Early Sunday morning and all is not well. An hour spent perusing the Government’s new e-petition website has blackened my mood to the point where I am tempted to post one myself, calling for the immediate incarceration of the unthinking, reactionary or just plain stupid among us. Of course, this would necessitate a second petition calling for my appointment as chief arbiter, but when others are calling for “slow moving agricultural vehicles to pull over if they are being followed by five or more cars” and the relocation of Parliament to Stoke-on-Trent, perhaps it’s not so far-fetched after all. For the most serious offenders, we “should make sure that prison means prison”. Once banged up, we should “make these criminals work for nothing”, “ban them from smoking”, “remove all human rights” and “leave them to rot”. Perhaps we should reintroduce “hard labour” for the worst spellers – a clear sign of sloppy thinking, and “hang till dead” anyone who misplaces an apostrophe.
All of these remedies have been posted online in an attempt to let our elected representatives know what “we”, the electorate is thinking, which just goes to show that universal suffrage is not always all it is cracked up to be. No issue has provoked more outrage than the fact that we British don’t routinely kill our fellow citizens – that and motorway driving. Thus far, however, the Idi Amins out there seem to be losing this particular argument. Even if you collate the various and nefarious petitions calling for the return of capital punishment, the total signatories amount to nowhere near the number who signed Martin Shapland’s petition calling for a constitutional ban on any return of the death penalty. My signature brings the total to 15,490 and counting.
As gimmicks go, this one has certainly caught the imagination of the popular press. Direct access to loony-tunes thinking without the need to hack into Heather Mills’ voicemail. Genius. And if the public is not thinking exactly as the tabloids would like, no matter. Newspapers can simply upload their own petition before urging their readers to sign it. A case of the blindly indignant leading the merely blind. It beggars belief that this sort of nonsense should be solicited at a time when the malign influence of certain newspapers has never been under such scrutiny.
Defenders of the two most popular “causes” – hanging is closely followed by a withdrawal from the European Union – which would, of course, be a necessary precursor to reintroducing capital punishment, a rare but I suspect completely accidental example of joined-up thinking from petitioners – argue that these issues deserve to be aired. If only we could hear the arguments from both sides, our elected representatives would be better placed to implement the will of the people.
This ignores the fact that we elect MPs every five years to carry out our wishes. If we wanted to be led by vengeful lunatics we would be. That the return of the death penalty has not been debated in the lifetime of successive parliaments and received little support from any of the three main parties when it was last discussed should be enough for anyone.
If people really believe that “unlicensed users of motorised disability scooters” pose a serious risk to life and limb, perhaps they should stand for election themselves. The angry and unenlightened would soon realise that a manifesto needs to contain more than calls to “cut the bollocks off sex-offenders” and a commitment to introduce a “flat rate of income tax for everyone”.
As a long-term campaigner against the use of capital punishment abroad and its reintroduction at home, I am actually not opposed to debating the issue. It would be enlightening to learn exactly where the new intake of Tory MPs stand. The last time Parliament defeated a call to reintroduce the death penalty by a majority of 158 votes David Cameron was not even in the House of Commons. I believe abolitionists would win the debate and I suspect the Prime Minister believes that too, which is why he is so determined not to have one. Liberal Democrats would vote as one to keep the ban, thus necessitating a free vote. Anything else would be unthinkable. A rebellion on that scale could topple the coalition and force a snap general election which the Tories are in no position to win. But don’t hold your breath.
So far, not one of the petitions uploaded has garnered anywhere near the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a parliamentary debate. I suspect that the wonks who thought this a good idea, (note to politicians: good ideas are never launched in August) never intended that any of the suggestions put forward should be allowed to see the light of the day. Instead an electorate impatient for its leaders to start leading are yet again being fobbed-off with the chimera of do-it-yourself governance by an administration bereft of good ideas of its own.