Striking the wrong tone on murder

Nicola Sturgeon reminded me of someone and it took a while to put my finger on it.

The First Minister was taking questions from Ruth Davidson on something more sombre than the usual petty point-scoring. The Scottish Tory leader was demanding justice for Craig McClelland, a father of three stabbed to death in a Paisley street one year ago. His killer, James Wright, has been sent to jail — the very place he was supposed to be on the day he took Mr McClelland’s life.

Davidson wanted to know why Wright was still roaming the streets six months after he had breached a home detention curfew. She wondered how many other criminals had added to their PNC file while on home detention. Sturgeon didn’t know. Neither did Davidson. As she revealed, the Scottish Government doesn’t bother to collate or disseminate the figures.

The Scottish Tory leader, a genuine flash of anger in her voice, said: ‘I think that that is unacceptable. If criminals are being released from jail, tagged and then going on to commit violent crimes, does the public not have a right to know how many do so?’

These questions are never easy for Nicola Sturgeon, a former solicitor of broadly liberal instincts for whom offender rehabilitation is a secular sacrament. She paid condolences to the McClelland family and reminded MSPs a review was under way, before pivoting to the more comfortable territory of reforming prisoners’ characters.

She stressed: ‘Systems such as home detention curfew are an important part of preparing individuals for release. They are about reintegrating prisoners into society.’

The First Minister wasn’t carrying the chamber. Rehabilitation is all well and good but now was hardly the time. Wright had been so thoroughly reintegrated into society that police couldn’t find him during six months on the run.

Under further scrutiny from Davidson, the First Minister began to cite research showing lower recidivism rates for non-custodial sentences. She was right but the tone was all wrong. Eventually, Davidson snapped and shouted: ‘It was murder’.

That’s when I realised who Sturgeon reminded me of. Michael Dukakis, Democrat nominee in the 1988 US presidential election. Dukakis had everything: He was smart, charming, a self-made son of Greek immigrants and up against the hoity-toity George Bush Snr. But Dukakis was passionately opposed to the death penalty and during a TV debate, he was asked if he would still oppose execution were his wife Kitty to be raped and murdered.

Instead of showing emotion, telling the audience he’d want to rip the guy’s throat out, he robotically cited studies showing capital punishment was ineffective. In a dozen garbled words, he ended his presidential career. In the eyes of the American people, he became a wimp who could never understand how they felt about crime. He lost in a landslide.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson sat two doors down from the boss and was keeping his head down. Matheson’s saving grace is that while he may be incompetent, he’s incompetent within reason. No minister who sits round the Cabinet table with Angela Constance can justifiably be let go before her. Compared to the Communities Secretary, Matheson is doing a bang-up job. It’s keeping them banged up he has a problem with.

Kezia Dugdale wanted to know about abortion in Northern Ireland. Ulster has no government at the moment after Unionists and Nationalists failed to reconcile their differences, meaning there can’t be a vote at Stormont on loosening the law on terminations. Norn Irn has a joint premiership between the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Downing Street is keen to see them working together again.

We’re familiar with that set up in Scotland, where we also have two First Ministers though no one elected the second one and they’re both so hapless most of us would prefer direct rule from the empty Stormont assembly than from their breakfast table in Bute House.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Scottish Government (cc-by-nc/2.0).

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