Political violence and unlawful behaviour

Is criminal activity to promote a good cause acceptable?

Recent tweets of my New Statesman colleague Laurie Penny have attracted considerable attention. In particular, her apparent suggestion that what would normally be "criminal damage" is not actually violent and is permissible in the context of certain protests has been widely discussed, including this analysis by CharonQC, the doyen of English legal blogging.

Of all bloggers, Laurie Penny is able to speak up for herself, and I do not propose to engage here with the details of that debate. However, there is a wider issue which warrants attention, and it is an issue on which every thoughtful and liberal person should have a view.

When is a criminal act permissible on political grounds? By criminal acts, I do not mean the simple and principled non-compliance which can be labelled "civil disobedience". I mean instead positive actions which breach criminal law, such as offences against the person or against property. It is probably clear what sort of offences go beyond simple civil disobedience, though there may be grey areas at the margins.

Many individuals seeking or exercising power would like to be excused from criminal liability on political grounds, from the terrorist and the dishonest politician, to the troublemaker throwing paint at Topshop and the racist thug. It would seem that for each of these individuals, the criminal law is just for other people. Their self-serving sense of legitimacy checks and overrides the legitimacy of the state.

However, a political excuse cannot be enough to exclude criminal activity. Profession of a cause, like ignorance of the law, cannot always be a valid excuse. If it were, then everyone subject to the criminal law would invoke it. There must be a sensible limit to which politics can be used as a defence to a criminal charge.

On the other hand, very few would maintain that there can never be, in any circumstance whatsoever, a good political reason to commit what would otherwise be a criminal act. There may be differing views on when such an action would be justified, and many would only concede that it could happen only under imaginary and extremely illiberal laws, rather than those in force at the current time. For example, helping a member of a persecuted group to escape capture and execution could feasibly be a positive criminal act, and one would hope that many would selflessly commit the crime to assist a stranger.

There may be no perfect theoretical answer to this problem. In practice, the decisions of those in the criminal justice system, from the arresting officer to the sitting jury, should be informed by common sense and proportion. Politics may not be a defence, but there should always be a public interest in pursuing a prosecution. At the extreme, and with serious offences, it should always be open to a jury to find a defendant not guilty, regardless of the dismay and frustration of the coercive powers of the State.

Such a practical approach is haphazard. It certainly does not appeal to the tidy-minded. It offers no satisfying conceptual basis to those who want certain criminal acts to not have legal consequences. But what is the alternative? Should political commitment ever be defence in criminal law? And if so, how would it actually work?


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.