Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Could Gordon Have Done?

Should Akmal Shaikh have been executed? Everybody seems to asking this question, so let me answer it as well.

I don't oppose the death penalty on principle, since a society that can't choose how to defend itself from the thugs within and without it isn't free (the EU has banned Britain from reintroducing it, which is, as I have doubtless said before, an act of tyranny). But it is only justifiable for those convicted of murder, and only when explicitly recommended by a jury* after a fair trial (for some value of fair). So know, I don't think he should have been put to death, whatever the truth about his content to the crime and his alleged mental state.

The Chinese government, like others which execute drug smugglers, bases its action on the fact that the quantity of heroin carried by Shaikh could have killed or destroyed the lives of thousands of people (much like the Chinese Communist Party, but I don't think they'd see the parallel). And it is clearly their belief that it a crime heinous enough to justify execution. In Britain are they no offences punished in exaggerated fashion because of social beliefs? Not trying to do cheap cultural relativism, but I find it instructive to try to understand the why behind these things, and the obvious answer in the case of China- that it's useful for political repression- seems to be wrong here.

The position of Gordon Brown in the matter must have been entertainingly intractable. A desperately unpopular populist, he knew people wanted him to call the Chinese government all sorts of names and threaten them with nameless dark deeds, or offer to exchange Shaikh's life for some trade or political concession. The first two of these things might have been popular but they would have been wholly ineffective and probably counterproductive. Brilliantly, he waited till after the event to say them, alienating the Chinese when it was too late to make any difference. Similarly he would have been almost literally gagged by the Foreign Office to prevent him making any kind of offer. It must have been tempting, but the price would inevitably have been far too high to contemplate. This explains why the Miliband being is now going around with diplomatic Tourette's, repeating 'this will not affect our relations with China, we will continue to engage with China...' Of course we will. From my position of complete ignorance of how diplomacy works, it is clear that China matters, and that the Foreign Office could not possibly negotiate with Akmal Shaikh's life, and the last thing they wanted was Gordon sticking his oar in.

An unfortunate business, but in many ways an interesting spectacle.

*Juries are much less corruptible than judges, and tend to have a greater sense of justice and equity. It was juries that forced the abolition of capital punishment for all but murder, by refusing to convict on capital offenses that they didn't think should be. But they were not refusing to convict for capital murder. The decision to abolish it completely was Parliament's alone. And now not even they have the power to bring it back.

UPDATE: Charles Crawford does know about diplomacy and gives some interesting background. George Walden, in between his opinions, also has some useful thoughts to add.


Vincent said...

I hope the electorate are not as stupid as he seems to think they are.

CIngram said...

They're not as bright as one would wish, and they do have this irritating habit of not doing what I think they should, but at least it seems we can be sure of a Cameron government this year. And it will be better in some degree than the ones we've had recently.

Note: these predictions were made without the help of smoked vulture brains, and may therefore not be completely reliable.

Vincent said...

When I was posted as a consultant to Malaysia, I learned that they too have death penalty for drug trafficking. Also arms trafficking at that time, perhaps now still. Doubtless a hangover from the days when Communists lurked in the jungle. In fact near the borders of Kalimantan in Borneo my borrowed car was stopped by police who demanded to look in the boot, to which I discovered I had no key.

It was a scary moment. I didn't of course look like an arms trafficker, being neither ruthless nor a poor mule suffering from bipolar disorder.

But I can see the unsentimental Chinese point of view. If they spared the guy on mental health grounds, they could well fear that the Mr Bigs of the drug world would recruit thousands of sufferers from such mental illnesses.

I imagine the Chinese are Utilitarians who believe that "good" is the greatest good for the greatest number of people, so their consciences will be clear on the matter.