The issue of voting rights for prisoners in British elections came back to Britain with a thud. In February, the British House of Commons voted 234 to 22 to oppose the 2005 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that the British prohibition on prisoner voting was illegal and a breach of human rights.
The government of David Cameron sought a reprieve of the 2005 ruling by appealing to the Grand Chamber of the European Court in March. This week the court not only refused to consider the British appeal, but gave Britain a six-month deadline to make the necessary legislative changes that would allow prisoners to vote.
It is a well-known fact that the British public has misgivings, to put it mildly, about embracing European values and institutions at the expense of British ones. The current crisis of the euro zone and the imminent Portuguese default that may force Britain to cough up billions of pounds to prop up the stabilization funds has further embittered British public opinion towards Europe.
The British cannot see why they have to pay for mismanagement in a currency zone to which they do not belong. The fact that Alastair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Labour government, agreed to it does not convince your average British citizen.
Irate editorials are now beseeching the government to stand firm "against this growing abuse of power by unaccountable judges." The British newspapers have belatedly discovered that there are members of the bench at the Human Rights Court who do not represent democratic countries (Russia), are representatives of Lilliputian countries such as San Marino and Andorra, or are former politicians rather than jurists.
Senior British justices are already on record as saying that they would not enforce the European court ruling in British courts. Europe, however, is free to bring suit against the British government for disregarding the ruling.
There is little doubt that if the Conservatives had managed to form a government by themselves, they would choose the path of legal defiance. However, they are in coalition with the Liberal Democrats who take a favorable attitude towards Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.
The appeal was an attempt to buy time so as to avoid exposing the coalition to a divisive issue. Now time has run out and one of the coalition parties is going to have to give way.
David Cameron has angered backbenchers and Conservative rank-and-file by refusing to go to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He does not have a great deal of maneuvering room and his protestations that he is sick because of the ruling won't count for much. On the other hand, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also has to demonstrate that his party exerts a modicum of influence within the coalition.