The UK's new self-defence law opens the door for a Trayvon Martin case

By placing what is essentially a variant of Florida's "stand your ground" law on the statute book, the coalition has created the potential for greater acts of vigilantism.

Tony and Trayvon Martin. Not related by blood, but the two share more than a surname. The supporters of both men claim that they are the victims of unfair self-defence laws in their respective countries. Whereas in the UK, Tony Martin was deemed to have unlawfully killed the burglar who had entered his farmhouse, Trayvon Martin’s killer has walked free from a Florida Court. In seeking to avoid the issues caused by Tony Martin’s prison sentence, the UK government has made worrying moves towards the much-criticised US position.

The “stand your ground” self-defence law in Florida, states that a person who is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be has “no duty to retreat and has the right to… meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so”.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder called into question “laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods”. The veteran campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton went as far as to describe the stand your ground law, which exists in over 30 States as the “worst violation of civil rights” in America. If the dry words of the legal text books do not provide enough context, perhaps the fact that this law is supported strongly by the National Rifle Association will.

Opponents argue that by allowing a lawful excuse for people to stand and fight when faced with what they perceive to be a grave threat, the law will lead to unnecessary escalations in violence. When this is coupled with ingrained racial stereotyping which perceives certain races to be more threatening than others, the law can justify or even catalyse a deadly chain of events.

Ironically, it is a variant of the stand your ground law – in fact a more extreme form – that the coalition has just written into the statute books.  

In 2012, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling grandly declared: “The public should be in no doubt that in such circumstances that the law really is on their side. We need to get rid of doubts in this area once and for all”. Contrary to Grayling’s version of events, the law prior to his amendment was appropriate to deal with the situation of people threatened in their own homes: a person was allowed to use such force as is reasonable, in the circumstances which he honestly believed to be the case. This rule took into account the possibility for an honest mistake about the level of threat that an intruder poses but crucially, did not act as a carte-blanche for acts of personal revenge or retribution. Sometimes, it is reasonable to not use force at all.

The law did not impose an onerous duty on the initial victims of a crime to carefully consider absurd trade-offs: “Should I hit him with a vase, or use a golf club?” The statute books, judges, and perhaps most crucially, the Crown Prosecution Service did not expect a person to, as one Law Lord put it “weigh to a nicety” the exact measure of a defensive action. Fortunately, this remains unchanged in all situations apart from that of the household.

One recent amendment provides that a possibility that a defendant could have retreated is to be as a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether force was reasonable, rather than as giving rise to a duty to retreat– in other words, this is a statutory endorsement of the stand your ground law. More importantly though, s.43 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into force this April, provides that in a household case (the definition of which is complex), the degree of force used by a defendant is “not to be regarded as having been reasonable” in the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be “if it was grossly disproportionate in those circumstances”. This ungainly negative formulation will only serve to confuse matters. It appears that some level of disproportionate force will be available to householders, but precisely what degree is entirely unclear. How does one distinguish what is merely disproportionate from grossly disproportionate?

Chris Grayling’s bluster is liable to cause two problems. First, the new law will create more rather than less confusion, second it may even encourage people to think that acts of vigilantism are now ratified. As the Trayvon Martin case has demonstrated, this can go horribly wrong. In their knee-jerk reaction to the cases like that of Tony Martin, the government risks opening the door to the tragedy of his namesake.



People hold up photographs of Trayvon Martin at a rally in Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide