What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

June 15, 2008

One thing I just don’t get about David Davis

I don’t doubt for one moment the sincerity of David Davis on civil liberties. He has proven himself to be an articulate, passionate, resolute opponent of Labour’s unceasing efforts to subjugate the ordinary man and woman to ever more draconian laws for the greater good.

And yet he is also an advocate of the death penalty, saying in his first interview as the Tories’ shadow home secretary back in 2003:

“There is really no doubt, if you have got DNA evidence in multiple murders there will be absolutely no doubt," he told BBC's World this Weekend. "That is one of the great concerns historically about capital punishment, that there will be doubt about it.

"Secondly, that it is obviously pre-meditated. If somebody plans to carry out a series of murders, often against children or young women, or elderly people. These people pick their victims very cynically I'm afraid. Then this is obviously an evil and pre-meditated attack and in that case, there could be there a deterrent effect. We are talking about lives here."

For many in the Tory party they will see no ideological conflict in holding such views: it is partly what separates the libertarian wing of the Tories (who are generally also on the ‘social right’ of their party) from Liberal Democrats.

Yet for true liberals there can be no more terrifying prospect than that the state should hold the power over the life or death of its citizens. It is why the declaration of war – and the knowledge that young women and men will die at the behest of the state – is something which should only ever be contemplated in the most serious circumstances, and as a last resort on the basis of unimpeachable evidence.

That the state should consider aggrandising to itself the right to extinguish the breath from one of its citizens is the height of arrogance and hubris. No-one who truly believes in the rights of the individual, and in the limits of state power, could ever condone the re-introduction of the death penalty.

David Davis has many admirable qualities: but he is not and never will be a liberal.


Anonymous said...

I must partly disagree, though I don't consider myself a Conservative (nor a Labourite, as a matter of fact). I quote the father of liberalism, John Locke:

"Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property - that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto punish the offences of all those of that society, there, and there only, is political society where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it."

It is logical, that if individuals have a natural right to life, liberty, and estate, and the society has the right to punish them for violating the similar rights of other individuals by limiting their right to liberty and estate, there isn't a principled reason why it wouldn't also have the right to punish them by limiting their right to life. I don't see life is in this respect different from liberty or estate, particularily if the violation was aimed against the life of other individuals.

Besides, if an individual violates other individual's right in life, he can't appeal to a similar right which he should possess.

There are, however practical reasons against capital punishment, though. First, I'm not convinced by Mr Davis's argument, that a crime could be proved without doubt by DNA evidence. Such evidences can be for instance be framed.

Second, if we allow death penalty, it could also be abused. We don't have insurance that once allowed, the death penalty would be only used against those who deserve it. In Iran, for instance, homosexuality can be punished with death. It is of course bad enough, that other punishments are used against people, who haven't breached the rights of others, but capital punishment is irrevocable, and can't be compensated afterwards.

Bishop Hill said...

Interestingly, John Stuart Mill was also in favour of the death penalty.

This would appear to put Stephen in the odd position of believing that a position held by two of the principal philosophers of the liberal movement is incompatible with being a liberal.

Chris Dillow makes a far better fist of explaining it than I ever could.

Stephen Tall said...

I don't buy Mill's argument (or even Chris Dillow's) in this case.

The death penalty is repugnant to true liberals because it is irrevocable: it admits of no possibility of rehabilitation or reform. No liberal can believe that one of our own citizens is wholly incapable ever of seeing the error of their ways: we have always to allow for the possibility that humanity's full and true potential will be reached.

It's a more difficult position when it comes to accepting that declaring war on a foreign nation will result in deaths of those who are innocent or guilty. The logic from a liberal perspective centres around the participation of the individual in government. Eg, UK citizens should not be killed by the UK government because they are part of that government (in a liberal society every citizen is part of the government). For a government to kill its own citizens is, literally, to destruct the body politic.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Tall wrote: "The death penalty is repugnant to true liberals because it is irrevocable: it admits of no possibility of rehabilitation or reform. No liberal can believe that one of our own citizens is wholly incapable ever of seeing the error of their ways: we have always to allow for the possibility that humanity's full and true potential will be reached."

