Several prominent Conservative MPs voiced their disapproval of the ‘Colton Four’ acquittal by jury verdict, some even claiming this outcome undermined the rule of law. Needless to say, the ongoing debates swirling around statues continue to upset Conservative MPs.
I think it’s important to note multiple lawyers, which is to say professionals actually versed in legal proceedings, were quick to interject and defend the verdict. Jury trials and the right to be tried by your peers is a foundation of English Common Law dating back to the Magna Carta. Nothing actually undermines that practise more than rapid politicisation in the aftermath of cases. Still, it’s unsurprising Conservative MPs purported to be so perturbed by the acquittal.
What more should be expected from a party swaying violently from one crisis or scandal to the next? The current matter of Johnson’s various rule-breaking parties strewn throughout the year should surprise no one. It’s simply his character. He lies, and is far batter suited to a convivial party atmosphere than any position of real responsibility. One only has to tune into PMQs to witness the bare-faced balderdash continually spouted. Yet instead of attracting universal criticism, it’s generally received good-humouredly.
This is all to say there’s no real point in catching the party out. It’s hardly a secret. Conservatives wear corruption and incompetence like a dinner jacket, confident it will never drag them down. The furore over ministers taking second jobs has died down. Johnson was cleared of wrong-doing over his flat refurbishment, despite palpable evidence to the contrary. It’s a pervasive, all-consuming attitude. Liz Truss opted to squander tax-payer money on a lavish meal at her mate’s restaurant. £300,000 in ‘levelling-up’ funds were awarded to an 8th Viscount of something-or-other to fix potholes on their lane. Even the decade-long dilemma of Brexit rarely attracts attention anymore.
So, where can Conservatives strike back? Over the delightful culture war they’ve conjured as a neat distraction. Statues are not the only victims, and the BBC always looks vulnerable for a beating. The most unsavoury demand from this party of blasé scandal is that we all, unfathomably, become more patriotic – by their definition, of course. In Nadine Dorries’ Britain, each day begins with a mandated hour’s rendition of God Save the Queen in front of our private shrines to Winston Churchill.
Why are Conservative MPs upset about statues? I don’t truly believe they are. Blustering about the ‘rule of law’ is much more about their proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which, among other aspects, desires to effectively outlaw protests. It’s ironic that many of the protests in opposition to the bill were repressed by armed police. This is a party who repeatedly demonstrate they believe one rule governs the country, whilst separate rules guide their own actions. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a convenient means of radicalising free expression and suppressing understandable dissent to their behaviour.
There does appear to be a developing government narrative that all protesters are disrupters. Admittedly, it has not been helped by some of the protestors themselves. Insulate Britain immediately spring to mind as having notoriously declined in popularity, for, frustratingly, having targeted ordinary people instead of those most responsible for climate breakdown. More than delivering an environmental statement, it justifies government discourse on curbing such nuisances.
Jumping back to statues, enslaved-people trader Edward Colston was thrown into the Bristol docks by a large group, of which four stood trial for criminal damage. I’ll briefly discuss statues and their place once more, specifically to address some of the Conservative complaints, but far more interesting, at least in my opinion, are the ramifications on the precious ‘rule of law’.
Now I would argue the rule of law, as Robert Jenrick is using the term, remains fairly intact after these proceedings. That statement might be proven wrong should the acquittal inspire an uncontrolled frenzy of copy-cat statue toppling, so I’ll have to take my chances.
Here, defendants did not deny criminal damage. Given the abundance of video evidence, it would have been tough to contest. It’s also notable they were tried under the 1971 Criminal Damage Act, not the new statue proposed by Jenrick designed to prevent discussion over public statues. The Jury were convincingly persuaded that there was a lawful excuse for the criminal damage. This was achieved through claiming the Colston statue represented severe public indecency, that a conviction would disproportionately interfere with their freedom of expression and freedom of assembly rights, and finally that the statue was ‘erected by the citizens of Bristol’ as was read on a plaque on the plinth. Thus, it was also toppled by the citizens of Bristol, reinforced by jury verdict.
Government statues are only one means of defining laws, and are probably the least inclusive. The outcome of this case also helps establish a precedent, based more closely on public opinion, which I’d suggest is valuable. Unusually, Attorney General Suella Braverman announced she was considering whether to refer the case to a court of appeal. It was unusual for being directly attributable to the Conservative political backlash, but I do think it might be helpful to have the law further refined.
Statues are simply part of the Conservative armoury used to distract from poor leadership. Apoplectic descriptions of baying mobs demanding a revisionist purge do well to fearmonger. I’ve discussed statues before, but it’s all part of propagating inaccurate views to prolong a mindless and unnecessary culture war.
Anyone who’s studied history will appreciate the vast majority of the discipline is revisionism. Written history is more a reflection of the current generation than it is the past, which is what makes in important and keeps it evolving.
Boris Johnson was prescient enough to suggest taking down statues is like editing your own Wikipedia entry. Of course, he meant it derogatively, but he’s so close to getting it right. Many people do edit their own Wikipedia entries to ensure they’re accurate. It would be akin to moving information from your ‘Current Occupation’ section to the ‘Early History’ paragraph. It’s still a part of British history. The greatest hypocrisy is in Conservative MPs claiming left-wing critics want to ‘censor’ history, when the reality is the latter are broadcasting issues whilst the former are fighting to preserve monuments to historical ignorance.
As I understand it, the problem stems from people’s discomfort with their past. British identity is more closely interwoven with Empire and colonialism than we’d like, still lingering in racial and class tensions. But objective history is never a criticism. We aren’t unfairly judging historical actors by the standards of our time. It’s about holding ourselves and our reactions accountable.
The court, during the ‘Colston Four’ trial, heard about the ‘rape rooms’ of the slaver fortresses, and the branding of enslaved people as young as nine by Colston’s company. Ultimately, the jury recognised the emotional distress inflicted by displaying the statue, reinforcing the moral economy of the community.
And what of the statue now? It’s in a museum. It’s literally in a museum.
Conservatives drone on about obscuring history, about how it needs to be celebrated, the important role statues play in education. Well, their wish has been granted. Edward Colston stands in a culturally-significant place of learning, no longer boasting, but simply informing.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts of the acquittal (or Boris’ parties). Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, showing former Edward Colston statue (2018).
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