Selective evidence: an ugly political game

Commentary surrounding the horrific Rochdale case speaks more for the critics than the victims.

As a polemicist, you’re faced with a choice when something as horrific and complicated as the crimes in Rochdale comes along. Do you research it, investigate it, look into it, and then arrive at your conclusions? Or do you simply see everything on the table as being evidence that you’ve been right all along? 

Look, I am a polemicist myself; here I am, writing this blog. And there’s a temptation to see a big news story, especially a shocking one like this, as something that can be scavenged for easy reaction. 

But this isn’t any ordinary news story: it’s a story about sexual predators and young people in care. It’s a story that involves lives being shattered and vulnerable people having been abused. Is it really the time to be picking over the evidence and looking for things that prove you right so you can stick two fingers up at your opponents? 

Julie Bindel writing in the Guardian sees the story as evidence that the media would rather focus on the ethnicity of the offenders than the fact that young girls have been preyed upon. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, says that this was a consequence of the "Islamophobia witch-hunt".  

Reading through blogs and opinion pieces from the usual suspects, it’s clear that a lot of disparate people with frequently opposing views have all found something to take from these crimes and claim as proof that they’re right. 

Of course they may all be right; they may all have focused on different aspects of the whole picture. Or they may all be wrong, focusing just on the things they want to see. But it’s interesting to see how this case, this shocking case in which real people’s lives have been ruined and wrecked beyond almost all comprehension, should have coincidentally proved so many commentators right about the things they believed before the trial took place. 

The guilty verdicts came in, and the keyboards started clicking. You and I could have predicted with a fair degree of certainty what was going to be said before it was said – some of these things just write themselves, after a while, and don’t even need the author’s byline there to give it credibility. Just feed the data into a machine and it’ll come out nicely and neatly arranged in the same predictable pattern. 

The thing is, what have we actually learned from these crimes, these wrecked lives and this whole miserable affair? Some conclusions were probably already drawn before the verdicts were delivered. Nick Griffin, of course, chose to make gleeful political capital out of it, before two of the convictions had even been decided upon – though anyone on a jury who could possibly be influenced by a Nick Griffin tweet shouldn’t be serving on a jury in the first place. 

I found myself increasingly frustrated when reading commentary on this episode. Some people were desperate to downplay whatever racial or cultural element to the crime there had been; others were determined to show that there was, and that their political opponents were somehow in part responsible for these men’s actions. It was not an entirely edifying spectacle, and the victims didn’t seem to be at the forefront of many writers’ concerns. 

Cheap political capital: a member of the BNP demonstrates outside the Liverpool Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Parliament will trigger Article 50 - but it may legally still be possible to cancel Brexit

Legal experts believe they have found an escape hatch if Britain's negotiations turn out to be a damp squib. 

MPs have voted to trigger Article 50. The Lords now debating the Article 50 bill are unlikely to block Brexit. 

But campaigners believe there will still legally be an opportunity to cancel what they see as a slow motion constitutional and economic disaster. 

The People’s Challenge, one of the parties that, along with Gina Miller, forced the government to consult Parliament, has consulted lawyers about the next stage of the process.

According to the legal opinion written by three senior EU law specialists, there is an escape hatch at the end of the Brexit negotiations.

Sir David Edward, a former European Court of Justice judge, Sir Francis Jacobs, the ECJ’s former Advocate General, and the EU lawyer Sir Jeremy Lever believe that the EU can’t force Britain to leave. 

This means that MPs two years hence don’t have to choose between a terrible deal or no deal at all – they can also simply revoke Article 50 and go back to being full members of the EU.

Grahame Pigney, the founder of The People’s Challenge, told me: “We want to dispel the idea that there is a Hobson’s Choice [on taking the Brexit deal or leaving it]. 

“It is entirely reasonable and practicable to say ‘We will reserve that decision until the end of the process’.”

The legal opinion will raise hackles on Brexiteers who believe Remain campaigners aim to halt Brexit in the courts. But what does it actually argue?

What the legal opinion says

The legal opinion considers two main questions:

a) What are the constitutional requirements, as set out by Article 50, for the UK to withdraw from the EU?

b) If these constitutional requirements are not met, could the UK withdraw the Article 50 notice, or let it lapse? 

The lawyers argue that MPs must do more than vote on a Brexit deal – they must set out the terms in an act of Parliament. 

There is a well-established constitutional practice of Parliament legislating to require new international agreements, particularly those concerned with the European Union, to be approved by an Act of Parliament before they can take effect.

Then, considering the constitutional question, they say “there are very strong arguments” that triggering Article 50 means a country can leave the EU “subject to the fulfilment of such constitutional requirements”. 

Here’s the most crucial part of the opinion:

Therefore, if Parliament were to refuse to give legal effect to the terms of a withdrawal agreement negotiated with the European Union, or were to refuse to authorise withdrawal in the absence of any agreement, the notification given by the United Kingdom of its intention to leave the European Union could be treated as having lapsed (since the constitutional requirements required to give effect to that intention had not been met), or could be unilaterally withdrawn.

What this means

Pigney says his campaign group commissioned this legal opinion to give parliamentarians guidance, rather than to mount another challenge in the courts – although he doesn’t rule out one later on in the game. 

As he put it to me: “Whether there is a court case depends on the climate in the UK when we know what a deal is and whether the government is going to try to push something past that is plainly not in the interests of the people.

“Yes, a decision was made, but people can change their minds.”

Although the Prime Minister has confirmed Brexit will mean leaving the single market, and one recent Daily Mirror poll found hints of “Bregret”, most polling so far has suggested those who voted Leave are still happy with the way they voted. 

But as Pigney points out, the Brexit negotiation process is likely to take two years, if not more. And by that point, the mood of the country may be very different. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.