Deny prisoners the vote and we undermine our democracy Camtopia is crumbling.
Each day, the Prime Minister promised land recedes as erstwhile evangelists for the Big Society warn that cash starved volunteers cannot deliver the Cameron vision. Nor is Sell off Britain proving popular. More than 70 per cent of citizens oppose privatising our forests, amid fears that nothing has a value and everything a price. As libraries and Sure Start centres face extinction, the public mood is hardening. Long before David Cameron broached the quicksands of multiculturalism, the tussle for the nation heart and soul had begun, with the PM small state nirvana challenged by Ed Miliband British variant of the American dream. We have been this way before. Prime ministers and party leaders down the ages have sought to distil and bottle Britishness. Stanley Baldwin inclined to the rhapsodic, with images of old maids cycling to Communion, while Gordon Brown favoured exams for would be citizens, as if belonging might be contingent on proficiency in Beowulf studies and knowing how many eggs are required for a Victoria sponge. Yet politicians ideal of a country at ease with itself and its incomers has proved mostly elusive. There is, however, one undisputed core on which this nation and its institutions rest. That irreducible, as Mr Cameron restated at the weekend, is the rule of law. Through political vagaries, in times of peace and war and terror, it has underpinned pandorra charms our democracy. The supremacy of law over the power of the state, though much battered in recent years, has prevailed. Long ago in Berlin, with war brewing, Rupert Brooke wondered how things went in Grantchester. the Church clock at ten to three?/ is there honey still for tea? he asked. Churches may be emptier now, clock menders queuing at the JobCentre Plus, and honey a Euro import sold in grams. But as long as the rule of law applies, the answer to Brooke question is still yes. This Thursday, in the House of Commons, that cornerstone faces what may prove its toughest test in years. The issue at stake is a bizarre one. The right for sentenced prisoners to vote is so uncontentious elsewhere that about 40 per cent of Council of Europe countries have no restrictions at all. Others retain a partial bar or, online pandora charms like France and Germany, let judges decide in individual cases. Britain, in common with a handful of dissenters including Bulgaria, Armenia and Romania, has stuck to a blanket ban, resisting a ruling in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights. cheap pandora charms It looks possible, some say certain, that Parliament will vote this week to defy that judgment. The gravity of any such decision may be lost amid the glee, since votes for prisoners are as popular an idea as converting our nature reserves into drive thru McDonald franchises. A recent poll registered 7 per cent public support. Yet there is a strong moral case for lifting the ban. As Dr Peter Selby, former bishop to HM Prisons, has said, disfranchising prisoners makes them while doing nothing to promote deterrence. Prison deprives inmates of their liberty, not their citizenship. Imposing a form of civic death on the marginalised will make them less fit to rejoin society. As the Canadian Supreme Court has stated, denying prisoners the vote undermines the legitimacy of government. Had the Coalition advanced these arguments, it might not be in such trouble. Instead, Mr Cameron, faced with a challenge that Labour cravenly ducked in office, unwisely said that the prospect of convicts having the vote made him feel ill. Even so, as he and Ken Clarke have stressed, Britain must hold its nose and fall into line with Strasbourg or face the more nauseating spectacle of prisoners claiming huge sums in compensation. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, is still deciding how to vote on the rebel motion retaining the blanket ban, despite favouring a minimum compromise, under which prisoners serving only one year or less get the vote. That unsatisfactory dilution of the Government initial four year ceiling would invite instant challenge in the courts, and probably fail to buy off opponents. If the rebels carry the vote for an outright ban, then Parliament will have mounted a challenge it cannot win. We are bound by the European judgment and, as the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has warned, Britain must not let slip the rule of law. Pandora casefile would be prised open, with critics seizing on the excuse they have been waiting for to sever Britain from Strasbourg jurisdiction. If individuals displayed such flagrant disregard for the law, they would face retribution. So, contrary to airy claims that Europe can do nothing to impede the secessionists will, would Britain. Lord Hoffmann, a former Law Lord, is right to say the human rights court, creaking under a backlog of cases, is far from perfect. Often, as in its refusal to sanction the storage of innocent citizens DNA, it has proved a useful corrective to British courts. That is not to say it does not need reform. But the idea that we can simply cut our ties is described by Eric Metcalfe, of the law reform group Justice, as fantasy land The European human rights convention and the court are inextricably enmeshed, and the Council of Europe would surely suspend us for flouting our obligations under international law. What a desirable outcome, those arch Eurosceptics spoiling for a fight might think. They would be wrong. The Strasbourg court was set up not as a tiresome scourge of British judges but, with Parliament encouragement, to avoid a repeat of the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Who dares say, when a British prime minister, however ill advisedly, beats the terror drum and the neo fascists of the English Defence League simultaneously march on Luton, that Europe needs no ultimate safeguard? Let us debate, by all means, what it is to be British. Our forests, Sure Start centres and libraries are emblems of the kind of country to which all citizens can gladly subscribe. The battle between Mr Cameron liberalism and the communitarian impulse championed by Jon Cruddas and adopted by Mr Miliband may define the politics of the next decade. But we must also preserve our birthright. As Europe oldest parliamentary democracy, and a founding member of the Council of Europe, Britain bears a duty to uphold the human rights of the most marginalised. Prisoners should get the vote, but this week stand off masks a graver issue.
If Parliament snubs Britain legal obligations, a pillar of democracy begins to crack and the path to an isolated, fearful future beckons. A successor to Rupert Brooke might stand one day in some other foreign city on the cusp of war, and ask whether church clocks and honey bear witness to a Britain defined by civic values and bound by the rule of law. Unless we protect that heritage the answer, this time, may what stores sell pandora bracelets and charms be no.
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