Month: December 2009

The Death Penalty – why it’s a really bad idea.

China’s execution of Akmal Shaikh for heroin smuggling has once again re-opened that thorny old debate on the topic of capital punishment. The radio phone-ins were alive this morning with most of the contributors concluding that China had acted perfectly within its rights and that Shaikh’s fate was entirely of his own making. Leo McKinstry was keen to join the charge, posting this typically vile piece in the Daily Mail, which demonstrated both a lack of humanity and a lack of humility which have become the trademarks of Fleet Street’s most poisonous rag over the years. It would seem that, aside from the usual ‘liberal’ suspects, the majority of the British public are more in tune with McKinstry than they are with Amnesty International.

Much of the debate has centred around Shaikh’s bi-polar disorder and his unsuitability for trial or execution, which in any criminal trial should surely be a fair enough point, and China’s human rights record has once again come under scrutiny. However, surprisingly little has been said about the basic principle of putting people to death for their alleged crimes.

I absolutely, fundamentally believe the death penalty to be wrong, regardless of the nature of the crime involved. I don’t believe it acts as a deterrent, I don’t believe any country in the world can guarantee a judicial system which is immune to miscarriages of justice, but most of all I simply don’t believe it is right to kill another person.

America still persists with the death penalty in many of its States, but that seems to have very little impact on their record levels of violent crime. The strongest deterrent against crime is detection, not sentence – offenders tend to commit crime because they don’t believe they will be caught. Is a knife-wielding killer really weighing up in his mind which is more preferable between a life sentence and the death penalty, or is he thinking how likely he is to get away with it?

As for the soundness of convictions, the UK is hardly the place to start when looking for good practice in this field. The Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater Three – they and countless others wrongly accused would all have been sent to the gallows if the British legal system still included capital punishment. Once carried out, the death penalty is final and irrevocable – there is no margin for error.

So what of the victims? How would I feel about the death penalty if someone close to me was murdered? The honest answer is that if one of my loved ones was the victim then I imagine no punishment would be too harsh – I would probably want the murderer hanging from the highest tree. But that is precisely the reason why judges and juries with no prior knowledge of the individuals concerned are appointed to carry out trials, and exactly the same logic should always be extended to sentencing. Of course, the flip-side of this argument is how would those baying for the blood of every criminal react if their own son or daughter was accused?

The bottom line for me is that it is wrong to kill people, unless it is the only way to stop them killing others. The death penalty belongs to another age, an age when people took the Old Testament literally, when trial by drowning was an acceptable method of dealing with witchcraft. It is not something that should have a place in a modern society. It saddens me when I read and hear people from this country (which, for all its flaws, still upholds free speech) holding China up as a shining example of how things should be done.

Most countries in the world have turned their back on the death penalty. In time I hope that the two most powerful nations on the planet, China and the United States, will do the same. I’m sorry about what happened to Akmal Shaikh, regardless of what he did or why he did it, but I hope that one day his story will come to be seen as part of the narrative that led to the worldwide end of capital punishment.

F1 – Looking forward to 2010

The return of Michael Schumacher to Formula 1 and his spiritual home of Mercedes may fill many motor racing fans with dread that he and Ross Brawn will repeat their Ferrari trick of the early part of this decade, and bore their way to Championship dominance (naturally bending the rules along the way, the cynics might note) rendering Grand Prix afternoons as nothing more than a chance to catch forty winks between the pit stops. Non F1 fans will doubtless already share this analysis.

As someone who kept faith with the sport throughout the depressing (for some) years of Schumacher dominance I have to say that I’m actually quite looking forward to his return, and I think 2010 has the potential to be the most exciting season for many years.

What looks set to make next season so potentially interesting is the possibility that there will be at least three (and probably four) constructors capable of producing a Championship winning car. It goes without saying that Mercedes, as last season’s Champions under the Brawn GP badge,  have a strong foundation upon which to build and Red Bull’s Adrian Newey-designed car should also continue to compete for honours. McLaren, starting last season with one of the worst cars the team has ever produced, arguably finished the year with the strongest car on the grid and while Ferrari’s season was hugely disappointing by their own extremely high standards, it would be foolish to write a team of such unrivalled resources out of the equation.

So what of the drivers? No one needs reminding of the extraordinary standards set by Schumacher during the glory years and it would seem inconceivable that he would have returned if he didn’t expect to be competitive. Nevertheless we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few races for the sharpness and reactions to return to the old levels. On the other hand his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, will have a golden opportunity to watch the old master at work without suffering from any undue burden of expectation in the shadow of the seven-time Drivers Champion.

