Setting a fire in an inhabited building is a crime of violence.
At the Scottish Politician of the Year awards ceremony at the Prestonfield House Hotel in November 2004, Mike Watson got very drunk. He’d been drunk at the dinner, he got even more drunk at the VIP party after the dinner, and as the hotel staff were clearing up, he was “asking forcefully for more wine” and they gave him an open bottle, evidently hoping he’d go away.
Instead, according to the prosecution, he “wandered around the hotel staring out of dark windows, asked for directions to a cloak room although he had no coat ticket and then became rude and aggressive to staff”. About quarter of an hour after they gave him the open bottle of wine, the fire alarm went off.
Mike Watson was then 55 years old. He had been Labour MP for Glasgow Central from 1989 to to 1997, he’d been appointed a life peer in 1997 and he’d then become Labour MSP for Glasgow Cathcart in 1999. He was drunk. He set fire to the curtains in the hotel’s reception.
Watson initially tried to deny being responsible for the fire, but CCTV footage showed him bending down to the foot of the curtain and then the curtain going on fire. He had matches on him, which he initially tried to hide. So he pleaded guilty before the trial. His defense lawyer claimed that Watson himself (sober) found it “inexplicable and totally out of character” that he should do such a thing. But Sheriff Kathrine Mackie, when deciding Mike Watson’s sentence, said that “a social enquiry assessment had concluded there was a significant risk of Watson re-offending.”
After Mike Watson had been convicted, there was a three-week delay before sentencing during which he was out on bail: he resigned an MSP. (He would have had no choice: the usual sentence was 20 months, reduced to 16 months because he’d pleaded guilty before the trial, and no one can be an MSP who’s been sentenced to more than 12 months in jail.) As is standard, Watson served eight months of his sentence in prison: he was out on parole in May 2006, and his sentence expired in January 2007.
Because a life peer can’t be un-appointed, Mike Watson could return to the House of Lords and sit as a peer without a party.
In November 2012, the Labour Party accepted Watson back into the fold: for nearly three years, he’s sat in the Lords as a Labour peer.
Arson is a crime that carries a high risk of re-offending. It’s a crime of violence, not a crime against property (or rather, not just a crime against property – the fire set in Prestonfield House Hotel caused £4500-worth of damage, and only the swift action of hotel staff with fire extinguishers ensured the fire was put out with no injuries and no lives lost): Mike Watson set a fire in an inhabited building, and he well deserved to go to prison for doing so.
Should the Labour Party have ever re-admitted him to membership?
I think it’s proper that every instance of a former Labour Party member who has been convicted of a crime of violence should be subject to a case-by-case decision. Factors to be taken into account would be length of time since crime committed/sentence served, whether the former criminal appears to be genuinely reformed and not a risk of re-offending, and so on. The National Executive Committee voted to re-admit Mike Watson and I presume they had considered carefully all these factors and concluded that Watson was genuinely repentant, had served his sentence, that eight years had passed since the crime was committed, and that Watson was not at risk for re-offending. (If I were them, I’d have wanted to know that he was now committed to never take a drink again, ever, and warned him that if he started drinking again he could be expelled promptly for doing so.)
But I still think they did the wrong thing. Mike Watson is a life peer. He couldn’t be got rid of from the House of Lords as the law was then, so making him a Labour Party member once again made him a Labour peer with all that goes with it. I believe in reform, in repentance, in re-admission to society: but not that “re-admission to society” should mean the privilege of being a voting member of the second house. Re-admission to the Labour Party, if that was personally important to Mike Watson, should have come with it the promise that he would never again sit in the House of Lords: as of 2014 and the House of Lords Reform Act becoming law, he could have resigned from the Lords.
(In fact, though a law can’t be backdated*, if the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 had become law ten years earlier, Mike Watson would have had no choice: anyone convicted of a serious offence can now be expelled from the Lords. Mike Watson should then have been told by Labour, resign your seat or leave the party.
*Unless you’re Iain Duncan Smith and you want to make the illegal actions of the Department of Work and Pensions retroactively legal. )
But, this didn’t happen.
I’m sorry. That’s just wrong.
It’s true that prior to 1989 Mike Watson was a tutor/organiser for the Workers’ Educational Association, which gives him some long-ago background in education, but there are 210 other Labour peers in the House of Lords and none of them have been convicted of setting fire to an inhabited building.
This isn’t a Cabinet-level position, just to avoid confusion: a government or opposition spokesperson in the Lords needn’t be – and usually isn’t – a Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet minister. But it is an official front-bench position for the Labour Party.
And yes, Lord Arsonist of Invergowrie set fire to hotel curtains in a drunken rage well over ten years ago, and he’s served his sentence, done his time, convinced the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party that he’s repentant, reformed, and should be allowed back into the Labour Party again: but to say “and you can be our official spokesperson for education”… No.
I can see asking Watson to give Labour the benefit of his special experience as a former convict, if he wishes to do so. Or to appoint Watson to speak in an area where he has recent proved experience. But spokesperson for education? Why? Are there no other former members of the teaching unions who are Labour life peers?
I think Jeremy Corbyn’s made a mistake. And I think Mike Watson should be invited to quit the Lords as he would have had to do if convicted after the 2014 reform act was passed. I think if Mike Watson were seriously repentant of the crime he’d committed and the damage he’d done, he wouldn’t want to just go back to his former privileges and rights.
There is a line of thinking – we find it in the arguments that say Ched Evans should get to become a professional football player again – that argue that being part of society again, a goal for every convicted criminal, means that when privileged people are convicted of crimes, once they’ve served their sentence they should be re-admitted to all the social privileges they previously had.
I disagree with that line of thinking. If you’ve committed arson when drunk, you have to accept: for the rest of your life people will, and rightly so, not want to trust you with alcohol or matches or legislation. Being a life peer, a working peer with legislative responsibilities, should be an honour and a responsibility that a person accepts may be removed if you behave in an irresponsible and dishonourable fashion.
And yes, I think setting fire to hotel curtains when blind drunk because you’re angry with the hotel staff is strongly indicative of an irresponsible arrogance that I don’t want anywhere near important legislative responsibilities.