I hope you'd pay some attention to the wording, because now it can be intepretted that according to you, Locke and Mill aren't liberals.

Bishop Hill said...

Anonymous makes my point for me. I agree with you that Locke and Mill are wrong, but the point was that they are still liberals.

passer by said...

What a load of crap, add to the liberals who support the death penalty the name of Immanuel Kant.

Kant of the death penalty

DD grip and mine, is due process, how we punish after that process is a different matter.

Stephen Tall said...

Locke and Mill were great liberals, but they were aso products of their times. And on the death penalty they were wrong. We have the luxury of a further two centuries' hindsight to see how wrong they were. That doesn't stop their liberal insights from being profound today. But nor does it mean we should still accept everything they said and believed as true liberalism.

passer by said...

Well with respect that sounds like an excuse, Mill, Locke et all lived in a time when the Death Penalty was used across the board, crude and arbitrary

So you could say if you can support the DP in those times then you would certainly support it now with our advances in law, investigation and evidence.

I would also add Kants prediction that not to punish murder with DP makes the state complicit with the murder, and in so doing undermines the rule of law in its entirety, seems to me absolutely correct.

I am pro-choice (20 weeks) and pro-death penalty (murder with over-whelming evidence) whats interesting is the debate in America, where folks tend to be either pro-choice and anti DP or the other way around, which if you think about it, neither are solid philosophical positions.

My life without freedom would have no value, to imprison anyone for their entire life seems to me worse than death. Is not freedom the heart of Liberalism?

Support for capital punishment or indeed corporal punishment does not necessarily make you authoritarian.

David Rundle said...

First of all, I'm pleased you too have pointed out this discrepancy:
As to the comments it's generated: Locke and Mill and crucial forefathers of modern liberalism, but where we stand now is defined not solely by them. On this issue, what's critical is how the state can use the monopoly of violence provided to it by its citizens (apologies for the Hobbesian reference). The idea that the state uses that monopoly to decrease the citizens for which it exists is at the core of the dilemma.

Bishop Hill said...


Again, I agree with everything you say, but you are missing the point. If Locke and Mill can be great liberals but believe (wrongly) in the death penalty, why can't Davis be any sort of liberal and share that same mistaken view?

You say that Locke and Mill were products of their time, but I can't see that anything very much has changed in that time. People kill each other, and if a jury finds them guilty you need to mete out some punishment. Reasonable people can disagree about what that punishment should be.

Hywel said...

DNA evidence never proves that person X murdered person Y beyond any doubt in any case

passer by said...

DNA as part of a BODY of evidence can prove that x killed y.

Modern Liberals (except on green issues maybe) seem to have adopted the post modernist positions of there is no such thing a truth.

Different Duncan said...

Indeed, you can't call someone illiberal based on one issue. I for instance see no problem with widespread CCTV, but that doesn't suddenly make me illiberal.

However once you consider Davis's voting record on gay rights, abortion, drugs, 28 days, a bigger picture begins to be painted.

neil craig said...

To me the moral case for the death penalty is overwhelming (though if somebody cares to enlighten me). The prime duty of government is to defend the people against crime & war (enemies domestic & foreign). If you accept that the death penalty deters then if the state refuses to use it it is not doing its best to defend the citizenry. If you don't then, unless you have some particular reason to think murderers, while not detered by hanging, are really scared of imprisonment, then you must think they should all be released & I know of nobody who says that.

In any case there seems to me to be a quite obscene double standard by those, particularly LibDems, who claim tom be opposed on principle, to killing mass murderers to deter murder but are enthusiastic supporters of bombing hospitaLS & killing pregnant Serbian women for the purpose of helping Nazis, drug lords & sex slavers to dissect living human beings. Perhaps somebody could explain in what way that makes LibDems more moral than Fred West.

neil craig said...

Clearly not.

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