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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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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.