Breaching the contract

Matthew Holehouse on a feudal notion that is coming back into fashion

Lt Col William H Steele is due to face a court martial this month in Baghdad. He is charged, among other offences, with "aiding the enemy" after lending his mobile phone to inmates at Camp Cropper, a detention centre. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to death.

The concept of treason, which only a few years ago might have seemed archaic and even ridi culous, is back with us. Two years ago the British Home Office considered treason charges against the hate preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed, who promptly fled the country. Last year Adam Gad ahn, a Californian-born member of al-Qaeda also known as Azzan al-Amriki, became the first US citizen to be charged with treason in half a century (though he is still at large).

In a more casual, less legal sense, too, the word itself has a fresh currency. The New York Post, for example, has been accused of treason by Republican congressmen for exposing government espionage, and the Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle mooted the hanging of George Galloway after he encouraged British soldiers to disobey orders in Iraq.

Historically, treason is connected with times of political paranoia and social crisis, and the need to define boundaries of loyalty, so perhaps it should be no surprise that a US presidency that began by warning that "you are either with us or against us" has ended up considering executing its own officers. Francis Beckett (whose father, a fascist leader, was interned during the Second World War) has argued in this magazine that treason is a "word that we use about people and ideas with which we strongly disagree", and it is true that crying Judas is invariably chauvinist and hypocritical. Yet treason is also inescapably a child of liberal society.

Where once the crime was feudal and personal, committed against a monarch by troublesome subjects, over the centuries it became associated with the concept of the nation, drawing its legitimacy from the revolutionary notion of "the people" as a political entity. It thus became possible for kings to commit treason against their subjects, as in the cases of Charles I and Louis XVI, both of whom were convicted of high treason. In English law today, treason is a breach of that contract between citizen and state under which we give allegiance in exchange for the protection of the law. Treason prosecutions are thus always likely to hinge upon proving that such an allegiance is genuinely owed, and that is not always a simple matter.

The last person to be executed for treason in Britain was the fascist William Joyce who, as Lord Haw-Haw, broadcast Nazi propaganda to wartime Britain. Although Joyce had American nationality, the prosecution successfully argued that his use of a forged British passport meant he had claimed the protection of the British state and so owed it his allegiance. A sham of a trial by an angry government, perhaps; but still one dependent on liberal democratic notions of citizenship. Not, of course, that that will be any comfort to Lt Col Steele.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix