In September 2014, some of the people of Scotland will participate in a referendum on Scottish independence. This is not the first time the issue has arisen, but it is the first time the country has embarked upon this process with the express aim of being open, transparent, inclusive and democratic. However, a question mark remains over the description of the referendum process as truly democratic, because of the unjustified exclusion of a group of Scotland’s citizens from the most important political choice made by us in more than 300 years– the 6,500 men and women who are currently in a Scottish prison. Their exclusion from this profoundly important choice has no remedy, no repeat opportunity. Unlike general elections, which are held every five years, this referendum is, as political leaders repeatedly tell us, a historic “once in a lifetime” event. It is justified on the basis that prisoners have in some way excluded themselves by their conduct – from society, from the franchise, from this choice. They have not.
In committing some act deserving of prison, people are deprived of their liberty – to move about freely and associate with those whom they wish to. This is well understood.
Yet depriving someone from participation in the choice of the future state of the country is not imposed by any judge or court, but by legislation. Rather than all those who have been convicted but are serving a sentence outside prison, we punish only those who, because of one judge’s decision, happen to be in jail on that single date when the rest of the country is able to choose what happens to our nation.
And crucially, unlike the rules for general elections which are set by Westminster, the Scottish government was given free rein to fashion the franchise for the referendum.