Is Trenton Oldfield Our Pussy Riot?

Attack the elite and they won't take it lying down, writes Caroline Criado-Perez.

On 17th August 2012, Pussy Riot, a feminist punk collective based in Moscow were jailed for two years for “hooliganism”. And around the world governments were rightly swift to condemn the ruling as bearing no resemblance to justice. The UK media gave us rolling coverage of the events. It was big news and Britain basked in the safety of an outrage that didn’t affect us.

In the run-up to the trial, Britain’s very own, self-proclaimed freedom-fighter and iconoclast Brendan O’Neill, wondered what a UK Pussy Riot could “bravely mock”? He theorised that the only orthodoxies that are truly “dangerous” to mock in modern Britain are institutions such as the NHS, or concepts such as “multiculturalism”, or perhaps most bravely of all, “victim culture” – I guess Brendan has never seen Sarah Silverman’s set on why rape jokes are about as safe as you can get.

Irrespective of the fact that O’Neill makes a living out of “bravely” standing as a one-man army against these over-bearing ideologies and yet still, inexplicably, remains free, our courts have now provided an antidote to his theorising. Because yesterday, without the blanket media coverage and fanfare that accompanied the Pussy Riot sentencing, a man called Trenton Oldfield was jailed for six months.

His crime? Disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race as a part of a protest against elitism. Or, to use Judge Anne Molyneux’s terminology, his crime was “prejudice”. And as Molyneux says,

No good ever comes of prejudice. Every individual and group in society is entitled to respect. It is a necessary part of a liberal and tolerant society that no one should be targeted because of a characteristic to which another takes issue. Prejudice in any form is wrong.

And indeed it is. But don’t these fine words in defence of a put-upon elite sound a little familiar to you? They should. But if they don’t, here’s a little re-cap:

In a modern society relations between various nationalities and between religious denominations must be based on mutual respect and equality and idea that one political movement can be superior to another gives root to perspective hatred between various opinions.

These are the words with which Judge Syrova sentenced Pussy Riot to two years in a penal colony. They are the words which were so complacently mocked and derided by the world’s media. They are the words upon which the twitterati offloaded an abundance of WTF. And they are words which now make our judiciary sound like an authoritarian echo-chamber – and make our complacency look very shaky indeed.

Trenton Oldfield without a doubt comes across as pompous, self-satisfied and lacking in any tangible aims. His protest was childish, ineffective and bizarrely targeted. It deserved little more than the smirk he supposedly awarded Judge Molyneux yesterday.

But in the wake of Molyneux’s judgment, Oldfield’s pronouncements about elitism start to look far more credible. The boat race starts to look like far from a soft target. And O’Neill’s choice of orthodoxies start to look wildly off base. Indeed, when it comes to “victim-culture” it seems that if you must commit a crime, you’re still far better off actually physically attacking someone who lacks institutional power, say like a girlfriend, than of committing the heinous offence of interrupting a jolly day out at the races.

Not so much of a “modern British orthodoxy” after all then Brendan.

This post was originally published at Week Woman

Trenton Oldfield leaves Feltham Magistrates Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”