February 8, 2021. Boris Johnson visits Derby
February 18, 2022
Colston Four trial and the blunder of Police and Crime Bill reflect a divide in Britain
On January 5, 2022, four young Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists were acquitted by jury at the Bristol Crown Court in England. They were charged with destruction of public property after they toppled the statue of a 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston.
The event in question occurred during the worldwide 2020 Black Lives Matter protests which took place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the United States. During a demonstration in Bristol, Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Jake Skuse, and Milo Ponsford – now called ‘the Colston four’ – toppled the statue from its plinth, pulled it down to the city docks and pushed it into the river.
The prosecution argued that the defendants should be convicted because they had damaged public property. For example, on June 7, 2020, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said their behaviour was “utterly disgraceful” as well as being “disorderly and lawless”.
The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was erected in 1895 and toppled in 2020
The defendants never denied they committed the actions they were accused of. Instead, the defence rested on the claim that their actions were justified because they had pulled down a symbol of hate – the fact it was public property is irrelevant.
“They should never have been prosecuted in the first place”, claimed Raj Chada, a barrister representing Mr Skuse. Blinne Ni Ghraliagh, who represented Ms Willoughby, added that the statue ‘gloried [… the] enslavement of over 84,000 black men, women and children’.
Furthermore, the defence argued it was ‘shameful’ for the statue, which stood in Bristol since 1895, not to be previously removed by the Bristol City Council – despite numerous attempts at persuading the local authorities to do just that, as the monument was offensive and harmful for the city’s Black population.
A twelve-strong jury nearly unanimously – by 11 votes to one – supported the view of the defendants and acquitted them of all charges.
Edward Colston was a Bristol-born 17th-century merchant who made his fortune as a shareholder and deputy chairman of the Royal African Company which was heavily involved in the triangular trade. It is estimated that during his tenure around 84,000 Africans were enslaved and shipped to the British West Indies colonies.
Colston used his fortune to sponsor various philanthropic endeavours in Bristol, building schools, hospitals and churches. In the early 18th century he also represented one of Bristol’s constituencies in the House of Commons. He died in 1721. In 1895 he was commemorated with a statue that was designated a Grade II listed structure in 1977.
Normally, the destruction of a Grade II listed property would result in criminal charges. However, the jury took under consideration Colston’s involvement in slavery, which resulted in the fact that many considered his statue to be a symbol of British racism and Britain’s reluctance to face the truth about the foundations of the British Empire.
As racist and offensive, jurors reasoned, the statue of Colston was not protected by legislation whose aim was to preserve landmark structures.
Unsurprisingly, this ruling drew a lot of attention. In response to the outcome of the trial, 24 Tory MPs signed an open letter in which they warned it could set a precedent of “woke activists” being “let off.”
“Faith in the rule of law and trust in the jury system are essential components of effective criminal justice, which is endangered when the public witnesses, with astonishment, patently absurd, perverse verdicts of this kind,” they argued.
The reason for their concern is that the result of the Bristol case can set a precedent for future court cases of people accused of damaging public property. Arguably, the Bristol case can be cited by, for example, the Extinction Rebellion or Insulate Britain activists, as both these organisations have employed various strategies of disruption to amplify their message.
Hence, what Tory MPs are most concerned about is what the Bristol case would mean, for example, if it will justify acquittal of those who held London paralysed for 10 consecutive days during the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests in London – because another jury might very well decide that climate emergency is a threat strong enough to justify even significant traffic disruptions.
Populism 2.0. Why Johnson’s populism survived COVID-19 while Trump’s failed
The proper response on the side of the Tory government, however, was not an open letter, but introducing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. If enacted into law, this bill would give police new powers to break up protests, for example when the ‘locking on’ tactic is used by protestors (that people would attach or glue themselves to objects or create a human chain by locking their arms and legs).
The bill explicitly stated that damage to memorials could result in up to 10 years in prison. It was first introduced in March 2021 as the government’s direct reaction to the toppling of Colston’s statue and the Extinction Rebellion protests.
Unsurprisingly, the bill was met with praise from Tory MPs and supporters, who had been critical of the protests over the years. It was also met with a strong backlash amongst many members of the public – including Bristol, where a “Kill the Bill” protest took place on Sunday 21st March 2021.
There was a confrontation with the police, resulting in violence and vehicles being set alight. Protests were held across the country, which lasted until June, including demonstrations in London, where thousands marched through the city.
A Home Office spokesperson in reaction to the “Kill the Bill” protests declared then that it is “totally unacceptable to smash private property”, a line of reasoning which echoes the Conservative MPs’ reaction to the toppling of Colston’s statue.
