On the 5th of August, James Garry wrote a piece outlining his support for the reinstatement of the death penalty. A.P. Schrader cares to disagree and tells us why Garry is wrong and also why it is wrong to kill people for their crimes.
A rather distressing development has occurred. In its infinite wisdom, Her Majesty’s Government launched a new ‘e-petitions’ site. The obviously fatuous (one might almost say ‘Blairesque’) idea behind this innovation is that any ‘e-petition’ that secures over a hundred thousand signatures will be “eligible for debate in the House of Commons”. It is a mind-bogglingly stupid idea and, one feels, was always going to lead to the cranks and nutters that make up the broad mass of the tabloid-reading British public putting up some errant nonsense that will then be “eligible” (note the lack of commitment contained in that gloriously ambiguous word) for debate in the Mother of Parliaments.
I believe this is what the ‘yoof’ call in Internet parlance a “palmface” moment. One might have thought the Coalition would have learned the lessons of the previous Labour government’s attempts to introduce similar ‘power to the people’ schemes. Downing Street opened up a similar petitions system on their website and it resulted in nearly 100,000 people signing a petition calling on Gordon Brown to resign. But, oh well.
Naturally, it did not take too long for the first controversial subject to rear its ugly head. Cue the inestimable Guido Fawkes – a highly influential right-wing blogger. I have a lot of admiration for Mr Staines (to call him by his real name) and for our editor, James Garry, who supports his petition. Mr Staines displays admirable political acumen, writes his very entertaining blog eruditely and with humour, is gutsy and tenacious and I share many of his libertarian leanings. One is, however, disappointed by his republicanism and by some of the more scurrilous ‘tabloidish’ elements of his blog and one is forced to disagree wholeheartedly with him – and James – on the issue he chose to raise as his first ‘e-petition’: namely, restoring the death penalty.
‘Mr Fawkes’ has called for the restoration of capital punishment for “the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty”. Presumably, killing a police officer while he is off duty is acceptable then, as when he is off duty he is just an ordinary person. Killing ordinary adults is, according to ‘Guido’, not a capital crime. Leaving aside the absurdity of this apparent distinction for the moment, with weary predictability, even before Mr Staines’ petition had gone live, he picked up the support of The Sun, five Tory MPs – Philip Davies (Shipley), Priti Patel (Witham), Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight), David Nuttall (Bury North) and Andrew Percy (Brigg & Goole) – UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom and the editor of an exciting new right-wing online political magazine. There will be more lurking in the woodwork, I have no doubt.
The Cornerstone Group of Tory MPs, who make up the backbone of the “hang ‘em ‘n flog ‘em” brigade (the people Alan Duncan once famously described as “the Tory Taleban”), will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of debating the death penalty for the first time since the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998. Meanwhile, the affable Leader of the House of Commons, that stately baronet Sir George Young, has indicated that Mr Staines’ petition will indeed get a hearing in the Commons chamber. Sir George wrote in the Daily Mail on Thursday morning that there was “no room for complacency”. According to Sir George, this is all about “connecting with the outside world” apparently. It seems more like connecting with the lowest common denominator to this reporter.
The opening line of Mr Staines’ petition is instructive: “We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment.” All treaties and international commitments… sounds a tad problematical, does it not? As most people are probably aware, restoring the death penalty would necessitate Britain leaving the European Union and the Council of Europe and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (already the subject of an e-petition in itself). “So what”, I hear you cry, “Good riddance”. Well, maybe. But we should be in no doubt that what is being proposed here is not just that we leave the EU or pull out of the ECHR but that we withdraw from the society of civilised nations. We would be joining a club that includes such august members as Communist China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea, the Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Somalia – all bastions of justice, I am sure you will agree – and leaving (or effectively being excluded from) a club that includes pretty much every civilised nation on earth with the shameful exception of the United States of America.
In total, just fifty-three countries around the world retain the death penalty, while ninety-six have abolished it for all crimes. There are nine countries that retain the death penalty only for the most heinous of crimes and a further thirty-four countries that retain the death penalty but are, in practice, abolitionist (that is to say, while capital punishment remains formally on their statute books, their judiciaries habitually abstain from using it). In 1991, a mere forty-eight countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. It has been abolished in the United Kingdom since 1965. Reinstitution of capital punishment in Britain would, therefore, mean bucking the clear trend of civilised nations throughout the world over the past two decades and reversing a decision made by people in this country nearly half a century ago, who even then realised that it was a barbaric practice.
