Brian Wilson: Harsh Natalie McGarry sentence shows need for reform

Former SNP MP Natalie McGarry was sentenced to 18 months this week for embezzlement. Picture: SWNS
Former SNP MP Natalie McGarry was sentenced to 18 months this week for embezzlement. Picture: SWNS
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Natalie McGarry ran a particularly unpleasant campaign to be elected in 2015. When her heavies followed Margaret Curran screaming abuse, McGarry responded sweetly that her opponent was “a fair target for community justice”.

Margaret Curran has displayed a higher standard of humanity. After McGarry was jailed for embezzlement, she tweeted: ”This seems such a harsh sentence for the mother of a young child. This must make the case for sentencing reform”. Indeed.

It should not take a high-profile case for Scotland’s penchant for banging people up even to be discussed. A decade ago, a Scottish Prisons Commission offered plans to get the prison population down from 7000 to 5000. It is now 8000 and rising.

Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf told Holyrood we still jail more people than anywhere else in Western Europe – 144 per 100,000. Most of them just keep coming back. Beneath a certain level of threat to society, what is the point?

In response to an FoI request last year, the Scottish Prison Service said 85 per cent of prison population is “lacking functional literacy/numeracy”, defined as SCQF Level 4. These are kids born to see the inside of Barlinnie rather than Gilmorehill. They should be our first thought not our last.

I have long argued that the focus of education and social policy should be early intervention for as long as it takes to sort out Scotland’s dire statistics of inequality. Otherwise nothing much changes.

We hear endlessly about how small countries in Europe do things but never seem to import ideas. Maybe Yousaf could commission a rapid piece of research on how other jurisdictions would have disposed of a case like McGarry’s. We might actually learn something.

LEARNING THE LESSONS OF D-DAY

his week’s commemorations of D-Day had the feel of a very special landmark which it was absolutely necessary to make the most of.

The advanced years of those who survive add poignancy but with fewer voices there is complete clarity of message.

These were very ordinary people faced with an absolute duty to confront evil, without regard for consequences. That is how they saw it then and see it now.

Nobody I heard spoke about Germans. It was the Nazi doctrine which could not prevail. That is an incredibly important distinction to impress upon current and future generations because the further they are away from these events, the less easy it is to grasp the enormity of what was at stake.

Language is now devalued with people shouting “fascist” without understanding or meaning. Incredibly, anti-semitism is in vogue when no human being worthy of the name should be capable of that prejudice.

Division is fostered between peoples on the basis of identity.

While all deplorable, none of that comes within a million miles of the actual choice that faced Europe 75 years ago. There are no comparisons, only reminders that vigilance must be constant and lessons never allowed to be forgotten.

I was in Vienna and Munich recently and was struck by the constancy of that message. There is no chance in these cities of being unaware of what occurred.

That commitment to addressing a past for which nobody today bears an iota of responsibility has been unswerving. Should not every country do more in the same vein?

The margins within which our current disagreements occur are so relatively narrow that it is useful to be reminded what mega-politics, statesmanship, courage, moral imperatives looked like.

We have the freedoms to disagree because good prevailed over evil. We also have a continuing duty not to squander that prize on trivia.

This week’s events should certainly encourage soul-searching about Brexit – but not in a spirit of triumphalism as in “how can anyone want to leave the EU after watching that?”.

Apart from anything else, that is not very respectful to many of the veterans who probably voted for it.

Peace in Europe for centuries to come has to rest on a consensus of understanding rather than institutions alone. The rabble-rousers demanding a “no deal” exit are in my view woefully misguided.

But they are also ships who will pass in the political night with damage capable of repair; self-harm perhaps less so.

I also thought a lot this week about the “special relationship” with the United States. It really all does go back to D-Day and the Americans being there in our hour of need. You had the feeling this week that the relationship goes so deep that it will remain untouchable however capricious the outcomes may sometimes be.

I thought back to Ronald Reagan’s state visit which attracted at least as much opposition as Trump’s. It is now largely forgotten that Reagan was a very right-wing president. He was the ogre of Star Wars and Cruise Missiles: sponsor of the Contras and Mujihadeen.

Yet history tells us it would have been ridiculous not to talk to Reagan, to find chemistry, to open up possibilities for détente and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. Trump has none of Reagan’s charms but it is still a powerful reminder that the man is transient and history takes unpredictable courses.

One quibble. When Dwight D. Eisenhower announced D-day to the world, he proclaimed the role of “our heroic Russian allies” whose incalculable sacrifices at Stalingrad and Kursk broke the back of Hitler’s army in the east.

Would it have hurt to offer the same recognition this week, even if it complicated the “good v evil” narrative? This was not about the world as it is now or the countless moral ambiguities which have intervened along the way.

It was about the suffering and courage of human beings, united however temporarily by a common cause. It costs us nothing to remind our children that Russia lost 25 million lives for that cause, our freedom. There are no natural enemies.