Nationalists who would deny prisoners a vote in the independence referendum are being craven and dishonest
The social responsibility contract that many leftwing unionists would like to conclude with the Scottish nationalists is as yet unwritten. Several of the details and clauses are still taking shape in our heads but, 16 months away from the independence referendum, a broad outline is being formed. It looks something like this: in return for you pledging to deliver a truly enlightened, compassionate and inclusive democracy, we will set aside our misgivings about the economy in an independent Scotland and conceal our anxiety over our pensions and savings. We will take deep breaths and cross the Rubicon with you, or at least the Firth of Forth.
There is a number written on our hearts that is the price many of us may be willing to pay for the privilege of being counted among the first generation of an independent Scotland. And it is a lot more than George Osborne’s scrawny £1 valuation of the cost of separation. (Is there no end to the hidden shallows of Better Together?) The esteemed political and economics commentator Daniel Finkelstein, writing in the Times last week, probably spoke for many when he stated: “I am not very convinced by the competing claims about the money gained or lost in the event of a split. They seem the unprovable assertions of people whose guesses coincide suspiciously with their prejudices.”
Our social responsibility contract would enjoin the nationalists to go the extra mile in delivering a society where the weakest and most vulnerable in our communities are not always presumed to be the authors of their own misfortune. It would be an eternal rebuke to the English Conservatives’ mantra of “self-help” that, in recent times, has metamorphosed into “help yourselves” when applied to the banking chiefs and speculators whose avarice wounded Britain far more deeply than a million so-called benefit cheats.
The chasm that now exists between how Scotland chooses to approach a social ill such as long-term unemployment and that which holds sway in the heartlands of Conservative England was exemplified by Charles Moore recently writing in the Spectator.
Mr Moore is among that organ’s most readable contributors, though his attitude towards the working class and benefits was depressingly emblematic of current Tory thinking. “Its [the working class] more enterprising members have become middle class and the rest have discovered that they can live by not working,” he wrote. The only deduction we can draw from this is that Mr Moore believes all remaining working-class people to be benefit slaves.
Those who subscribe to such a view also deem income from benefits as somehow “unearned”, yet there is very little “unearned” about it. The benefits system in this country is the national insurance that most claimants and their families have been paying into for generations in spite of scandalously low wages, the threat of summary dismissal and poor working conditions.
As such, they are far more entitled to their benefits than the unearned bonuses of those who speculate with other people’s money or who inherit land that was fraudulently annexed centuries ago. It is a belief that is fundamental to my political and social credo and one that I assume is shared, give or take the odd nuance, by the SNP government.
It comes as a shock then to discover that in one crucial and fundamental area of social care the SNP resembles the “swivel-eyed loons” of the Tory shires. For it is the nationalists’ stated desire that not a single citizen resident in a Scottish jail come the morning of 18 September 2014 should be permitted to participate in that day’s momentous referendum. In this, they have adopted a more reactionary position than even the Westminster Tories who may yet be forced by Europe to extend suffrage to some prisoners.
Behold this from our deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, doing her best Michael Howard impersonation: “Right now, convicted prisoners who are serving prison sentences do not get to vote, and I do not consider that there is a good argument for changing the position for the referendum.”
This is the same woman whose recent speeches have all been stitched together with the thread of “social justice”. Yet what is “social justice” if it does not also extend to the wretched people who are currently enduring spells at Her Majesty’s pleasure?
Ms Sturgeon doesn’t need me to tell her that around “half of Scotland’s prison population comes from 15% of Scotland’s poorest council wards”, for these are the words of Kenny MacAskill, the justice minister.
What Ms Sturgeon does require to be told is that many of the rest of us have not thus far encountered a spell in the pokey for assorted concealed delinquencies only through fortunate circumstance and the prayers of countless grannies, aunties and mums.
The SNP’s unyielding attitude to votes for prisoners is as nonsensical as it is puzzling. Scotland’s jail population is proportionately among the highest in Europe, with a large number being repeat offenders. Yet surely there is a civilising agent in being permitted the right to vote. By extending this to prisoners, we are enlisting them in the democratic process; by denying them it, we are alienating them and dehumanising them still further.
The SNP need to understand that in a fully joined-up commitment to social inclusion they can’t simply omit one of the difficult areas, such as prisoners’ rights. They all come as a package and if one falls they all fall.
The nationalists want the rest of us to overcome our fear of the unknown and help them to create a better and more just society in an independent Scotland. Yet by denying this basic human right to Scotland’s prisoners, they are petrified of backing their own instincts. That makes them both dishonest and craven.
Winston Churchill, as home secretary, said: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilisation of a country.” One hundred and three years later, his words are convicting Nicola Sturgeon and her scared party.