Now, nowhere is it writ that we have to be like everyone else, so I do not want to reduce this debate to an argument in favour of sticking with the ‘in crowd’. So, what are the reasons to oppose the death penalty? This is a particularly vexed question for a right-winger like me, when so many of my compatriots on the Right favour capital punishment. The first and most peremptory, from my point of view, is that it is just plain wrong. As a practicing Christian, I have always adopted an uncompromisingly pro-life stance, insisting that human life is sacred. It seems to me wholly inconsistent to take a moral position that opposes abortion and euthanasia on grounds of the sanctity of human life and yet advocate capital punishment. Our editor, James Garry, thinks capital punishment is distinct from euthanasia and abortion but I am afraid I do not see it. It seems to me fundamentally and irrefutably hypocritical.
This not a subject that requires deep scriptural analysis. “Thou shalt not kill” says it all. Let it not be forgotten that Jesus Christ was Himself a victim of capital punishment and was executed at Calvary by the Roman authorities in something of a miscarriage of justice, as you may recall from your Sunday school lessons. It has always struck me as singularly bizarre that proponents of capital punishment, such as the Cornerstone MPs, are invariably professedly devout Christians (for the most part Roman Catholics). One most commonly encounters the argument “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. Mahatma Gandhi is said to have responded to this argument, rather pithily I think, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. For myself, I prefer the words of Our Lord, who said: “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39).
Of course, it is not just my Christian co-religionists I have trouble understanding. I cannot fathom support for capital punishment from a right-wing libertarian point of view either. Ultimately, the death penalty is a ‘big state’ policy, allowing the State to revoke the individual’s right to life. If libertarians seek to maximise individual freedom and limit the power of the State then life imprisonment would seem preferable to giving the State the power to kill its citizens. Meanwhile, capital punishment should be of concern for any good right-winger with a concern for upholding strong law and order policies.
Studies have shown that the average juror serving on a jury is ill-disposed to condemn another human being to death and, therefore, reluctant to find a defendant guilty if they believe he or she will be executed. It could, perversely, lead to more killers being freed. There is also a serious risk to the innocent, as even in the age of DNA and other innovations in forensic science, there is still no such thing as “definitely guilty”. Take, for example, Barry George, released from gaol in 2008 after his conviction for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando was quashed. Stefan Kiszko was released after spending sixteen years in gaol for a murder he did not commit. Sally Clark, Donna Anthony and Angela Cannings, mothers who were all imprisoned for murdering their children on the back of the now discredited evidence of Professor Sir Roy Meadow. The Cardiff Three, the Bridgewater Four, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six… the list goes on. Pardons are not much comfort to you when they are posthumous.
Moreover, if the Right is about anything it should be about what works; that which is tried and tested. Capital punishment does not work and has been tested to destruction. That alone should be the most damning thing of all from the perspective of a good right-winger. Capital punishment is wholly ineffective. Countless studies in America have concluded that there is no evidence whatever that the death penalty is even remotely effective as a deterrent. It is also, contrary to what is often claimed by death penalty advocates, not the cheaper option (unless you are in China, in which case you execute people by firing squad and then charge their relatives for the cost of the bullet). In most American jurisdictions, once a death row inmate has exhausted all their myriad appeals, the cost to the authorities is greater than if they had simply been imprisoned for life. In the ‘great State a Texas’ the bill is $250 million per execution. Does that sound terribly cost effective to you?
It seems inevitable that this matter will now have to be thrashed out on the floor of the House of Commons and, while I am confident that after a suitably lofty and philosophical round of navel gazing, our MPs will vote to retain the ban on capital punishment, I am left bewildered by the necessity of having this debate at all. One does feel that, if we are now to become a nation where the legislative agenda and valuable parliamentary time can be hijacked by a few reactionary crackpots then they should have to put their money where their mouth is. I heard an absolutely marvellous idea the other day. A good friend of mine suggested a variant on the Organ Donor Card. All those in favour of capital punishment should carry a card identifying them as a proponent of the death penalty and, if later found guilty of a murder, hang them “by their pretty white necks”. We should hold Mr Staines to that (and, dare I say it, Mr Garry as well).