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Does Charlie Gilmour really deserve a 16-month jail sentence?

Yes, he acted like an idiot, but he's also an ideal tabloid scapegoat.

If the British justice system is truly designed to punish people for being utter prats, we all know one or two people who belong in Belmarsh. Well, now that Charlie Gilmour, the Cambridge student who swung from the Cenotaph during the 9 December riots, has gone down for 16 months, I'm sure we will all sleep safer in our beds.

Charlie Gilmour is a PR disaster for the student movement. I met him on the night before his monumental bender, as someone's reprobate brother who had turned up at the UCL occupation to party.

We had an altercation on the smoking steps whose content is now lost to memory but which ended in me storming off, and Charlie staggering after me, grabbing me in a half-headlock and demanding that I sign a piece of paper on which he had hastily scrawled 'Charlie Gilmour is not a misoginist [sic]'.

By the time I had patiently explained that this might not fix whatever it was he had just done, he was already tearing off to disrupt a planning meeting. I remember remarking to a friend: 'That guy is a liability. He's going to give us all a bad name.".

I have every reason to consider Charlie Gilmour a prize dickhead. But 16 months? Really? Sixteen months for going on a bender and attempting to damage some property? Sixteen months for setting fire to some newspaper and jumping on the bonnet of a car?

Charlie Gilmour is many things, but he's not dangerous, unless you happen to be a bottle of Gordon's Gin. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that whoever, at the same protest, beat 20-year-old Alfie Meadows until he bled into his brain, will be facing charges; in fact, Alfie himself is now amongst the many young protesters up on charges of violent disorder this summer, presumably for headbutting a police baton.

Gilmour is, of course, the ideal tabloid scapegoat for those who would prefer to believe that all young people involved in political struggle are spoilt, drug-addled and reckless. It's a perfect way of whipping up outrage against activists who have a sustained critque of government-imposed austerity, and of dissuading others from joining them.

While Gilmour was not sentenced for his actions at the Cenotaph, he was told that his actions were 'reprehensible', and that the eminence of the occupants of the car had been taken into account. So it's not about throwing a rubbish bin at a Roller - it's about throwing a rubbish bin at a convoy containing the heir to the throne. In swinging off the Cenotaph, he broke the unspoken rules of the King-and-Country brigade. 'You showed disrespect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending this country," said Judge Price, who last week sent 20-year-old Frank Fernie to jail for a year for throwing sticks at the TUC demonstration in March.

This is British justice. Over the past six months, 200 police officers have been dedicated to hunting down and punishing students and school-age protesters as part of Operation Malone and Operation Brontide. Meanwhile, a senior Metropolitan police officer devoted less than eight hours to reviewing the original News of the World phone-hacking investigation.

When the photos of Gilmour's rampage dominated the front pages after 9 December, leaving no space for any discussion of police violence or the confiscation of public university provision, many activists were furious with Charlie Gilmour for giving us all a bad name. Now he's been sent to prison on their behalf, along with many genuine protesters, it's the justice system that people are angry with.

Charlie Gilmour behaved like a massive prat, but being a massive prat is not a crime, and nor is being young and foolish. He has been sent to jail purely because he makes a good scapegoat, and to indulge tabloid hand-wringing about disrespect for those who lost their lives in war.

Well, there's disrespect and disrespect. Right now, a cross-party consensus is tearing up the 1945 Attlee settlement -- a far more important monument to those sacrificed in war than any lump of rock in Whitehall. And the newspapers crowing over Charlie Gilmour's jail term are cheering them on all the way.

Editor's note: This post was updated by Laurie Penny at 5.05pm on Sunday, 17 July

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change