IN A populist flourish reminiscent of Michael Forsyth’s tenure as Scottish Secretary in the mid-1990s, Alex Salmond yesterday unveiled a plan to end automatic early release for prisoners convicted of the most serious and heinous crimes.
This announcement has been a long time coming. It was first promised by the SNP in its manifesto for the 2007 Holyrood election, but failed to appear during that first Nationalist term in power. It appeared again in the party’s 2011 manifesto, and finally surfaced in yesterday’s SNP legislative programme for the coming year.
Automatic early release has long been a controversial aspect of the Scottish criminal justice system. Many people are offended by the idea that a convicted criminal can escape some of his or her sentence through a routine administrative edict. It contradicts many people’s sense of natural justice.
Lay people would probably prefer if those convicted of an offence served the full term as laid down by a court. But the criminal justice system has to build in incentives for prisoners to be of good behaviour, or to co-operate in rehabilitation work.
Under the SNP’s new law, this will still be possible, as prisoners will still be able to apply for parole under the existing arrangements.
Although legal analysts will now be poring over the detail to see what this will mean in practice, the move – reflecting much of the thinking of the McLeish Commission – has received a generally positive response.
Labour last night welcomed the new proposal, as well it might. Although it will only apply to a small proportion of offenders – the Tories yesterday came up with a figure of 2 per cent – this is a piece of populist policymaking that will do the SNP’s support no harm at all. So much of what passes for political discourse is about the arcane, the technical and the downright dull. This is politics people can understand.
It came as no surprise that the rest of the legislative programme outlined yesterday did not contain any contentious issues that might upset too many folk. Nor did it contain any proposals that get to grips with some of Scotland’s more thorny and difficult problems requiring the challenging of Scottish vested interests.
For this was a legislative programme with one eye fixed very much on the independence referendum that will take place in just over a year’s time. Nothing in the business Holyrood conducts in the next 12 months can be allowed to damage or denigrate the SNP’s bigger picture on national emancipation.
The SNP yesterday did not even attempt to conceal this narrative, Mr Salmond explicitly using the programme as a demonstration, in his words, of the need to “complete the powers” of the Scottish Parliament. This makes eminent sense from an SNP point of view. Whether it does for the rest of Scotland is more questionable.
Knox may birl, but Kirk stands proud
At the foot of the stone steps leading up to the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall, the statue of John Knox is a forbidding sight. One hand clutching the Bible and the other raised to the heavens, he stares down on those who pass below, as if in judgment.
How might Knox judge the Kirk today? Who can say? But the Kirk today certainly has the confidence to judge Knox, and particularly his attitude to women.
As our news story today reports, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Lorna Hood, is in no doubt that Knox would disapprove of her holding the office she does at the top of the Kirk. In fact, he would probably disapprove of her being a minister in the first place.
“It’s only 50 years since women have been ordained within the Church of Scotland,” says the Rev Hood. “We’ve moved a long way from Knox’s view of seeing women leaders as being repugnant and subversive, to having equal opportunities. Would Knox approve? Probably not!”
Rev Hood is entirely right to feel entitled to challenge Knox, even though he is one of the pillars of the Kirk. The preacher’s tirade against the “monstrous regiment of women” does not deserve to be one of his most-remembered utterances. It certainly does his standing no good in this day and age.
The Kirk has come a long way in recognising the rights of women to have equal standing in the ministry. Many other denominations are still trailing in its wake. It could be argued it took its time in appointing its first female moderator – Dr Alison Elliot in 2004. Now, though more can always be achieved, it has a record of which to be proud.