British Nationalist as Boris Johnson. What is significant in this remark in the clear implication that proposing to dissolve the Union is undemocratic. The utterance falls just short of declaring that the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence is undemocratic.

When politicians start ruling on what is and isn’t democratic, you know the political system is broken. When that politician is Boris Johnson, you know the political system is diseased unto death.



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Prison, punishment and democracy

prisonChristina McKelvie is quite wrong when she says that “prison is a place people go to be punished“. Prison is the punishment. Imprisonment. Incarceration. Immurement. Forfeiture of liberty is the penalty. The law allows for no further punishment beyond this. Prison is a place people are sent as punishment, not to be punished.

Prisoners are wards of the state. The state is responsible for their welfare. Which means we, each and every citizen of Scotland, owes a duty of care to prisoners. That may be an uncomfortable thought for some. But it is a fact, nonetheless. It is an unavoidable corollary of a truly democratic system. The necessarily implication of this is that we must ensure that inmates are not subject to additional punishment whilst in prison. It is essential that our justice system be fair. The penalties imposed for breaking the law must be transparent and consistent and even-handed. Which means we must be able to measure, as accurately as possible, the extent to which individuals are being punished. We do this using time. Ideally, the period of incarceration correlates closely with the seriousness of the crime so that those who have committed similar offences forfeit their liberty for the same amount of time.

It’s not easy to know what alternative measure might be used. What is certain is that, were there to be various additional punishments meted out whilst the sentence is being served, measuring the impact on individuals of these on individuals must be as close to impossible as makes no difference. For the system to be perceived as fair, the state must do all it can to ensure that the conditions under which prisoners serve their sentences are as close to identical as possible.

We send people to prison because we care about society. It would be illogical, therefore, not to care about the welfare of prisoners. They may be segregated from society, but they do not cease to be part of it. The vast majority will be expected to resume a life within society once their sentence is served. Prison must prepare them for this. It simply makes no sense to imagine that you can prepare an individual for being part of society by treating them as a social reject. It is in society’s interest that every effort be made to engage those who, self-evidently, have the greatest difficulty engaging.

There can hardly be anything more symbolic of rejection and disengagement than denial of that most fundamental of civil rights, the right to vote. A blanket ban, in particular, must be inherently unfair. Two individuals having committed identical crimes under identical circumstances and been given identical sentences could be arbitrarily subject to different penalties in terms of loss of opportunities to vote simply by virtue of when they serve their period of incarceration. One might miss two or more chances to exercise their democratic franchise, whilst the other misses none. It is inherently and unavoidably unfair.

Democracy is better for being participative. The more people who vote, the better. The more people who vote, the more representative of society the outcome is. In order to ensure – or, at least, facilitate – maximum participation the default position has to be that absolutely everybody has a vote. There should be no discussion about who has a right to vote. The very fact of such discussion diminishes our democracy. What may be debated is the matter of who is permitted to exercise their right to vote. But the onus is on those who wish to deny this permission to make a case which is valid within the context of an overarching set of democratic principles.

I have yet to see any such case for denying prisoners the opportunity to exercise their democratic right.


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