When first I heard the news the other week that the UK is going to accept the European Court ruling that convicts should be allowed to vote, I received it with the same indecision that I've always regarded the issue.
Ultimately, it will make little difference to the makeup of parliament. The prison population of the UK is roughly equal in size to a single constituency, but (a few large prisons aside) it is thinly enough spread to mean that the votes of convicts would not make much difference to the outcome of elections. Of course, if there were a single constituency for which all inmates were the electorate then the results would be interesting (and I use the adjective entirely without spin).
Another side to the argument is directed at the status of the criminal (rather than the effect on electoral results). Some would say that in committing their crimes, criminals have demonstrated their own desire to be separated from society, and so the withdrawal of the privilege of voting is a reflection of that. Others would argue that convicts need to be drawn back into society, and that allowing them to vote is a harmless way of helping to achieve it.
But the phrase that struck me as I listened to the Today programme on Radio 4 (from the lips of Lord Falconer, if I recall correctly), though it's nothing new, was that voting is a human right. It's an obvious thing to say, but it has inescapable implications.
Now I'm not the sort of person who thinks that something is a human right just because the European Court tells me it is. Even though I'm no reader of the Daily Mail, I still balk at the idea of Europe lecturing Britain on the rights of the individual – though I realize that what really sticks in the craw in that Britain needs to be lectured on the rights of the individual.
However, as someone who is generally distrustful of government, human rights are an issue that does arouse my interest, particularly having seen the ways in recent years there have been concerted attempts in the UK both from authoritarians to weaken them and from liberals (with a larger rather than smaller 'L') to dilute them. The authoritarian diminutions are obvious enough, with extended detention without trial, effective house arrest for suspects and the abolition of the right to trial by jury. The dilution is a more insidious issue. The Liberal Democrats talk of 'the right to breathe clean air', but this turns out (like, it transpires, most Lib Dem policy) to be more of an aspiration than a right.
It seems to me (though I site no authority on this) that human rights are the rules that govern how the individual interacts with the state. They should be simple to enforce, regardless of resources, and it should be easy and obvious to highlight occasions where the government compromises the individual's rights. The right to legal representation fits well into this, as does the right not to be detained for more than a specified period without charge. Those are about interactions with the state, and breaches are easy to identify and correct.
The right to breathe clean air doesn't fit in with this scheme at all. Although excessive pollution may be easy to identify, it is not generally caused by the state – in some situations it may be caused by nature itself and no amount of King Canuting can stop Icelandic volcanoes from erupting. And if there is pollution, God knows it's not an easy thing to rectify. To say that a trial should be halted because the defendant didn't have access to a lawyer is straightforward (if politically courageous), but fixing the environment isn't. It's a laudable aim to ensure that we all have clean air, but it's ridiculous to call it a right, and in doing so the simple and powerful concept of a human right is diminished. If it's okay to shrug our shoulders and say that it's impractical to enforce the right to breathe clean air, then it becomes easier to place people under house arrest without trial, offering up the same casual shrug. Rights and aspirations are very different things. Who wants to be told that they have the aspiration to remain silent?
But I digress. We were talking about voting, and I hope, gentle reader, that you experienced just a little foaming at the mouth some 600 words back when I described voting as a 'privilege'. Voting is not a privilege; it is a right. Some may argue that it's limited as a right by the fact that children can't vote, but children are a special case in so many areas. The important thing is that, without qualification, all children who manage to survive to a certain age then get the right to vote.
And this leads us on to another term that is often applied to human rights: that they are inalienable – they can't be taken away (or indeed given away). In Britain, we reach the age of eighteen and we are given the right to vote, and afterwards there is no way that the state can rescind that right.
Except, of course, that they can send you to prison.
It takes little effort to imagine some seedy foreign dictator making selected mass arrests in the more marginal constituencies in order to ensure that his sham elections come up with the intended result. But we're talking about Britain. It's difficult when living in an established liberal democracy such as the UK to make a case that concerns itself with the possibility of an authoritarian government trying to abuse its own legal system in order to take power away from its citizens. At the moment such considerations are out-loomed by the horrifying prospect of murderers, rapists, paedophiles and convicted News of the World journalists being allowed access to our cherished democracy. But, as Thomas Jefferson probably didn't say, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It is only by enshrining rights as unalienable today, when we are not faced with dictatorship, that we have a hope of ensuring those rights are in place in future, when they may genuinely be needed.
So however little I care about the voting intentions of convicted criminals, I care profoundly that neither I nor anybody else risks being incarcerated in order to prevent me from exercising those intentions. In the words of Tim Rice (put into the mouths of Juan Perón's lackeys) 'we have ways of making you vote for us, or at least of making you abstain'. The ability to stop people voting by sending them to prison seems a good way of ensuring abstention.
And that, of course, leads us to the other disenfranchised group of citizens: the insane. The argument that it should be impossible to remove the right to vote from convicts applies equally to the insane. Otherwise we'd end up in a world where, to paraphrase Euripides, those whom the politicians would destroy, they first declare mad.