Two years ago I attended a day long event in London called "The Convention on Modern Liberty".
It was bustling with activists and politicians from various parties and had a number of interesting debates in the main hall and in fringe meetings. The theme was civil and other liberties and one of the leading lights of the event was Conservative MP David Davis. He had become something of a darling of the liberty movement following his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet and forcing of a by-election on the issue of detention without trial and liberty more generally.
Indeed such was his high profile that he gave the closing speech of the event. I remember it well. It was littered with calls to arms for those of us who strongly believe in liberty and freedom in this country. There was a particularly memorable passage where he castigated the then Justice minister Jack Straw for his authoritarian stance on issues such as ID cards.
So it was particularly disappointing in the last few days to see him joining forces with Straw to lead a parliamentary campaign to deny the rights of any prisoners to have the vote. For me, the issue of votes for prisoners and someone's reaction to this is indicative of how liberal or authoritarian and reactionary they are. It is not an easy issue. The tabloid press have a very clear view on this issue and are on a hair trigger ready to publish headlines like "MP WANTS MURDERERS TO HAVE THE VOTE". Local opposition parties to MPs will also be hovering over the leaflet software with similar headlines. And of course public opinion in this country is quite strongly against such an idea at the moment.
Now have a look at the speech David Davis made at the Convention two years ago. These sections in particular leaped out at me when I re-read it:
We’ll have to fight the principle of expedience every time. It sounds easy does it not? Actually sometimes you will find you are on the unpopular side. I repeat ID cards, 42 days, control orders, DNA databases, all popular when they started. But we won the arguments. You won the arguments and we have to win those arguments time and again over and over......Lincoln once said ‘to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men’. This is not going to be easy: it is not going to be straightforward . We are all here with people who agree with us: they don’t all agree with us out there. It is not matter if the case is difficult. If the argument is unpopular and if your opponent is intimidating we have to fight it time and again.
He was right. The causes of liberty are often unpopular. I'm sure I will get a fair bit of stick for having published this blog post for example. However I didn't think when I heard David Davis utter those words that within two years he would be one of the "intimidating opponents" that those who value liberty are going to keep having to fight "time and again".
I think the thing that annoys me the most about the vote in the Commons yesterday (which passed by 232 votes to 22, a crushing margin) is how blunt it is. No prisoners, under any circumstances should have the vote. Ever.
Before anyone starts asking me if I want Ian Huntley to have the vote, or others murderers, paedophiles, or rapists the answer is no. I do not agree with giving all prisoners the vote whatever the circumstances. I do however think part of the reintegration into society of those who are in prison under some circumstances should include being able to cast a ballot. I think it would help some feel more like a citizen of the country and help with their rehabilitation. We should bear in mind that the prison population is made up predominantly of the most marginalised in society. Should we really be taking the vote away from people who have committed minor offences? They have already lost their freedom and are banged up for 23 hours a day.
Winston Churchill once famously wrote that you can judge a country by how it treats its prisoners. Well in this case, 100 years on from when he wrote that our parliament with a crushing majority has decided to keep all prisoners disenfranchised under any and all circumstances.
And one of the main cheerleaders for this has been David Davis. The former Conservative darling of the liberty circuit, lauded by Shami Chakrabarti and feted as a voice of reason on this from the right. No more. Having joined forces with his erstwhile authoritarian enemy he has shown his true colours when it really counts on an issue that divides those with true liberal credentials from those who are just play-acting.
It is now clear which camp Mr Davis falls into.