Political Immaturity: ‘Civic Sleepers’ Revisited

In this post, our regular correspondent Kris McPherson returns to the issue of prisoner voting in light of recent discussions about the extending the franchise in Scotland… The views he expresses are, of course, his own.

An intriguing story on Russia Today (aired 8/1/18) captured my interest as I sat in my cell (or my ‘think tank’, as I prefer to call it) pondering my next ‘chess move’. The story reported that the Scottish Government was considering allowing refugees and non-EU citizens resident in Scotland the right to vote in local/national elections in the country. Not wishing to suffer accusations of relying on sources that supposedly peddle ‘fake news’, I sought other information in order to revisit a previous blog article posted in December 2017 vis-à-vis the issue of prisoner voting in Scotland.

A reporter for the Independent newspaper, Caroline Mortimer, stated in her article on the issue of permitting non-Scottish citizens the right to vote in local/national Scottish elections that the Scottish Government is eager to initiate changes that will “set it apart from the rest of the UK” (Mortimer, 2018). This is intriguing, for several reasons.

Firstly, I wonder if this new proposal is a political tactic that is (1) designed to deflect attention from the issue of allowing prisoners the right to vote in elections in Scotland; and (2) to give the tacit impression of an acquiescent olive branch-of-sorts to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), who argue that Scotland’s blanket ban on prisoner voting breaches Article 3 of The Convention (Evans, 2017). I would like to make it clear that I am not against our government (can I even say ‘our’ government?) extending voting rights to non-EU citizens or those who flee wars in their own countries to save their lives or a better life (wars that ‘our’ own government sometimes help propagate). Extending voting participation seems, to me, a very small brick in a very big edifice.

Nevertheless, I suppose it is a start in the right direction.

One of the interesting comments made by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is that Scotland should extend “a welcoming hand and an open heart to those seeking a better life or wanting to make a contribution [in Scotland]” (Mortimer, 2018). Nicola Sturgeon argues that the population of Scotland is expected to decline over the next 25 years if there is “low net migration”, indicating that our nation will suffer from a diminished labour pool that will result in further damage to social and economic institutions (Mortimer, 2018). But what about extending a “welcoming hand” to (ex) offenders who want to ‘open their own hearts’ and ‘seek a better life’ for themselves and their loved ones, thereby contributing something other than rising crime rates to Scottish society?

Doesn’t this refusal to acknowledge prisoner voting spell political immaturity?

Almond and Verba ([1963]1989: 13) argue that the political culture of a nation is ascertained by measuring the thoughts and feelings of the people in relation to the political system (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). They postulated that it was possible to study a given culture by conducting surveys and asking the people about their own feelings vis-à-vis political structures, agents and mechanisms (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 218). Wouldn’t an “open country” ask the population their own personal views on the issue of prisoner voting? If Scotland is so “open” then why would the issue of prisoner voting be absent from public discussion? If we are such a ‘democracy’ then why doesn’t the Scottish Government ask the public what they think of prisoners (or the majority of prisoners) being allowed to vote in Scottish elections?

Furthermore, Almond and Verba ([1963]1989) postulate that although economic development is essential for the development of democracy, they argue that “only culture could provide the ‘psychological basis of democratisation’”, without which the prospects for the endurance of democracy is thin (cited in Clark et al., 2013: 217). I would offer the opinion that it is the country’s population that contributes collectively to and produces the culture of a nation. That being said, I wouldn’t say that I have ‘contributed to the culture’ because I have lived my life as part of my own particular culture, apart from mainstream society.

I can totally understand the desire of some to disqualify convicted people from voting. Why should we simply be ‘handed’ the right to vote while still incarcerated? Society must figure this conundrum out on its own, without government hyperbole or interference. The government should not be able to make society’s decision unilaterally or capitalise on victims’ pain. That is what autocratic states do, not democratic ones. The issue of whether prisoners should be allowed to participate in Scottish elections must be put forward to the Scottish public and nobody else. This could be done through public consultation and possibly by referendum. That being said, the government does have the right to take its own position and legislate on these issues (such is the nature of governance). Ironically, a consultation paper has been published by the Scottish Government (2017) in which several questions have been put to the public in relation to electoral reform. However, there is scant mention of extending the franchise to prisoners and the public is not asked for their opinion on the matter.

I do agree with the fact that victims of crime should be totally included in any/all matters relating to this issue, as stated in Evans (2017: 15). I do wonder whether the government wants to try and make a real attempt at rehabilitation, desistance and societal inclusivity or just wants to continue paying lip service? One thing I do not like is someone who does not live by his/her own standards. Rather, they want everyone else to conform to them. I am old enough to see this.

Old school; not play school!

Interestingly, Barry et al. (2016) conducted a study into the usefulness of so-called ‘User Voice Councils’ in which (ex) prisoners can dialogue with agencies and address issues which focus on the strengths of the individual rather than persistently targeting his/her personal deficits. The aim of User Voice is to “foster dialogue between service providers and users that is mutually beneficial and results in better and more cost-effective services” (User Voice, 2012, cited in Barry et al., 2016: 1). Findings in this study conducted in six English prisons indicated that such mechanisms enhanced the efficacy and success of the rehabilitative atmosphere both inside and outside prisons. I realise that this is early days but why aren’t such councils being piloted within Scotland’s penal estate? Wouldn’t this be an ideal way to politically educate people who are in prison or have done so in the past?

Perhaps User Voice Councils could act as the bridge between prison and politics?

I would like to ask Nicola Sturgeon how she expects people in prison to conduct themselves in society when her government blatantly cherry-picks which rules to follow? What sort of example does this set if our nation’s leader sends a tacit message that rules are relative? I wonder if the prisoner voting issue is a way of gaining votes from those who thinks our country is too soft on criminals? Nicola Sturgeon should put this to the citizens through public consultation rather than ignoring the issue. The noted Scottish actor Brian Cox said in an interview (aired 11/1/18) with (Nicola Sturgeon’s mentor) Alex Salmond that, “when you ignore the populace, ignorance builds up!”

What builds up when you ignore prisoners?

If you asked a prison/police officer or criminal justice practitioner who dealt with me during my ‘offending years’ if I possessed the capacity to change, the consensus would undoubtedly be unanimous: no way! But if ‘someone like me’ can change through the utilisation of academic study as a ‘hook-for-change’ (Giordano et al., 2002, cited in McNeill and Weaver, 2010), braided with the belief shown in me and the humane understanding extended to me from academics and prison teachers then surely it is entirely possible that there are other ‘dormant desisters’ out there waiting to be discovered? Wouldn’t extending the franchise to prisoners, regardless of whether they choose to participate in elections, be a step towards this civic inclusivity? I asked several people incarcerated in my part of the prison why they do not vote and whether they felt they should be allowed to vote while incarcerated. I received some interesting replies. Some said that no matter whether they were outside or inside, the prisons would still be the same; others said they didn’t pay taxes so voting didn’t apply to them.

How do we combat such thinking?

If the Republic of Ireland and Wales permit prisoners the right to vote, as cited by Evans (2017), then why are Scottish prisoners completely politically silenced? Doesn’t this demonstrate how politically immature our nation is? I believe I may know one reason why our government is reluctant to allow prisoners to vote. A while back, a prisoner won a financial claim against the Scottish Prison Service, claiming the antiquated practice of ‘slopping-out’ (urinating/defecating in pots) breached his human rights. He was awarded financial damages that resulted in a tsunami of similar financial claims from prisoners across Scotland, many of which were successful.

I personally know of a prisoner who has a similar claim pending vis-à-vis the right to vote. I wonder if the government feels that allowing us to vote will produce a similar seismic shock if such claims were successful and they had to pay out? On the other hand, it could be further argued that the government could allow prisoners to vote to stem such financial claims. However, if this were the case, wouldn’t it have happened by now? Well I can only speak for myself and tell you I am not in this for reward.

Ironically, I am in this for the sake of right and wrong.

I think if our country wished to be part of Europe then we have to act as though we are part of Europe. Surely, we cannot expect to gain all of the benefits of being part of this institution without sharing in its ‘drawbacks?’ I can’t speak for others but I don’t think I ought to be handed the right to vote just for the sake of it. If Europe says one thing and the Scottish Government says another then I think it ought to be put to the Scottish public through consultation and, possibly, a referendum. If the public voted through the democratic process to deny people like me from voting (or even in favour of it) then it is case closed.

Isn’t that what democracies are supposed to do?

References

Barry, M., Weaver, B., Liddle, M., Schmidt, B., Maruna, S., Meek, R. and Renshaw, J. (2016) ‘Evaluation of the User Voice Prison and Community Councils: Final Report’, University of Strathclyde: Glasgow.

Clark, W.R., Golder, M. and Golder, S.N. (2013) Principles of Comparative Politics (2nd edition), SAGE Publications: London.

Evans, A. (2017) ‘Prisoner Voting in Scotland: a short summary’, SPICe Briefing Paper, The Scottish Parliament: Edinburgh.

McNeill, F. and Weaver, B. (2010) ‘Changing Lives? Desistance Research and Offender Management’, Glasgow: Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research. Available online at http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/documents/Report%202010_03%20-%20Changing%20Lives.pdf

Mortimer, C. (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Given Right to Vote in Scotland’, The Independent, 6th January 2018 [online]. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/refugees-vote-scotland-elections-parliament Accessed 11th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘Refugees Could Be Allowed to Vote in Scottish Elections’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 8th January 2018.

Russia Today (2018) ‘The Alex Salmond Show’, Russia Today News Channel, aired 11th January 2018.

Scottish Government (2017) ‘Consultation Paper on Electoral Reform’, Scottish Government: Edinburgh.

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