You may think you want the death penalty but you don’t have the stomach for it

Surveys suggest that a majority of ordinary Britons want a return to the death penalty for the most heinous crimes (this online poll on The Sun’s web site has 80% in favour). And, thanks to the government’s rules for e-petitions, our legislators may soon be obliged to debate the topic again. Some of them may even vote for it. I’m opposed to the return of the death penalty and I find the pop media’s pro-execution rhetoric to be chilling and inhuman but I’m certain that it will never happen. Britain just doesn’t have the stomach for the cascade of secondary decisions that we’d have to make in order for it to become law:

Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home, none of them knowing whose button actually does the deed? Or the victim’s family? I’ll suggest that executioners are drawn by lottery from the list of people who’ve expressed support for the new law. That sounds logical: it surely can’t be OK to vote for the death penalty and expect someone else to despatch the condemned, can it? If there’s a chance that you’ll have to squeeze the syringe, will you still vote for it? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will he or she be allowed to sell the story of the condemned’s last moments? Or will the law mandate anonymity? And what will happen the first time the family of an executed criminal brings a civil case against the executioner or the prison or everyone involved in the deed?

How will we do it? A lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane. How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.

Will we do it publicly and who will observe? I’ll argue that judicial killings should be streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D) and that a panel of ordinary citizens should be obliged to observe from close quarters – selected by the jury service process, perhaps.

And will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure good practice and certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the BMA? And if they don’t, will rogue doctors show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’?

What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure prison graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations of the lives of the wicked deceased?

What will we do the first time an innocent person is executed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?

And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rockstar architect, perhaps, with an atrium) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, web sites, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?

There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute mothers of young children? Will we execute foreigners? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for nearly fifty years bring about civil unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the introduction of state-sanctioned killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? Will MPs even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about the grimmest of all subjects? Who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants and prison officers who object be forced to implement the law? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on. Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it.

Shiny floor democracy

I expected little of the debates. I thought they’d slot into the campaign like all the other more-or-less artificial election media gewgaws and gimmicks: like party leaders going on kids TV or trying to skateboard or shear a sheep or whatever. I expected a slightly embarrassing, highly stage-managed performance. Something a bit cheesy and certainly not a source of information.

So, like everyone, I was surprised when the debates turned out to be:

A source of comparative information about the candidates and their positions. Honestly, we’re so accustomed to the idea that you can’t derive useful information from a politician’s raw discourse – that it’s all spin and that you have to pass it all through some kind of media-provided filter to get to the truth – that we all assumed the debates would be like that, only more so. And they weren’t. Something about the format, something about putting the three of them up against each other, something about hearing their statements together, seems to provide more genuine understanding. As a viewer, at the end of the first debate, I felt I’d been able to hold up and compare both the substance and the presentation of the three leaders’ positions in a way I’d never done before. Blimey.

A genuine alternative to a monstering from Paxman. The debates, in fact, seem to make the grillings dished out by Humphrys, Paxman, Boulton et al seem clumsy, unproductive, old-fashioned – just as Robin Day and his 1960s school of combative interrogation made the old, “anything to add, Minister?” deference seem old-fashioned in its day. If the three-way debate with its strict rules actually catches on, I think the broadcast bruisers are going to have to update their technique: being more systematic, less arbitrary, less keen on the sound of their own voices. This might yield an improvement in the heat:light ratio, if nothing else.

Real democratic events. Appointments with the democratic process, made voluntarily by unfeasibly large numbers of willing electors. In the three debates British electoral politics got its Dr Who moment – millions gathered round the TV, popcorn and beer at the ready. And if these media milestones are going to become regular occurances (a bit like Harry Hill’s fights). And if the whole electoral process is going to pivot on these shiny floor democratic events and the frenzy of concurrent chatter on the soc nets, then the shabby, stage-managed electoral communications of old (the pressers, the back-of-the-bus briefings, the clunky daily ‘narratives’) will have to be modernised sharply.

Genuinely Influential. Can you think of an election media event from your lifetime that has moved the polls and changed perceptions so sharply? Jennifer’s ear? The Sheffield Rally? Chicken feed: irrelevant by comparison (although I guess I ought to wait for the result…). The liberals are in the race in a way that no one could possibly have predicted. All bets are off.

Panic inducing for the media. Even from the outside, the last-days-of-Saigon hysteria in the newsrooms and boardrooms of some of Britain’s national papers after that first debate was obvious. For the election to run out of control, to jump the rails in the way it did would have been hard to bear in a good year but with the print media’s relevance already tumbling faster than ever it must have been a cruel few days for editors. The lucky few journalists who could boast a handful of top liberals in their speed-dials jumped in prestige over night and decades of deliberately ignoring the party began to look less wise for the others.

I don’t want to overstate this. An election result and a week or two of elapsed time will put the debates in their proper context. They might turn out to have been a gimmick after all. I honestly can’t wait to find out.

I don’t want a right to see my MP’s expenses

UPDATE April 2022: I wrote this in January 2009, right at the beginning of the expenses scandal and several months before the Telegraph began the week-by-week disclosure of hideous abuse of the system after hideous abuse of the system – duck houses and moats and multiple flipped second homes and families on the payroll etc. But still, the naivety!

I don’t agree with my MP about much, but I want to treat him as an adult. I’d like to extend to him approximately the level of trust I extend to my work colleagues and friends. I don’t want to probe and inspect him. I don’t want him to live in a climate of small-minded, invasive overscrutiny.

I expect there’s a reasonable chance he’ll turn out to be a bit cheeky with his lunch bills or even that he’s a giant scumbag and charges various indolent family members to the public purse, so I’d like there to be better rules about what it’s OK to charge back and what he has to pay for himself (the current rules are shoddy and inconsistent) and tougher automatic sanctions for rule-breaking.

But exposing MPs (and other public servants) to this kind of increasingly corrosive scrutiny is almost certainly a bad thing. Everyone knows that trust breeds trust – and that the inverse is true too. There’s no evidence that MPs are more or less bent than the population.

This doesn’t mean we should stick to the shady old secret model, though. We should be inventive and not just grumpy. MPs could be provided with simple tools to voluntarily publish itemised expenses, in a standardised, comparable format. Parliament.uk could host expenses pages and the media, I’m sure, would enjoy highlighting the most honest or interesting or apparently cooked up.

That’s the kind of initiative that could produce a snowball effect. We might find that publishing your expenses becomes the kind of public mark of honesty and transparency that MPs will embrace. Some will definitely go for it. Trusting our legislators might actually make things better.

George Osborne revives ideology


I sat in the front row at Demos this morning for shadow chancellor George Osborne’s speech to the think tank (I’m an associate of Demos). Osborne was personable and relaxed. His speech was intelligent and fluently delivered. The man’s a natural. Much that he said was also rather persuasive (but this isn’t the blog post where I announce my conversion to the Tories). He highlighted three types of fairness: fair reward for hard work, fair access to opportunity and (interesting, this one) ‘intergenerational’ fairness.

The whole thing was couched in some proper, old-fashioned ideology: the state cannot guarantee fairness, only a free market operating within a social and legal framework can do that. Osborne made the first explicit reference I’ve heard in many years to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and for balance he provided a reference to John Rawls (and Osborne’s phrase ‘fair equality of opportunity’ is obviously borrowed from Rawls).

I asked if these traces of ideology might mean we’re in for a bit of argy-bargy—a contest of ideas between the major parties—between now and the election. Osborne’s reply was hardly encouraging: he acknowledged that in some areas it might be difficult to tell the difference between his position and David Milliband’s, for instance. I’m hopeful, though: I’d like to see the parties taking up real positions for the next election—as an antidote to the enervating political paralysis of the Brown era.

Steve Richards has a better account of the speech in The Independent: he’s sceptical about Osborne’s approach to achieving fairness in the context of an out-of-control market.

Five reasons it might not be so bad to have Boris as Mayor after all

UPDATE April 2022. I’m leaving this up, although it’s obviously a bit embarrassing (and wrong – Johnson ultimately served two terms as Mayor).

1. The Mayor doesn’t have much to do anyway. He may have an £11B budget but it’s really only half a job. New Labour deliberately hobbled the Mayor’s office from the beginning by retaining control of everything important at the centre and providing no direct tax raising powers. The remarkable thing about Ken’s tenure has been how much impact he’s been able to have with control of public transport and bugger-all else.

2. He’s funny. He is funny isn’t he?

3. He’ll be a one-term Mayor. Nothing he’s proposed is achievable within budget. He’s backing away from the Routemaster idea (which has been authoritatively rubbished). Central Office cagily supported Boris but not his policies. With all the big reforms already firmly entrenched Boris will struggle to make an impact. As budgets rocket and policies evaporate disillusionment will set in.

4. Cameron will cut him loose. He may be better behaved now but you can’t innoculate a boob like Boris against gaffes. Can it be long before he alienates bus drivers or pensioners or people who live in Penge?

5. He’ll get bored. Boris evidently has the attention span of a nine year-old boy. As his concentration lapses he’ll drift off. Pretty soon he’ll forget where he works and after a year or two Londoners will be able to pick someone else.

Building Magazine on why construction needs migrant workers

migrant_builders.jpg
Gordon Brown’s announcement of a larger quota for desperately needed overseas construction workers is cue for a good piece from Building magazine about migrant workers on UK sites. The article focuses on the experience of workers on the huge Paternoster Square development, next door to St Paul’s Cathedral in The City – from Italy, Hungary, Zimbabwe and Germany. This is the kind of access only a prestige trade title like Building could get but it’s crying out for a longer treatment – five workers from four nations on one well-run site is hardly an in-depth survey.

The magazine’s coverline sums up the UK building trade’s attitude to migrant workers: “The indispensibles: why construction needs migrant workers”.

Churchillian in more ways than one

Ed Richards, former advisor to Tony Blair
Ed Richards, principle advisor on Telecoms and new media to the Prime Minister until he took a job at Ofcom last week, reveals Tony Blair’s decisiveness on Broadband Britain:

“First, I want you to tell me what this broadband thing is. Second, I want you to tell me why it’s in crisis, and third, I want you to sort it out…”

Take-up for broadband is pretty impressive now, even from a very low base. According to NOP, a quarter of UK Internet households will be on broadband by the end of 2003. Blair’s Churchillian approach might actually be working.