Yesterday, the Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman called for our treason laws to be updated. This was in response to the story of two British jihadis being tried in the US without the usual assurance they wouldn’t face the death penalty.
Bannerman was arguing that the Treason Act should be expanded in order to prosecute such figures. But he also added that this could also be applied to “those in future actively working undemocratically against UK through extreme EU loyalty”.
It is about time we brought the Treason Act up to date and made it apply to those seeking to destroy or undermine the British state. That means extreme jihadis. It also means those in future actively working undemocratically against U.K. through extreme EU loyalty pic.twitter.com/CXSPCJqjOz
— David C Bannerman (@DCBMEP) July 25, 2018
This caused consternation among Remainers, but there’s a developing context to Bannerman’s argument that makes this idea worryingly mundane.
Although “treason” usually conjures up images of men with pointy beards trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, or revolutionaries chopping the heads off assorted royals, the word has come back into fashion lately.
Accusations of treason, “traitor” name-calling and warnings against “betrayal” have come to define modern British politics.
“Traitor” ended up on the list of terms that would bar Labour members from voting in 2016’s second leadership election, a measure aimed at Jeremy Corbyn supporters. The word is fraught with contention in a party divided along ideological lines.
At Labour’s anti-Semitism inquiry press conference in June 2016, Corbyn addressed the word himself, calling on supporters angered by the attempted coup against him not to label MPs “traitors”. He told them: “There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either.”
But more prominently, the language of treason has characterised the Brexit row. A Daily Mail front page on 10 May 2018 declared members of the House of Lords voting against the EU Withdrawal Bill “traitors in ermine” – with a piece earlier this year declaring pro-European Tory Anna Soubry a “traitor” in the headline.
These interventions follow countless front pages from pro-Brexit papers plastering pictures of “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” like Wanted posters on their papers – plus the Sun threatening MPs ahead of amendment votes on Brexit legislation with: “GREAT BRITAIN OR GREAT BETRAYAL.”
With the row over the fate of those British jihadis, suddenly this crescendo of rather archaic language around Brexit has reached a point where it could realistically be translated into law.
The think tank Policy Exchange has published a proposed update to the Treason Act, put forward by shadow Europe minister and chair of the all-party group on tackling terrorism Khalid Mahmood and Tory MP and chair of the foreign affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat.
The argument is that the Treason Act, written in 1351 and without many substantial updates since then, is “ancient law and is now unworkable”.
Although you can no longer be executed for high treason (this was only officially abolished in the Nineties), you can still be given a life sentence for treason – although the Act hasn’t been used to do this since the Second World War.
Essentially, if the law is updated and broadened, it could be used to deal with British jihadis – like the ones being tried in the US – in the UK, with the potential to give them lifelong prison sentences.
However, as Bannerman demonstrated in his tweet, the breadth for this proposed new treason law to achieve that aim could encompass pretty much any person or body doing something the government didn’t like.
As the human rights barrister Adam Wagner points out, the word “organisation” (in addition to “state”) has been added to this proposed new law so that it can encompass groups like Islamic State.
So politicians carrying out Brexit could see pro-EU activists as – to quote the Policy Exchange law – committing or aiding “an attack on the UK”.
“It’s such a wide definition that whilst it may, and I imagine it would, capture British Isis fighters who are no longer British, it would also capture a whole range of other people and groups,” Wagner tells me. “It’s just bewildering the number of ways you could use this if it was a real law.”
Wagner gives examples of people who could be vulnerable to a law like this, including human rights organisations making things difficult for the government or, say, environmental protesters attacking UK-owned oil rigs. “Who knows what an ‘attack on the country’ means?” he asks.
“All it takes is a slightly more extremist government, a Trump-type government, and a crisis,” Wagner warns. “What if there was an economic crash? And then all of a sudden you’ve got this treason law and everyone’s suddenly thinking why not use it for organisations that are not cooperating with the government’s chosen path?”
There is the argument that counter-terrorism legislation already covers the aims of those wishing to expand existing treason law. But with the bind over what to do with British jihadis whose citizenship is removed and fate is sealed overseas – and the hunger of some Brexiteers to codify betrayal – treason won’t be consigned to a subject for the history books any time soon.