IMAGINE, for a moment, a piece of chocolate cake. This is not the most difficult exercise so far, admittedly, but bear with me.
Now imagine somebody is offering you that piece of chocolate cake at lunchtime, but you’re on a diet, and you’ve been doing really well, and, honestly, a piece of chocolate cake is the last thing you need. So you politely say no.
But your hostess won’t let it lie. She is like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted. “Go on. Go on. Go on. Go on. Go on.” And each time you say, “No, it’s bad for me. I can see the appeal of it, but it would be wrong.” Until, finally, you prevail over the chocolate cake pusher and the danger of chocolate cake has passed.
And then, later that night, when you go to bed, you turn back the duvet, and there, squashed into your sheet, is a piece of chocolate cake.
That is how I feel about the death penalty debate. This is something I was fairly confident had been dealt with. Yes, there were people grumbling out there about bringing back the rope, and it’s still weirdly popular with the sort of people who miss being able to smoke in pubs and beat up their children, the sort of people who rail about the Nanny State, but still think the state should be able to murder its citizens in cold blood as punishment.
But it turns out the debate was just lying dormant, like a virus. And when the Government said that it was dropping its objections to a death sentence in the case of the “ISIS Beatles” the debate woke up again.
Before we knew it, it was being suggested that after Brexit, we would be able to bring back the death penalty, which is, as far as it goes, true. Let’s put aside the fact that it’s not the EU that has dictated that we stop putting our citizens to death. We abolished the death penalty in 1964, long before we joined the Common Market.
In any case, it’s our membership of the Council of Europe and our signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights that prevents us from indulging in state-sponsored murder. And I don’t remember withdrawal from that being on the referendum ballot.
Now I get the appeal of the death penalty. There are murderers and terrorists in our prisons at the moment whose death at the end of a rope would not make me mourn. Some of these deaths would be cause for celebration.
But that is the very worst part of me, the bit that craves revenge is the blackest part of anybody’s soul, the bit that should never be indulged because that’s the point of civilisation. We’re not savages. We live in houses and have iPhones and watch David Attenborough programmes.
The thing is, the death penalty doesn’t even work. In the case of the ISIS Beatles, killing them will make them martyrs. It’s what they actually want. It’s why we kept feeding Ian Brady even though he wanted to die.
And it certainly doesn’t work as a deterrent for murderers. The prisons of US states where execution is legal have death rows filled with murderers who were undeterred by the existence of capital punishment. Study after study has shown that it’s not the severity of the punishment that deters offenders but the likelihood of being caught.
And the idea that wrongly convicted people might be executed chills my blood. Incidentally, I’ve often found that there is a correlation between people who are comfortable with this and people who appeal speeding fines.
But it’s easy to conceive of a Britain post-Brexit, in which the term “human rights” is considered a dirty word, the preserve of the spoilsports who make us wear seatbelts, and prevent us from sending children up chimneys.
This would be a country which withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights because we don’t want those continentals, with their garlic bread and ability to import cancer drugs without having to fill out 12 forms every time, telling us we can’t kill whomever we like.
It will start with the death penalty for treason being reintroduced. Then we’ll get a taste for it, and we’ll extend the definition of treason to include “remoaners”, as the Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman wants.
That’ll be the end of me. Is that what you want? For half of you it probably is.
It’ll be a piece of cake.