Expect the Red Bull pairing, especially the outrageously talented Sebastien Vettel, to be looking for race wins from the start, and there could be a very interesting duel at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and his new team-mate, the double World Champion Fernando Alonso. If the Ferrari is competitive Alonso’s greater talent should see him with the advantage over the more erratic Massa, although the Brazilian is very well established in the team and will certainly expect to make an impact.

Perhaps the most fascinating pairing is that at McLaren. Last season’s Champion, Jenson Button, brings the Number 1 to the team alongside 2008 Champion Lewis Hamilton (in my opinion the most talented of all the current F1 drivers) and looks to have an unenviable task on his hands. Hamilton has been with the team since he was a boy, the car is built around him and (if the team are competitive) will expect to be fighting for the title from the very beginning of the season. Button, on the other hand, will need time to settle and to learn the intricacies of both the car and the team. In truth, I fear for him this season – I fully expect Hamilton to beat him by a substantial margin on a very regular basis. The major winner of his move from Brawn GP will surely be the McLaren team who will have the marketability of two British Champions to trade on; it’s very difficult to see how Button gains from all this.

So who’s going to win the title next year? It’s traditionally a foolish game making such predictions before the new cars are unveiled but, all things being equal, I would expect Hamilton to be the man to beat during the coming season. Having said that, Vettel has the look of the dark horse about him and Schumacher should enjoy a strong second half of the season as the old Brawn/Schumi magic comes back up to speed. Ferrari must surely improve on last year but I suspect they may have just a little too much catching up to do.

It’s difficult to predict with any certainty who will emerge as Champion Team and Driver next year, but that surely has to be a good thing. It’s good to have you back Michael, but I hope you’ll find things a lot less predictable than they were a decade ago.

All I want for Christmas…

I don’t much care for Christmas really. Like most of us I suppose, I enjoyed it when I was a kid, but as soon as the whole festival started to become a net loss to the bank account the magic quickly started to wane. Obviously I make an effort for the benefit of my children (although I’m not entirely comfortable with the lies and deceit around the whole ‘existence of Father Christmas’ issue) and there’s nothing wrong with having at least one day a year when families make an effort to sit round a table and eat a meal together. On the other hand the religious aspect of Christmas is completely lost on me (as would appear to be the case for the vast majority of binge-shoppers filling the streets at this time of year) and there can be little doubt that the materialistic excesses become more pronounced every year.

Anyway, those arguments are all very well rehearsed and I’m not going to go over them here. Instead I thought I’d enter into the spirit of things (kind of) and write down my political wishlist for Christmas and the New Year.

1. An Early Election. Gordon, for the sanity of us all, please get this nasty business out of the way early. We’ve all been in the middle of an election campaign for months now and the sooner it’s over the better. Of course, if the worst happens (and the Tories win) at least we’ll all have the comfort of knowing that, if you’d held out until June, they would probably have won anyway , and the sooner people start remembering why we threw them out in the first place the better.

2. Ideally the result I would like from an election would be a Hung Parliament. The ‘swing of the pendulum’ just isn’t working any more, the political system is at the lowest ebb of its public regard for the best part of two hundred years and it simply won’t do for this to carry on any longer. The worst excesses of the expenses scandal were the work of the MPs in the safest seats – a hung parliament and a sensible debate around electoral reform (STV please) would mean there wouldn’t be any safe seats. And everyone’s vote would count! What a novel idea.

3. Lord Ashcroft to come clean about his tax status. OK, I know it’s not going to happen but you’d just think that a party that has been bleating on about cleaning up the political system and sorting out the non-dom status of our legislators would get its own bloody house in order first. That’s all.

4. Something reasonably unpleasant to happen to George Osborne. Nothing fatal or physically damaging, you understand, just something reasonably unpleasant. A seagull dumping on his head every time he gives an interview, for example, or a sordid Bullingdon sex and drugs scandal, or (best of all) him not becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ever.

I know I can’t have everything I want for Christmas, but these four minor items would make me very happy as I sit by the fire with my eggnog, trying not to think about January’s credit card bill. Thanks.

What on Earth is happening to British politics?

It used to be said that politics was “show business for ugly people”, but if reports of Simon Cowell’s latest wheeze are true, then maybe we aren’t too far away from the point at which politics simply becomes “show business”.