Despite the backlash, the government continued to press ahead with the Bill in the House of Commons. By December 2021, the bill had comfortably passed three readings in the Commons and the Select Committee stages. Finally, the Bill passed in the Commons with a handsome majority of 100 votes (365 to 265).
This took another twist when the government suffered an embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords on January 17th 2022, and the bill was amended by 261 votes to 166. Among others, peers struck down two of the most controversial clauses, one which would ban the ‘locking on’ tactic used by protestors as well as one that would enable the police to judge the protests depending on their noise level. In response, the now Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab commented on noisy protests saying that they “cannot be allowed to interfere with the lives of the law-abiding majority”.
The nature of the British Parliamentary system allows the Commons to overturn votes in the Lords. This is despite the fact that the Lords is the ‘higher chamber’, but as it is an unelected body, conventions in Parliament mean that the Commons can bypass the Lords.
Together, the Colston Four trial and the blunder of the Police and Crime Bill reflect a wider divide in Britain.
On the one hand, there are those who believe that protests should be restricted as they are dangerous to the public order. The ideological profile of the current British government – which could be labelled as Johnsonism, in resemblance to Trumpism – embodies that belief.
Boris Johnson and his political allies have repeatedly criticised protestors. Whether these are BLM protestors who toppled Colston’s statue or XR ones, they are never on the government’s good books. From the perspective of Johnsonism, these are unlawful citizens who have no respect for public property or for law-abiding citizens to go about their lives.
On the other hand are those who believe that by limiting the right to protest, Boris Johnson’s government is taking an anti-democratic approach.
One of the most vocal critics of Johnsonism, former conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, has gone as far as to openly and harshly criticise the government for the introduction of the Crime and Police Bill. He listed the legislation amongst “attempted assaults on civil rights” and called the Government’s ideas “unworkable” and “alienating the public from the police”.
2019, London. Boris Johnson as the Joker, a caricature held by one anti-Brexit protestor.
At the same time, however, Johnsonism appears apathetic towards the so-called establishment, which could provide some foundation for distrust towards protestors.
Traditionally, the Conservative Party has always been ‘the party of the establishment’ which favoured traditional institutions. This stems from the traditional conservative value of distrust towards social change, best displayed by Edmund Burke, a thinker widely considered to be the one to codify the fundamentals of conservative political ideology. His idea of ‘democracy of the dead’ in essence assumes that institutions have to be preserved in respect for ancestors as well as for the benefit of current and future generations. Effectively, since the 18th-century, conservatism, and thus the Conservative Party, intuitively support status-quo and are very sceptical towards change.
In practice, this has meant the Conservative party has always valued institutions and been against reform. Whilst in opposition, they opposed Scottish devolution, one of the most radical changes to the constitutional structure of Britain. The Conservatives prevented Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a prominent minister in the Tory-LibDem coalition, from pressing ahead with the House of Lords Reform Bill in 2012 and took opposition to the voting system reform referendum in 2011. Until quite recently, Tories have nearly always been in favour of traditional institutions, be that the Monarchy, the military, the NHS or the BBC.
Rarely have Conservative governments had their moments in introducing major political changes – yet, the example of the majority led by David Cameron of voting through marriage equality might be an example of how conservatism is capable of appreciating that societies do evolve.
With Johnsonism, the intuitive hesitance towards social change in the Conservative Party seems to be largely a thing of the past. Since Brexit, Tories have somehow become a party voicing a need for radical political change.
Since Boris Johnson – who had been the face of the Vote Leave campaign – has become Prime Minister, this sudden change in approach has accelerated. Johnson’s government no longer values institutions like previous Tory cabinets used to.
Instead, it is aggressively going on the offensive: the attempt at the prorogation of Parliament, repeated attacks on the Civil Service, and decisions stemming from contempt towards the BBC (whose budget has been considerably trimmed as the licence fee is frozen).
Most of all, attacks are launched on probably the most archetypal conservative institution, that is the House of Lords – the current government is considering moving it to York.
This is very much in line with how Johnsonism reacted to the toppling of Colston and the verdict of the jury. Under Boris Johnson the traditional Conservative Party, which might have been indeed weak at feeling the public mood and the need for change, has changed itself, becoming a populist party with a centralistic and often anti-democratic agenda.
It remains to be seen whether, if Boris Johnson were to be removed in result of the ‘partygate’ scandal, his ideology and imprint on the party would be toppled – just as Colston’s statue was.