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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.