Cowell indulged in a brainstorming session during an interview with BBC Newsnight in which he basically came up with a format which involves an X-Factor-style TV show where ‘issues’ are discussed and viewers can cast their votes (presumably via a premium rate number). There would even be a red telephone on stage for Downing Street to phone through the government’s reaction to the show. As politics itself is unlikely to be a big enough draw to keep the advertising revenue up (and therefore maintain Cowell’s interest) you can expect a sprinkling of ITV Saturday night stardust to act as the glue to keep the millions stuck to their sofas.

Am I alone in wondering where it all went wrong? What caused politics in this country to go so badly awry that Simon Cowell is seriously considering serving up a dose of celebrity magic to put things right? We already have the grim spectacle (spectre?) of Esther Rantzen’s candidacy in Luton to look forward to next year, not to mention ‘chick-lit’ novelist Louise Bagshawe’s worrying descent on Corby & East Northants and, closer to home, former TV-AM sofa-warmer Caroline Righton’s accident-prone campaign for St Austell & Newquay. Do we really need a political X-Factor to add further celebrity glow to what ought to be a serious business?

I recently did an interview with a journalism student, Lydia Smears, about growing voter apathy and what politicians and political parties should do about it. At the risk of sounding considerably older than I actually am, I found myself harking back to the post-Second World War General Elections as evidence that all the TV shows, text voting, supermarket polling stations and all the other ideas to invigorate democratic participation won’t make the blindest bit of difference. What’s missing from UK politics at the moment is a genuine debate about real policy differences. There was no such vacuum in 1950, for example, and (with a clear dividing line between the Atlee government’s nationalisation and welfare state agenda, and Churchill’s Tories’ almost total resistance to the post-war Labour government’s radical programme) voter turnout in that year’s election was 83.9% as opposed to a mere 59.4% in 2001.

What do we have today? Bandwagon jumping, appearances on ‘This Morning’, media management, party leaders’ indulgence in celebrity culture – the list goes on. Modern politics is all about whose manager is least likely to ‘frighten the horses’, whose image chimes with the voters, who looks best on TV. This is what tempts politicians to pretend they’re interested in the X-Factor, or I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here or any of the other beacons of popular television culture, instead of trying to communicate with voters about such apparent fripperies as policy debates and the like. Sadly this becomes self-perpetuating for the politicians. The more they steer into the celebrity agenda the more they will have to, and what happens to policy then?

I can’t pretend I have the answer. Maybe it’s too late for the genie to be stuffed back into the bottle but it is my desperate hope that politics doesn’t go down this route. Perhaps if our representatives were prepared to take a risk and talk to real voters about what it is they actually plan to do we might see a shift in this culture. The thought of Dermot O’Leary announcing the result of an ITV viewers’ vote on capital punishment is almost too much to bear.

Esther for Luton – What’s that all about then?

I must admit to becoming more and more confused by Esther Rantzen’s ‘Independent’ candidacy for Luton South. For my sins I’ve recently started following her on Twitter and reading her website and, while I have to say she does her best to engage with her followers (up to a point, anyway), I couldn’t honestly tell you that I’m any nearer to understanding what she believes or why she’s descended on Luton.

I suppose it’s an attempt to catch a public mood in the way Martin Bell so famously did during the 1997 Election, but the situation is rather different in Luton South than it was in Tatton (now home to the lovely George Osborne, of course). Bell’s candidacy had a clear purpose, an obvious villain in Neil Hamilton and enough national media coverage to keep the unfolding drama at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the election campaign. So far Rantzen has none of these.

Bell’s clear purpose in 1997 was a crusade against sleaze, which had bogged John Major’s Tory government down so badly for the previous three years that it had ceased to function as an effective administration. Some may say that there is a comparison to be made with the current Labour government, but things are actually quite a lot different now. In 1997 the focus on sleaze was entirely directed at the Conservatives, and with very good reason. Aside from John Major’s ill-fated ‘Back To Basics’ campaign, which seemed to inadvertently blow the lid off an endless stream of ministerial affairs and auto-erotic asphyxiation scandals, a significant number of senior Tory MPs were found taking large sums of cash and ‘benefits in kind’ from a variety of foreign business interests. Libel cases collapsed, perjury trials ensued, and two high-profile Conservatives, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, ended up in jail. We’re not quite that far down the road yet and, for those who bother to look beyond the skewed media coverage, the MPs’ expenses ‘guilt’ is spread across the parties (in fact, it’s still the Tories who appear to come out worst).

