I watched Labour’s party political broadcast yesterday, a solo performance by Iain Gray. I have said nice things about Iain Gray in the recent past, but in the main I have been decidedly negative about the man.
In considering Gray’s fitness the be leader of his party, and to possibly be First Minister of Scotland, one has to consider two men, both of them Iain Gray – the gentle, moderately-gifted former teacher with a social conscience, and Iain Gray the shallow, snarling, highly-stressed man who, week after week at FMQs in Holyrood, failed utterly to articulate any clear vision or policy, offer any coherent arguments in support of what passed for Labour policy, and whose inadequacies in debate with Alex Salmond were starkly and painfully evident to any objective observer. This Iain Gray was on display in last week’s STV Leaders’ Debate.
(Andy Kerr last night risibly described these weekly disasters as Iain Gray “regularly besting” the First Minister.)
In yesterday’s party political broadcast, however, we had the first Iain Gray, and for me, it was a natural, unforced performance, and, I believe, the real Iain Gray, the man he would normally be if he didn’t keep taking the potion fed to him by his strategists and image makers, turning the rather gentle Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, but without the terrifying, vibrant natural force of Hyde’s alter ego, liberated by the drug. Instead, we have an artificially wound-up persona lurching about in an embarrassing, incoherent and shambolic attempt to display vigorous debating skills and exhibit some statesmanship, two attributes in which he is totally lacking.
So yesterday, we had the real man, in respite from his exhausting spells as Hyde – the nice, caring Dr. Jekyll. He expressed wished for the future of Scotland - with a couple of nuclear and independence exceptions – that any reasonable Scot would endorse.
The problem is that he and his party have not the least idea of how they can be achieved, and do not possess the intellectual, analytical or strategic skills to structure the policies and plans to put them into effect.
The Scottish Labour Party no longer has the moral core of values and principles that must be the foundation of any democratic political vision, and they caught that lethal disease by association with the party of Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell – New Labour, a disease which has now been passed on to the new, but enfeebled party led by Ed Miliband.
Last night on Newsnight Scotland we had one of Gray’s key lieutenants on display – Andy Kerr – and for once, I preferred the blunt instrument of Gordon Brewer to deal with him, rather than the rapier of Isabel Fraser.
If Andy Kerr is the giant financial and strategic brain behind Iain Gray, he has a lot to answer for. In 15 minutes or so, he revealed the intellectual and moral vacuum that lies at the heart of Scottish Labour. Nowhere was this more evident than on their policy on knife crime.
Labour proposes a mandatory minimum sentence of six months for being caught in a public place in possession of a knife. No ifs or buts – if you ‘cross the threshold’ of your home, to use the ridiculously simplistic phrase done to death by Andy Kerr on the programme, there will be a mandatory sentence of six months. Andy Kerr is as untroubled by the definition of knife as he is by the word mandatory, regarding as mere quibbles any questions on what is meant by them.
knife: a metal blade used as a cutting tool, with usually one long sharp edge fixed rigidly in a handle, or hinged, e.g. penknife: a similar tool used as a weapon; a cutting blade forming part of a machine.
mandatory: of, or conveying a command: compulsory.
On the definition of knife, we immediately see the difficulty – a knife may be a tool or it may be a weapon, and for its entire history, it has been potentially both. Contrast this with a gun, which has only one real purpose – to kill or maim, although its defenders argue that it is also used for target shooting, which is why the Dunblane mass murderer, a member of a gun club, possessed the weapons he used in the massacre.
In the UK there are mandatory penalties for the possession of a firearm, and for its actual use to threaten or injure. The mandatory penalty of unlicensed possession of a firearm is five years. In a recent case in the UK, a man who possessed a firearm, used it to threaten another, and who also attacked and injured that person with a knife, took the firearm into the house of a female friend without her knowledge or agreement. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, she was given a mandatory sentence of five years for possession. Her defence, that she did not know the firearm was on her premises was rejected.
So even in the mandatory sentences for possession and use of firearms – which I, in the main, endorse and support – problems of equity and justice in sentencing arise. I support the British law because I don’t want our society to turn into what American society has become, under the protection of the NRA, the gun lobby – a society of daily violent death by the gun, a paranoid, gun-ridden, gun defending culture.
THE LAW AT THE MOMENT
Here’s what Scots law says on knife crime -
An attack with an offensive weapon is a breach of the common law pertaining to assault, and is treated as a serious aggravation of that assault. More severe and specific legislation targets the sale of knives and the carrying of knives. The Scottish courts now have at their disposal a range of powers and penalties, including fines and imprisonment, including
the Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959, prohibiting the manufacture, sales or hire or the lending or giving of knives to another person of a flick-knife or gravity knife.
(The flick-knife is a spring opening knife, of the kind prevalent in 1950’s and 60s movies: the gravity knife simply requires a shake of the blade container to produce the blade and lock it into place, now the most popular movie and TV depiction of the knife. I offer the movie and TV examples for visualisation purposes, since most people fortunately are unlikely to experience either in operation.)
That maximum penalty at the moment on summary conviction is imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or a fine up to level four, currently £2500, or both.
Judicial discretion exists to neither fine nor imprison, but to impose other penalties and remedies.
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence to manufacture, import, sell or hire, expose or possess for the purposes of sale or hire, or lend or give to another person any specified offensive weapon.
Fifteen weapons have been specified as offensive weapons in Offensive Weapons Orders under this Act.
They include swordsticks, push daggers, death stars and butterfly knives.
The maximum penalty on summary conviction is six months imprisonment and a fine not exceeding level five, currently £5000, or both.
The Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1955 also prohibits the carrying of knives and other articles with blades or points in public places. The maximum penalty on summary conviction is imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, currently £5000, or both. The maximum penalty on conviction on indictment is imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or a fine, or both.
The proposal announced for the Police Bill, if adopted, will increase the maximum penalty to four years.
(The above summary is my understanding of the law as it stands, but I am a lay person, not a lawyer or a legislator, neither am I a politician or police officer. I set it out here only for the purposes of illustrating my arguments: please do not use it as an authoritative summary of the law if you require that – go to primary sources and to a solicitor.)
PRACTICAL ASPECTS AND EXPERIENCES
I am as concerned about knife crime, the carrying of knives and the potentially lethal threat they pose as Andy Kerr is, or indeed any law-abiding citizen, and with better reasons than some – I have twice in my life been threatened with a knife, and have in my childhood and young adulthood witnessed gang violence involving knives and razors in Glasgow and during my national service, in Leicester. My brother-in-law was the victim of a random stabbing in Glasgow many years ago, where fortunately he did not sustain life-threatening injuries. I don’t take knife crime lightly. and I don’t need Iain Gray’s or Andy Kerr’s parading of tragic examples to convince me that we must go as far as we can to eliminate its scourge from Scottish society.
I only wish they had been as enthusiastic for the reduction of alcohol-fuelled violence that often involves knives, and had voted in favour of minimum pricing for alcohol, instead of joining in a contemptible opposition to the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce it.
What I don’t want to see is the needless imprisonment of young people, and consequent criminalisation of them for ill-considered acts, often caused by their immature judgement being blunted by the cheap booze that Scottish Labour, Tory and LibDems kept on the streets by their political opportunism in voting against minimum pricing.
And I have declaration of interest to make here that may be of interest to Iain Gray and Andy Kerr – I have carried a knife ‘over my threshold’ for most of my life, and into public place. I have done so twice today already – once to the local shops and subsequently as I walked my dogs.
It measures 8cm when closed. It has nice mother-of-pearl grips and two blades, one of 3.5cm, the other 4.5cm. I regard it as indispensable to me for all sorts of tasks, none of which involve threatening others or using it as an instrument of violence. I describe it as a small penknife, and feel that I have a perfect right to carry it.
But in the black and white mind of populist politicians using fundamental problems of law and order to attempt to gain short-term political advantage by whipping up the fears of the electorate – a technique as old as politics – I am potentially a criminal, and would have no defence against a mandatory sentence of six months for possession.
In previous years, I have carried variously a small Swiss army knife, a multi-tool, and during my peripatetic management consulting career, a largish lock-back knife, of the type that has caused some confusion among the law-enforcement authorities, as many hikers, fishermen and outdoor sportsmen can testify. (A lock-back knife has a mechanism to lock the knife when opened, as a safety measure to avoid inadvertent closure on the fingers: it is not a flick-knife or a gravity knife – concealment and threat play no part in its operation.)
In my fourteen years in the tyre and rubber industry, most of the rubber workers carried a mill knife, essential for the work of some, but for all of them, a tool for the many life and limb emergencies that occurred almost daily in the often dangerous industry. I am certain that many of them went home with their mill knife in its sheath in their working clothes onto public transport or through public streets, returning with it the following morning.
As a staff member in production control and later in industrial engineering, I also carried a lock back knife of the type described, and took it home with me every night. As a part time gig musician, I always had a knife or multi-tool to carry out running repairs to my various instruments. When violence broke out in Glasgow dancehalls, as it regularly did, the last thing I would have thought of was reaching for my knife.
As a boy, virtually every child aspired to – and many possessed – a folding knife of the type described by us as a ‘gully’ knife, a sailor’s knife, with one blade and a marlin spike, which we mistakenly thought was the tool for taking stones out of horses hooves. I was given one as a gift, aged seven, by my uncle, a law-abiding citizen and church elder. This was in the east end of the violent city of Glasgow in its No Mean City days.
Now I don’t raise these issues to defend some Charlton Hestonesque version of the right to carry guns, nor is it nostalgia for the good-old, bad-old days of yesteryear – I raise them to illustrate the complexity of legislating on knife possession by law-abiding citizens, a complexity that the law, the courts and law-enforcement agencies must confront, if not the black and white minds of Gray and Kerr.
But if you are a parent, consider this. One evening your teenage son goes into town to meet friends. Just before he leaves, he obligingly changes a plug for you, and uses a small knife to strip the ends of the wires, or perhaps a small multi-tool that will handle the screws etc.. In a hurry, he slips the knife in his pocket and forgets about it. Once in town, he is unwittingly caught up in a disturbance, perhaps in the street, on a bus or train, in a cafe. The police arrive and search those present, and he is charged with possession of a knife, which is an undeniable fact.
As things stand at the moment, the judge will have to decide not whether he is in breach of the law or not – he undoubtedly is – but what sentence to impose. At the moment there are maximum sentences, maximum penalties, either fines or imprisonment or both, and the judge has discretion to decide whether to impose them at any level or admonish, or apply a community service order etc.
In the Labour world of Gray and Kerr, he is faced with a mandatory minimum sentence of six months, and, even with Andy Kerr’s concept of what discretion means in relation to mandatory, must find a reason not to apply the six month sentence, the default presumption.
But I can just see Andy Kerr shaking his head and saying “You make my point – the judge has discretion over mandatory sentences, and this is an area where he would apply it.”
So here is one that Andy Kerr may find more acceptable when applying his simplistic logic -
A young man from an Edinburgh or Glasgow housing estate plagued by gang violence, who himself is not a member of a gang and has never been guilty of violent behaviour of any kind, is about to go out to meet friends. He has already purchased his passport to such gatherings – some cheap supermarket vodka or other variant of the electric soup. But he is a little apprehensive, so he puts a small kitchen knife in his pocket.
This is very unwise – a conscious breach of the law and a dangerous risk to take, by any standards. He becomes caught up in a minor disturbance, or breach of the peace – perhaps rowdy behaviour, singing and shouting, or perhaps there has been a break-in and an incident of violence nearby. The police arrive and decide to search him. Again the scenario plays out as previously, he is charged and goes to court.
Under the Gray/Kerr proposals, he is undoubtedly more likely to be jailed for six months than under the present law – that is the inevitable result of the proposal, indeed it is the express intention.
The young man is jailed, the taxpayer bears the cost, and there is a high probability that the prisoner will be exposed to criminal risks that may either damage him or set him off on a pattern of offending, or both. His employment prospects are seriously damaged, further increasing the likelihood of re-offending. Nothing is served by this conviction.
SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT STATISTICS
Figures showing that the number of people carrying offensive weapons such as knives is now at its lowest level in Scotland in a decade.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said that the figures demonstrate that the tactic of combining tough enforcement, through record numbers of stop and searches on Scotland's streets, backed by education, through initiatives such as the No Knives, Better Lives campaign, was beginning to pay off.
However, the Cabinet Secretary said that Scotland's law enforcement agencies would not be complacent in their continuing efforts to tackle knife crime in Scotland's communities.
The figures show that:
There has been a 30 per cent decrease in offensive weapons crime since 2006/07 - with substantial falls in each police force area
In 2000/01 there were 5,209 crimes of possessing an offensive weapon in Scotland. Latest figures for 2009/10 show this has dropped to 3,839
There has been a 22 per cent decrease in offences of possessing an offensive weapon since last year
In Strathclyde last year there was a 26 per cent decrease in crimes of possessing an offensive weapon, and there was also a general decrease in offences in other police forces right across Scotland
A key study published recently concluded that targeted intervention strategies were key to tackling gangs and knife carrying, rather than adopting blanket 'one-size fits all' policies.
SUPPLEMENTARY COMMENT - LAW AND ORDER – TORY and LABOUR-STYLE
Labour has now adopted the traditional backwoods Tory approach to crime - simplistic, atavistic remedies. Criminals are bad, victims are good – there are no shades of grey, no nuances in this world. Bad people must be punished, and regrettably, since modern sensibilities, driven by bleeding heart liberals, no longer permit execution, birching, the cutting off of hands, ears and noses, the red-hot iron and the fearsome pincers, disembowelling is frowned upon and the populace no longer wanted to be disturbed by heads impaled on spikes on their way to work, bad people must be locked up for as long as possible, in as primitive conditions as wishy-washy concepts of human rights will permit.
Heaving a nostalgic sigh for the good old days of piling the faggots high around the wicked and inhaling the smell of burning flesh, the advocates of this approach to law and order must be content with prison. Any tedious little quibbles like where they are to be incarcerated, how it is all to be paid for, how is behaviour to be controlled in prison, how is the objective of changing behaviour to be achieved and the problem of re-offending to be dealt with are dismissed with an airy wave of the hand.
The concept of parole for good behaviour, central to every civilised justice system in the world, is rejected out of hand – a sentence must be served in full, no ifs or buts, and the well-behaved, penitent, rehabilitated prisoner must be treated exactly like the violent, intransigent, unrepentant one – each must serve out their full term.
The independence of the judiciary must be radically restricted – after all, they regularly show that they can’t be trusted – and mandatory sentences must be laid down for every offence, not just the most heinous. The exercise of discretion, inherent to the concept of justice, is reluctantly acknowledged, while being viewed with deep suspicion, and its scope must be severely limited and regularly questioned. After all, politicians are elected by the people - albeit often under our electoral system by a minority of the people -and only politicians truly know the popular mind and are able to accurately reflect it.
Criminals are also part of the people, but this uncomfortable fact must be avoided at all costs – they have broken the rules and must forfeit all civilised privileges, all legal and human rights. (This concept is only ever questioned when politicians break the rules and then special arguments come into play.) In the Tory and Labour ideal world, the concept of the outlaw would be reinstated – the offender would lose all rights, and the mob could kill or maim him at will, and lynch law would triumphantly return to the streets of our towns and cities.