Bloody Tories: the shrinking realm of public discourse

The conviction of Bethan Tichborne begs the question: has Britain outlawed the truth?

Has Britain finally outlawed the truth? I struggle to find a case where any of the of thousands of members of the Stop the War Coalition fell foul of criminal law for accusing Tony Blair of having "blood on his hands", yet four months ago Bethan Tichborne was arrested and last week tried, convicted and fined, for saying the same of David Cameron, with an Oxford district judge finding that her words constituted "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" proscribed by the Public Order Act 1986. It could "hardly be more insulting to anyone, whether a politician or not," said the judge, to suggest that the Prime Minister "had blood on his hands."

Polemically, of course, the two are very different cases: where the former were clearly protesting against machinery of death, Tichborne's argument is more nuanced, suggesting that the Government, by cutting the welfare entitlement of the disabled, is responsible for the deaths of those who, out of "fear of destitution, the exhaustion of constant WCA and ESA assessments and endless forms," take their own lives. While it is possible to employ various efficiency arguments to maintain that cuts in social welfare are worthwhile or not, there is considerable scope for disagreement. Though expressed in extreme terms, Tichborne's argument is not without basis in fact: not in that David Cameron actually has human blood on his hands, but in that there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to the study of the trade-off.

Tichborne's case is drawn in still sharper relief when one considers the involvement of the Public Order Act, Section 5 of which proscribes engaging in "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." Recall that, in January, a prominent national campaign backed by Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson among others secured the future removal of the word "insulting" from Section 5. This campaign notwithstanding, the word "insulting" continues in Section 4A (relating to intentionally causing harassment, alarm and distress) and, in the case of Section 5, while "'insulting' is gone, 'abusive' remains." This should not give politically active citizens much, if any, comfort, as "the courts are very willing to conflate the two" concepts in cases where language is sufficiently inflammatory (see paragraph 29 of Abdul v DPP), and in such instances - of which I should think Bethan Tichborne's is one - it is no defence that particular words are "not abusive and insulting because they were (believed to be) true."

Language permits myriad ways to call a man a scoundrel and, fortunately, the mere suggestion that a politician has "blood on his hands" is not, prima facie, illegal - at least, not yet. But it is not prima facie permissible, either. When one man's apt metaphor is another man's insult, where do we draw the line? The English courts have difficulty resolving the question, admitting that the existing legislation makes it impossible to define in advance which kinds of political speech are permissible, and which are not (at paragraph 57). So what appears at first to be a public order question becomes a civil liberties one.

Even if one disagrees fundamentally with Tichborne's politics, it would be difficult to maintain that she doesn't have an objectively valid point - one which she is now less free to express. For Tichborne, the subtler nature of her argument - the wider range of possible disagreement her claim invites, and little else - places her on the wrong side of a law which is not endowed with any "cognizance of unintentional offences." The combination of overbroad legislation and overzealous local policing leads, in her case, to a violation of what most of us would consider to be the "certain minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated" because, as put by Isaiah Berlin (pdf), "if it is overstepped, the individual will find himself in an area too narrow for even that minimum development of his natural faculties which alone makes it possible to pursue, and even to conceive, the various ends which men hold good or right or sacred." 

The statutory framework regulating speech in the United Kingdom is not remotely appropriate for a free state. I hope Tichborne appeals. I hope she wins. For if Bethan Tichborne is a criminal, so are we all.

 

 

A protestor dressed as Tony Blair shows his "bloody" hands. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser