Law,  UK Politics

Death requires no advocates

Cross-posted from James Bloodworth at Obliged to Offend

Once described by a High Court judge as a man who “played fast and loose” with the truth, Paul Staines has gained prominence in recent years writing under the pseudonym of Guido Fawkes, becoming in the process “one of the most feared and influential forces in British public life.”

Inspired by Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun of the 1980s, his blog uses the moniker of his hero, “the only man to enter Parliament with honest intention,” and adopts tabloid news-values and a distinct “anti-politics” tone.

A self-proclaimed admirer of the Tea Party and long-time associate of the Libertarian Alliance, Staines is a former member of the Committee for a Free Britain (CFB,) a shadowy 1980s right-wing organisation which was funded by Sir James Goldsmith, Rupert Murdoch and David Hart. CFB leaders spent the Thatcher years campaigning for the Poll Tax, opposing the end of Apartheid and speaking against talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which they deemed “appeasement”.

Nowadays portraying himself as a respectable libertarian, one would assume Staines wishes to roll-back the state and strip-away much of its power. The libertarian or “classical liberal” perspective is, after all, that individual well-being, prosperity, and social harmony are fostered by “as much liberty as possible” and “as little government as necessary.”

In reality Staines would like to see the state exercise the ultimate right – that of life and death – over its citizens. His latest campaign is to bring back hanging in Britain, which, he claims, a majority of British people support.

The last time a person was executed by the state in Britain was 1964. There were originally some 220 crimes punishable by death, most reflecting a desire to protect private property; although others were of a more eccentric nature, such as a law against “being in the company of Gypsies for one month”. A working gallows remained at HMP Wandsworth until 1994, a macabre reminder, so some of us liked to think, of a bygone era, rolled out and tested every six months until 1992.

Retribution, however, is a big thing in tabloid Britain; and as Staines readily admits, he deliberately adopted tabloid values to increase the popularity of his blog. When it comes to criminal justice, tabloid values also increasingly hold sway, browbeating politicians into “letting the victim decide” when dealing with lawbreakers. We are in a “feeling” epoch, after all, and those in a raw emotional state understandably emote the loudest. Are you, bleeding heart, going to deny them their pound of flesh?

Whether penal policy is best served by emotion or cold, hard logic is another matter entirely of course, and a debate which probably wouldn’t sell nearly as much copy as the shrill demand to “get tough.” Contemptuously dismissing public opinion is one thing. Automatically conferring moral status on something for no other reason than popularity is quite another; and not simply frivolous, but demagogic and dangerous. Being a self-proclaimed libertarian, Staines should know this.

While writing little on capital punishment herself, libertarian icon Ayn Rand did publish a brief article by Nathaniel Branden in response to the question “What is the Objectivist stand on capital punishment?”:

“If it were possible to by fully and irrevocably certain, beyond any possibility of error, that a man were guilty, then capital punishment for murder would be appropriate and just. But men are not infallible; juries make mistakes; that is the problem. There have been instances recorded where all the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to a man’s guilt, and the man was convicted, and then subsequently discovered to be innocent. It is the possibility of executing an innocent man that raises doubts about the legal advisability of capital punishment. It is preferable to sentence ten murderers to life imprisonment, rather than sentence one innocent man to death.”

A notorious case in this mould was that of Dereck Bentley, a British teenager who had what today would be described as severe learning difficulties. Bentley was executed on the 28 January, 1953. During a botched robbery, Police Constable Sidney Miles was killed by Bentley’s friend, Christopher Craig. Due to the fact that he was only 16 at the time, Craig was detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (he was released in 1963). Bentley, however, was convicted and sentenced to death, not for shooting dead a policeman, but for being party to murder under the English law principle of “joint enterprise”. A psychiatrist at Bentley’s trial stated that Bentley was illiterate, of low intelligence and borderline retarded.

Notwithstanding the dubious nature of putting someone to death for being an “accomplice” (a term open to wide interpretation,) it came to light years later that there had been defects in the original trial process and Dereck Bentley was pardoned. Bentley’s joy however was diminished somewhat by the fact that it came 45 years after he had already been hanged.

Christopher Hitchens’s 1998 essay, Scenes from an Execution, also noted that, in the US, politicians are apt to play politics with the “ultimate sanction” in execution-hungry states. The essay also picked-up on the large number of those on death row suffering from mental health issues – as are a large proportion of those incarcerated in Britain:

“I can’t help recalling Rick Ray Rector, the man executed by Governor Clinton during the 1992 New Hampshire primary. So gravely impaired and lobotomized was he that, when they came to take him away, he explained that he was leaving a wedge of pecan pie ‘for later.’ Laid upon the gurney, he helped them find a vein for the IV because he thought they were doctors come at last to cure him…”

In spite of it being one of the few “advanced” countries to still employ the death penalty, the United States has by far-and-away the greatest number of murders of any comparable country. The South, which accounts for 80% of U.S. executions, also has the highest regional murder rate.

I don’t, in actual fact, think Staines is a libertarian, or really sees himself as such. He is, however, a successful rabble-rouser in the mould of the very gutter journalism so recently discredited in its printed form. That being said, it doesn’t take a libertarian to see that capital punishment really is big government at its worst.