A Special Relationship – Equally Unequal

The one thing about a special relationship is that you always have someone you can count on when you’re in a bit of a jam. So it was a couple of weeks ago when the Arizona Department of Corrections had a bit of a crisis.

They discovered that they could no longer source sodium thiopental in the US. Sodium thiopental happens to be one of the three drugs they use in their lethal injection cocktail. An anaesthetic, it’s the first shot the poor unfortunate strapped to the gurney gets before they are paralysed and then poisoned.

As the disassembly line came to a grinding halt at the ADC in Florence, AZ, the executioner – or more accurately the prison officer who had attended a day release course in death management – began to have nightmares about having to cope with dozens of prisoners stacking up in an ever increasing death row holding pattern.

He needn’t have worried. A quick call to those special friends across the pond and a fresh batch of C11H17NaO2S was on the next FedEx plane out of Heathrow. Jeffrey Landrigan met his end courtesy of the UK. The disassembly line in Florence AZ was back in business.

The fact that we were unquestioning about the unusual request for sodium thiopental may have been an unfortunate error, but that we have not subsequently made it clear that we would no longer be prepared to supply this cocktail additive in the future is inexcusable.

An article by Clive Stafford-Smith alerted me to these events. Clive is someone I have admired for a long time. Before founding Reprieve, an organisation that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay, he spent 25 years battling to save death row inmates in the States. If you haven’t watched the BBC documentary ’Fourteen Days in May’, I recommend you do.

It’s easy to forget, until prompted by something as bizarre as Arizona running out of sodium thiopental, that in ‘the land of the free’ they lock up more of their citizens than any other country in the world, 751 per 100,000 to be exact, and  37 states still have the death penalty. This year sixty will have their time on this mortal coil brought to a (semi) abrupt end, with the Lone Star State ‘topping’ the list. Over 3,200 are currently sweating it out on death row.

At a time when there is much talk of ‘fairness’ and ‘inequality’, and very little understanding of the meaning of either, it is perhaps timely to take a good look at the US. Why? Because unless Britain is prepared to make fundamental changes it risks becoming like its special relation, equally unequal – it’s heading that way fast.

It all starts with income inequality. The US is top of the list by far, closely followed by Britain. The fact of the matter is that wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse social problems become. A veneer of affluence disguises the reality and fools too many of us. It’s not affluence that is important in a society, but how unequal it is.

The more unequal a society the higher the crime rate: the higher the level of obesity, mental illness and the lower the life expectancy of its poorer citizens: it’s expensive too. As we are about to discover, welfare and health costs eventually become unsustainable. Those that have to pay for it start to resent doing so. The divide widens. A prejudice towards the less fortunate grows in intensity and attitudes harden. It has happened in the US and it’s happening here. It’s not pretty and it has to be changed.

I don’t believe the scale of the changes Britain has to make have been properly understood.  They are massive. We are starting form a position where too many people believe that the less well off are a ‘natural condition’ about which little can be done: that their ‘condition’ is of their own making. It is a corruption of moral sentiments, and a corrosion that is deep rooted.

I do not know of any politician or political party that has the vision, the courage or the ‘big ideas’ that will drive the change that this country so desperately needs. But to be as equally unequal as our ‘special relations’ is a curse we have to banish. It can be done, and the more equal we become, the more equal we will want to be. We have to make a start.

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