Rantzen also lacks a clear enemy in Luton South. Bell had Hamilton, implicated in the ‘Cash For Questions‘ scandal, and there was high drama as the two men famously met in front of the cameras for the ‘Battle of Knutsford Common’. In contrast Margaret Moran, the sitting MP for Luton South, has bowed to the pressure in the wake of the expenses scandal and will not be Labour’s candidate in 2010. Had Moran stayed, Rantzen would have been able to ride the wave of media outrage and may even have seen the other parties withdraw, as Labour and the Lib Dems did in Tatton. Instead she has reverted to simply being a fringe candidate.

I suppose what troubles me the most is that I’m never quite sure what an ‘Independent’ actually stands for. Here in Cornwall there is a long tradition of Independent councillors, although their numbers have seen a steady decline over recent years. This label seems quite appealing to many people, particularly those who are disillusioned with mainstream party politics. “I vote for the man, not the party” is the refrain I often hear during local election campaigns. While this may initially seem like a seductive argument, it does beg the question: “what do Independent candidates actually believe in”? How would an Independent MP or councillor vote in, say, a budget debate in a hung administration? “I’d assess the facts and make the best decision for my area” is often the response, but how would any of the candidate’s residents have the faintest idea which way their representative would jump in such a situation? Electing an Independent is the political equivalent of giving a blank cheque to an individual MP or councillor. At least with a political candidate you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and all the others at least publish manifestos which are open to scrutiny during and after an election campaign.

One of my favourite questions to Independent candidates when they show up on my doorstep is “How did you vote at the last General Election?” It nearly always throws them off balance and none of them like answering it (most don’t even bother). But I don’t ask it simply to be awkward – I want to know what their political instinct is when they’re faced with a difficult situation. I tried to ask Esther the same question on Twitter yesterday but, after being quite a feisty debater up to that point, she suddenly went all shy and stopped engaging.

It will be very interesting to see how the campaign develops in Luton, and if Rantzen starts to answer the awkward questions and actually sets out what she believes in she may yet deserve to make an impact on the 2010 General Election. As things currently stand however, I really can’t see the point.

David Cameron: A Mindless, Irrational Hatchet Job

Oh David Cameron. Where do I start with you? How do I give you (and the repulsive, narrow-minded, self-interested guff cloud of a party you lead) the kicking you fully deserve without resorting to the usual clichés about silver spoons, policy vacuums and the Bullingdon Club?

Maybe I should critique the few policies you and Gideon have allowed to seep out, or maybe I should have a pop at the slippery-looking bunch of chancers, tobacco-peddlers and after-dinner speakers who make up your Shadow (or should that be Shallow) Cabinet; a government-in-waiting staffed by the likes of George Osborne, Ken Clarke, William Hague and Eric Pickles. Perhaps I should point out that your MPs had by far the most egregious record on expenses of any party and that, despite your flowery rhetoric, you’ve offered no concrete proposal which will deal with this issue in any way, shape or form.

I suppose I could concentrate on the Ashcroft millions which are being poured into marginal constituencies in a naked attempt to distort the electoral process. I could make reference to your repeated claim to be ‘the Party of the NHS’ (how you and your hired bully, Andy Coulson, must have laughed when you cooked that line up). Somewhere in this piece I could probably find room to point out that every call you and Gideon have made on the economy over the last couple of years has been completely, disastrously wrong. I could even allude to the natural Tory ‘default mode’ of mercilessly shafting public services and the poor in order to give your wealthy backers the tax cuts they plainly don’t deserve.

But I won’t do any of those things. No, I’m going to be a lot less rational than that.

I just can’t bear you, Dave. I can’t stand your face, I can’t stand your voice and I especially can’t stand the way you continue to lead in the opinion polls in spite of all the evidence which points to a Tory government being a complete disaster. I despise the arrogant, born-to-rule air that wafts from your party at the moment. I loathe the easy ride the media give you, from the crap-by-the-bucket-load spewing forth from the newly-sycophantic Murdoch press, via the shrill family values nonsense belched out by the Daily Mail, to the total lack of adequate policy scrutiny from an organisation like the BBC, of which we are entitled to expect more.

But, if I’m being completely honest, my greatest fear is watching Tories celebrate an election victory next year. It’s been seventeen years since I’ve had to suffer that, and John Major was nowhere near as irritating as you are, Dave. It is my desperate, yet fading, hope that the electorate (at least the ones you are targetting in the marginal constituencies) will wake up to the insipid Blair Mark II project you are trying to pull off. I’d love the voters to prove to you and Gideon that government is not your birthright. Sadly, life’s not fair like that, is it Dave?