The year my uncle was murdered I learned that true evil existed

The summer my uncle was murdered was the summer I grew up.

It was 2001 and reality had not yet crashed into the breezy Nineties delusion of world peace through the World Wide Web but a family in Coatbridge was about to lose its innocence. 

Robert Hawker, known universally as ‘Rab’, was a devoted partner, a doting father, a grafter, a loyal mate, a barstool linesman, an aficianado of Seventies punk — and then he wasn’t; then he was ‘the victim’. 

A Friday afternoon in June turned Uncle Rab into ‘the victim’ — a Friday afternoon, a swapped shift, and the random flash of a stranger’s blade. Then came the breathless calls and frantic dashes to hospital, therein to wander corridors in a Dettol-perfumed daze and seek solace in the cliches of the emergency room. It’s got to be some kind of sick joke… I feel like I’m dreaming… Could you manage a cup of tea?

‘This doesn’t happen to families like us’ became our refrain for the first 48 hours, as if praying in aid our banality would convince a higher power that a mistake had been made. As if there was any family who ought to see their loved one felled by a knife driven in with such force that the surgeon could not remove it. As if it could ever make sense for a 41-year-old man to leave the house in the morning hale and hearty and hours later be prone on a hospital bed having a machine do his breathing for him. 

Soon enough, a delegation of white coats and pastel scrubs arrived with sympathetic looks and inevitable news. It did happen to families like us. 

It was at this point that everything dropped to half-speed. Raw days stretched into one long wait: for the body to be released, for the police to conduct their investigation, for charges to be pressed, for a trial date to be set, for a verdict to be handed down, for a sentence to be imposed, something the judge would call ‘justice’ even though we knew there could be no justice when a man is cut down in the street because rotten chance places him at the wrong pedestrian crossing at the wrong time.

That was the longest summer of our lives. Death devastates a family but murder tortures slowly. It was the summer I learned that evil existed outside biblical parables and horror movies. Evil was flesh and blood and claimed far too much of both. 

The perpetrator — I can’t bring myself to write his name — was an unsatisfying one. No horns. No fangs. Just a scrawny little wide-boy four years shy of his thirtieth birthday with a string of convictions and a kitchen knife in his pocket.

By what right had he brought down Robert Hawker, who always knew the best jokes before everyone else; who, despite being a Rangers man, drank in his local Celtic pub because that’s where all his mates were; who tried (in vain) to rescue his nephew from generic drive-time pop with mix tapes of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel?

We see the dead in other people and last week I saw Uncle Rab in Craig McLelland. The 31-year-old was fatally stabbed in a Paisley street last year, victim of a thug with 16 previous convictions who had been released from prison on a home curfew order. James Wright had tampered with his electronic tag but went undetected for six months, a failing which left Mr McLelland’s three children without their father. 

Ruth Davidson raised the case at First Minister’s Questions and Nicola Sturgeon, after directing her condolences to the McLelland family, extolled the virtues of rehabilitation. She is right, but not for the reasons she thinks. 

Currently, inmates convicted of violent crimes — except sex offenders — can be considered for a home detention curfew. This sees them released before their sentence is complete with an order to remain indoors for 12 hours each night and an electronic tag to monitor compliance. 

Prisoners jailed for less than four years may be curfewed up to six months early and while the decision is taken by the Scottish Prison Service those serving longer terms first have to be approved for parole by the Parole Board for Scotland. The rationale is to ease offenders’ reintegration into society. The Scottish Government wants to expand the use of tagging, including as an alternative to custody in some cases, and that is what its Management of Offenders Bill seeks to do. 

Proponents say tagging is cheaper than prison, and it probably is. They argue that it makes for a more efficient penal process, and perhaps it does. It’s proposed that innovations in GPS be used to monitor drug and alcohol abuse, and that sounds sensible enough. What tagging lacks is meaningful punishment. It limits but does not correct behaviour. 

The urge for retribution is natural — primal — and not one we should be ashamed of. There is nothing wrong with yearning to see the guilty punished. There is something oddly cold, almost inhuman about those who can confront a picture in the newspaper of an old dear, her face purpled and bloodied defending her handbag, and not want the lout responsible to suffer the same pain and fear. Stick him in a room with a couple of real men for ten minutes. That’ll show ‘im.

But punishment, to be effective, must serve a purpose and that should be reforming the criminal character to fashion law-abiding members of society. Some cannot or will not change and prison is the only place for them but we are entitled, where we can, to do more than just deprive them of their liberty. We have a right to impose our standards on those who have violated them.

Liberals — of which I am one — are never done talking about the importance of rehabilitating the offender but have less to say on the need to rehabilitate society, to repair the bonds broken by crime and make people feel safe again.

The United States supplies a case study in tough rehabilitation. In 1994, the voters of Oregon passed Ballot Measure 17, which requires prisoners to do 40-hour weeks while inside. Up to half of this can be education, training or drug rehabilitation but at least 20 hours must be spent working.

Lags stitch denim jeans, manufacture computer parts and even act as call handlers for state agencies. Around 70 per cent of Oregon inmates are working and studying eight hours a day, with sanctions for those who refuse.

The result? A sharp increase in inmates completing qualifications and a freefall in disciplinary infractions. Oregon doesn’t give its criminals the option of gaining skills, it enforces a structured work routine that conditions them for a future life of law-abiding productivity.

As the prisoner re-entry expert Jeremy Travis notes: ‘A prisoner who leaves the Oregon prison system now leaves with a resume based on his work experience, recommendations from his supervisors, and a modest nest egg reflecting accumulated monetary awards.’ 

Within ten years of implementing Measure 17, Oregon had the lowest recidivism rates in the United States. Liberals declaimed mandatory work as legalised slavery and yet they are reaping its rewards in more progressive attitudes. Six in ten Oregonians, and 63 per cent of households with a victim of violent crime, now strongly agree that some of the money spent on locking up lower-risk criminals should be used instead to fund community supervision programmes.

Given the option of violent criminals serving a full five-year prison sentence or being released after four years under strict conditions, 56 per cent of the general public and 53 per cent of victim households strongly prefer the early release option. This is what a society that has confidence in its criminal justice system looks like. 

Scots could have that kind of system and that level of confidence. We do it by adding knife criminals to the exemption from home curfew, giving victims’ families the right to speak in person at Parole Board hearings and allowing them to appeal its decisions. We do it by adopting the compulsory work and education programme that has transformed Oregon’s prisons.

If we had such a system, Uncle Rab might still be with us and his killer might have done more with his life than take away someone else’s. Our summers might be happy times, out from under the shadow of senseless loss.

To respond, email

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at  

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