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.)

Umaar Kazmi
Show Hide image

“They should be on bended knee apologising”: Chris Williamson warns Corbynsceptic Labour MPs

The MP for Derby North on his return to Parliament, why Labour won in marginal seats, and how party unity could have led to a Labour government.

At 5am on election morning, Chris Williamson was ceremonially tearing up some binbags. Two dustbin liners had been taped over the gold and green “Chris Williamson MP” sign on his Derby North constituency office since 2015. When it was announced that he’d won England’s most marginal constituency back from the Tories, he headed down to the old office with his team, and they tore the binbags down, dust raining upon them.

“Those black bin liners taped round were like a reminder whenever you glanced up that, one day, it’d be nice to pull that off,” he grins. In his two years away from the Commons, having been beaten by 41 votes last election, Williamson had been using the office as an advice centre.

Before then, the former bricklayer had represented the Midlands constituency from 2010 to 2015, having served as a local councillor – and twice as council leader – for two decades.


All photos: Umaar Kazmi​

Now he’s back, and squatting in a vegan-friendly café along the river from Parliament as he waits to be given an office. His signature flatcap sits on the table beside a glass of sparkling water.

“I’m not a fan of that place anyway, really, it’s horrible and oppressive, and not really fit for purpose,” he says. “That’s the slight downside. It goes with the territory I suppose. If we could move out of Westminster, that would be nice – somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester or Derby even – the centre of the country, isn’t it?”

“New Labour’s dead, buried and finished”

Perhaps this distaste for the bubble is to be expected, as Williamson is an ardent Corbynite. I followed him on the campaign trail before the election, and he was championing Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and leadership on every doorstep. It seemed a rather brave move among many undecided voters at the time, but has now been vindicated. You can almost tell from his trainers, crumpled polo shirt and contended expression that Williamson is supremely comfortable in the most left-wing Labour party since he became an MP.

“New Labour’s dead,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “No doubt about that. It’s dead, buried and finished. It's a regrettable chapter in our history. Historians will think ‘my God, what were they doing?!’” he cries.

Williamson believes he won due to Jeremy Corbyn’s character, the manifesto, a “fantastic” local campaign, and an “outstanding” national campaign. He thanks Momentum activists rallying so many people that they often had 20 teams canvassing simultaneously in his seat. And he praises an online campaign that targeted different demographics – Ukip voters in particular would mention his videos.

“If they’d been more supportive then we’d have got over the line”

“We targeted some elements of our campaign to specific cohorts,” he says. “For example, we did a message online to people who had supported Ukip previously about how a Labour government would genuinely take back control, take on the corporations, bring back the utilities into public ownership – rather than controlled by international, global corporations many of which are ripping us off.”

Williamson adds that young people were enthused by the pledges to scrap tuition fees, abolish zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage. He also saw Tory voters switch, attracted by a policy programme that he describes as “common sense” rather than radical.

He admits that people warned him to “disassociate yourself from Jeremy if you’re going to win” when he began campaigning. But he tells me he would “have sooner lost than gone down that road”.

But he has strong words for those who were more sceptical, saying they “let down their members” and lamenting that “if they’d been more supportive over the intervening period, then we’d have probably got over the line”.

Williamson calls on all the Corbynsceptic MPs to apologise: “They should be down on their bended knees and apologising, in fact. Not just to Jeremy but to the entire Labour movement.”

However, he believes his party is “more united” now than it has been for the 41 years he’s been a member, and is happy to “move on” – expressing his gratitude for how much warmth he’s received from his MP colleagues, “given how critical I’ve been of them!”

It may be Chris Williamson’s time in the sun – or the “sunshine of socialism” as he puts it, quoting Keir Hardie – but he does have jitters about his majority. It is 2,015 – the digits matching the election year when he was defeated by the Tories. “It’s a reminder that we lost then!” he laughs.

> Now read Anoosh on the campaign trail in Derby North with Chris Williamson

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496