Life after death
Published in: Daily Mail
Probably the last thing anyone would have predicted in Michael Howard's new Tory dawn was the re-emergence of the death penalty as an issue. Certainly Mr Howard himself, who is personally against capital punishment, cannot have been expecting it.
One can only imagine his reaction, therefore, when he read yesterday that his shiny-new home affairs spokesman David Davis had supported the death penalty for certain types of murder -- prompting the immediate cry that the party had lurched terrifyingly to the right, and sharp condemnation from a brace of Tory notables.
Since Mr Howard has been straining every sinew to convince us that he intends to lead the Conservatives from the centre, and since the party has been slapping itself on the back over its new-found unity, Mr Davis's remarks are likely to have been about as welcome in the leader's office as a kissogram from Jeffrey Archer.
But any talk about a lurch to the right or a Tory rift is over-excited nonsense. Mr Davis's remarks represent nothing of the kind.
He was asked for his views on capital punishment in the course of an interview with the Sunday Telegraph. Since he supports it, he had very little option but to say so. But as he immediately went on to emphasise -- and repeated on the radio yesterday -- this was solely his personal view.
It was unlikely, he said, that capital punishment would ever return in his political lifetime; he acknowledged that most of his colleagues disagreed with him; and anyway, his views could not become party policy, since the death penalty was always decided on a free vote as a matter of conscience for individual MPs.
Indeed, for that reason he could not be said to be speaking against the shadow Cabinet line and provoking a rift, since there can be no party policy on an issue of personal conscience. It's as if a front-bencher had said, in response to a question about his personal views, that he was against abortion - interesting, but irrelevant. Capital punishment is, to coin a phrase, a dead issue.
What Mr Davis has done, however, is to revive for a fleeting moment the hoary old debate over the death penalty. For the majority of the general public, his remarks will have struck a deep chord. There is undoubtedly a widespread belief not only that the death penalty should never have been abolished and should be brought back, but that the failure to do so is undemocratic because it flies in the face of majority opinion.
The arguments used by Mr Davis, however, are as wrong today as they always were. If capital punishment had not been ended in 1965, several people wrongly convicted of murder since then would have been executed.
To counter this point, Mr Davis says the death penalty should be restricted to serial killings, because with DNA sampling these multiple murders leave no room for error. But this is not the case. There is always room for error. The DNA technique itself may be foolproof, but the capacity for mistakes to occur lies with the individuals who employ it.
There have been cases, for example, where -- through incompetence or worse -- apparently eminent forensic scientists have given evidence in court that has been shown subsequently to be false, sometimes after the person who was wrongly convicted has spent many years in prison. If the death penalty had still existed, the victims of such gross miscarriages of justice might now be dead.
In any event, the idea that the Yorkshire Ripper should be executed but not the perpetrators of terrorist atrocities would strike many as completely unacceptable. Mr Davis says serial killers show pre-meditated and cold-blooded intention. So, too, do terrorists and other murderers, whom he would apparently exclude.
Moreover, reintroducing the death penalty is likely to produce fewer convictions, as juries might well be unwilling to reach a verdict that is likely to lead to an execution. The public may cry vengeance from afar; but once in the jury-room, it's often another story.
And it's not even as if there's any evidence that it is the deterrent Mr Davis thinks it is. The US, for example, is an exceptionally violent society, far more so than ours, despite the fact that many states have not merely the death penalty but the fearsome and barbaric electric chair.
Personally, I believe it is wrong for the state to kill anyone unless it is defending itself against a threat to life and liberty, as in time of war or in self-defence against terrorism. As for the argument that it is undemocratic to ignore the wishes of the majority, this grossly misunderstands the nature of a parliamentary democracy.
Our MPs are not delegates but representatives. That means we elect them to take decisions on the basis of what they think is right, not what the public tell them to do. That is because they are in a position that is not available to the public, to receive representations and information from all sides on an issue and debate it exhaustively.
The crucial point is that they always have to account for those decisions to the public, who can throw their MPs out if they disapprove of the line they take. The public, by contrast, do not have to account for their opinions to anyone. That is why holding MPs to those opinions would be a recipe for oppressive power without responsibility.
The fuss over Mr Davis's remarks about the death penalty has overshadowed a rather more significant - and very welcome - shift he has signalled in the party's attitude to cannabis. Not only has he said robustly that the mistaken decision to downgrade it sends out the wrong message, but he wants the police to arrest the drug's users as well as dealers.
This is not another 'lurch to the right', that meaningless phrase used to damn any policy which dares contradict the prevailing libertine consensus. It is instead essential to protect vulnerable children, to reassert communal responsibility, and to prevent the law from descending into farce.
If Mr Davis really does go into battle over cannabis, he can badly wrong-foot the Home Secretary. Parents who are desperate when they watch their children's school performance or mental health take a disastrous dive through cannabis use will be relieved beyond measure that at last a politician is prepared to tackle this scourge.
The crimes and disorder which so worry the public are rising because there aren't enough police on the streets; because of the failure to enforce a 'zero tolerance' approach; because of the demoralisation of the police into serial incompetence and political correctness.
They are rising because of the uselessness of the Crown Prosecution Service; because of the impact of the Human Rights Act and Children Act; because of 'inclusive' education policies leading to truancy or school chaos; and above all, because of family disintegration.
These causes have nothing whatever to do with capital punishment, the spat over which will almost certainly prove to be a twenty-four hour wonder while serious crime and disorder continue their inexorable climb.