Is there any way for the SNP to backtrack on the issue of prisoner voting in the independence referendum, and save face? In this weekend's Observer, Kevin McKenna laid into the Scottish Government's proposals to disenfranchise those in jail, arguing that "if there's any justice, prisoners must get the vote" in the referendum. McKenna's interpretation is that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are just feart of the tabloid blowback. Left to their own devices, he suggests, they'd extend the franchise those convicted and behind bars.
"The nationalists want the rest of us to overcome our fear of the unknown and help them to create a better and more just society in an independent Scotland. Yet by denying this basic human right to Scotland's prisoners, they are petrified of backing their own instincts. That makes them both dishonest and craven. Winston Churchill, as home secretary, said: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilisation of a country." One hundred and three years later, his words are convicting Nicola Sturgeon and her scared party."
But is this credible, that the party (or at least its leadership) isn't really agin the notion of incarcerated folk exercising the franchise? A trawl through the official record of parliament and the press indicates that Sturgeon has been circumspect about commenting on the issue, and ferreting around surfaces nothing from her past record. In her contribution to the parliamentary debate earlier this month, however, Sturgeon staked out a categorical opposition to prisoner voting in all circumstances, saying "personally, I do not believe that prisoners should have the right to vote in elections".
"On principle, I believe, as all members do, in active engagement and participation in democracy—that is why I want 16 and 17-year-olds to vote—but I also have a strong belief in the balance between rights and responsibilities. That is partly why I take the view that I do on prisoner voting. I believe that, when an individual commits a crime and is sentenced to a custodial sentence, because the judge considers that the severity of the crime or the circumstances of the case merit such a sentence, the individual loses several rights that the rest of us take for granted, including the right to vote for the period for which they are incarcerated."
This is not, I'd suggest, a position amenable to reverse-ferreting. By contrast with his Deputy, Alex Salmond's attitudes on the issue have been aired before. He told Holyrood, back in 2010:
"I know that the Liberals are understandably keen on the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. However, I cannot believe that, back in 1997 when there was blanket signing up to the ECHR, those of us who argued very strongly that human rights should be observed across the European continent thought that one of the key issues would be to give convicted prisoners the right to vote. For most people, that does not seem to be what we would consider to be an important human right."
In Holyrood this month, Labour MSPs Helen Eadie and former polisman, Graeme Pearson, indicated that they are sympathetic to the idea of giving at least some prisoners the vote. By contrast, not a single SNP MSP spoke up in favour of the idea. Linda Fabiani suggested that for the Liberal Democrats to put the Scottish "Government under pressure" on the issue was only illegitimate "flip-flopping", while SNP MSP Richard Lyle did a passable impression of a reactionary Tory backwoodsman, suggesting that to support enfranchising any prisoners was the equivalent of suggesting "that prisoners should decide their own sentences". Other SNP MSPs expressed similar sentiments. Bruce Crawford said:
"The basic principle behind that is that someone forfeits the right to vote once they have been incarcerated in a penal institution as a result of committing a crime. That is a pretty simple principle to get hold of."
While George Adam parroted your basic social contract theory, contending that:
"... individuals who have committed a crime have broken their pact with society, so I do not agree that they should have the opportunity to vote in the referendum"
Contra McKenna, this cup hardly overfloweth with suppressed enthusiasm for enfranchising lags serving short or long spells in the clink. I dare say some of the mute SNP MSPs might be more sympathetic, but can be expected, as usual, to keep their party discipline, unwilling to embarrass the government in public, and unlikely to dissent in the final vote. Sturgeon surely knew what she was about, setting out the government's categorical opposition to the idea of the participation of incarcerated convicts in our democratic process. Patrick Harvie played it cannily, clearly pitching for a limited compromise, arguing that only prisoners serving less than six months should be entitled to vote. Even so, even that modest advance stands a snowball's chance in hell of making it onto the statute.
Kevin McKenna suggests that this is "craven and dishonest" politics. If the evidence from SNP parliamentarians is anything to go by, it is neither, unfortunately.