The police questioned a man for criticising Ukip on Twitter. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Criticise Ukip on Twitter? You could get a visit from the police

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is questioning why Cambridgeshire Police officers visited blogger Michael Abberton's home after he sent out a fact-checked list of ten Ukip policies on Twitter.

A tweet, the police, and ten Ukip policies. It doesn't sound like a particularly conventional formula for a crime drama, but a rather sinister-sounding story is currently unfolding from a blogger's bedroom in Cambridgeshire that leaves both police and Ukip party officials with a number of pressing questions to answer.

Michael Abberton, whose blog is called Axe of Reason, tweeted out a fact-checked version of a poster listing ten controversial policies attributed to Ukip. Abberton, who describes himself on his blog as "Definitely biased to the left", explained how he wanted to check the list of policies really belonged to the eurosceptic party, and so fact-checked each one, before tweeting it out last Monday.

Here's the tweet:

Abberton then wrote a blog post on Sunday detailing how the police came round to his house on Saturday afternoon to question him about the tweet, and asked him to "take it down", as well as not to make public the fact that they had come round to visit him.

The Cambridgeshire Police have confirmed to BuzzFeed today that they did indeed visit his home, commenting that it was to check whether offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act, a law that deals with the electoral system:

We were called with a complaint about a message on social media at about 12.40pm on Friday. Inquiries were made as to whether any offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act but none were revealed and no further action was taken...

And a spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police told the Guardian:

A Ukip councillor came across a tweet which he took exception to. The name of the person on the tweet was identified and that individual was spoken to. We looked at this for offences and there was nothing we could actually identify that required police intervention. Clearly, the councillor was unhappy about the tweets. If every political person was unhappy about what somebody else said about their views, we would have no politics.

Abberton's MP, Lib Dem Julian Huppert, tells me he has written to the Cambridge area commander, and is "awaiting a response from her about exactly what happened".

He is concerned that the police visit was inappropriate:

I struggle to see exactly what it could have been that would have been an offence in this case, and I'm looking forward to hearing the justification. Because otherwise from what I've seen, it does seem like an inappropriate for the police to be involved, and certainly Michael Abberton's description of the conversation suggests that they went a lot further than just trying to establish if he's committed an offence, but went to the level of asking him to take down the comments, not to tell anyone that they'd been round, various other things like that., which assuming that to be true, it is clearly inappropriate...

The clear question is whether there is a genuine allegation that he committed a criminal offence. And if there is such an allegation, then clearly it's alright for the police to investigate it, but I haven't seen anything to suggest that there was a clear allegation of potential criminal activity. And it's clearly inappropriate for the police to take action on political disagreement if there's no real sense that there was a criminal activity involved, and having seen the tweets that he [Abberton] sent out, I can't see in what way it would have violated the Representation of the People Act, I can't see any way in which it could be seen as being threatening or abusive.

Huppert has been in touch with the blogger electronically this morning, and remarks that his constituent is "clearly concerned" about the situation. "The idea that this could be seen as intimidation, whether pushed by police officers or whether pushed by Ukip is clearly an alarming one," he adds. "The role of the police is clearly to defend a free and open democracy, and given that I haven't seen any detailed allegations that he'd committed any sort of offence, it does seem odd and inappropriate for the police to be questioning him like that, and I can see why people would find that very intimidatory."

The Cambridge MP sees "a lot more scrutiny now of what people within Ukip are saying", adding, "I can see that many of them are uncomfortable with being challenged on their manifesto and on comments that their spokespeople have made."

Secretary of Ukip's Cambridge branch, Peter Burkinshaw, says he hadn't heard the story, not being "into social networking", but comments: "I wouldn't have thought it was criminal to tweet your opinion about something if it's not slanderous. I don't understand why the police would go round... In principle, if the man's just voicing an opinion, I can't see why it would involve the police at all."

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.