Culture warriors take aim at one of Britain’s greatest institutions: trial by jury

The ‘not guilty’ verdict in the trial of the Colston-4 has been a gift to those within the Conservative party who favour culture war over doing something practical to improve our lives. Better by far to have us angry, divided and at each other’s throats on social media rather than noticing their policy failings, authoritarian power grabs and cost of living squeeze. They add fuel to the flames by hinting in sly tweets that the jury reached the ‘wrong’ verdict. “No statue is safe now!” their media propagandists cry. This is ill-informed, sanctimonious, and highly dangerous nonsense, as there is zero evidence of a miscarriage of justice in the Colston-4 case and, in any case, jury decisions do not set precedents. Misleading statements made by politicians (who ought to know better) are undermining trial by jury, one of the most important protections we as citizens have against overreach by the State.

As an art-lover, I was initially taken aback by the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol on 7 June 2020. It’s a handsome bronze by Irish sculptor John Cassidy (1860-1939). However, having worked extensively in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where toppling statues of mass murdering political leaders became an essential, even existential, expression of breaking free from an oppressive regime, and an assertion of a new freedom, I soon recognised it as a moment in history. What was a city whose wealth was partially built on the slave trade doing with a statue of a slave-trader standing proud in its centre? Is it not better in a museum, where it is now?

Colston was responsible for the trafficking of 84,000 African children, women and men, 19,000 of whom died en route and were tossed overboard as flotsam. Can philanthropical generosity compensate for such horrific deeds? I wondered what might happen if somebody erected a statue to a modern monster, like the infamous paedophile Sir Jimmy Savile, to honour his charity work and support of the Conservative party. Turns out, I didn’t need to imagine. When some wag put a mannequin dressed like Savile on the empty plinth where Colston’s statue had stood, there was uproar, led by The Sun, and it was swiftly removed. Indeed, once his behaviour became known, streets and buildings named after him were discreetly re-named, a wooden statue of him in Glasgow was incinerated and his elaborate headstone listing his achievements in gold letters was taken away to be destroyed, with the permission of his family.

Sir Jimmy Savile was awarded an OBE in 1970 and knighted in honour of his charitable work in 1990. Margaret Thatcher lobbied for his knighthood, despite senior civil servants opposing the move and warning her he was a wrong’un. It is not clear exactly how much they knew, but by 1998 the Honours Committee had been informed of specific allegations against him, but chose not to act. When the truth was finally made public prime minister David Cameron lobbied to have Savile stripped of his knighthood, but was deterred by ‘the Palace’. Worried about a flood of requests for forfeiture, the Palace ruled that an individual is honoured in their lifetime and the honour is for the duration of an individual’s life – the date of death should mark the closure of any affair. Not an entirely satisfactory response, when you consider a person’s titles continue to be used posthumously.

Image by Sadie Parker

Unpleasant as it is to rake up memories of Savile, it is instructive to contrast the reaction of the ruling Conservative party then and now. There was no question of excusing Savile’s behaviour with his charitable works, or wailing that our glorious past was being expunged by removing statues of him, or of ignoring the pain being caused to descendants of his victims by brushing his crimes under the carpet of history. What on earth has happened to Conservative MPs in the past ten years? When did they lose their moral compass? Is this just another example of Boris Johnson being contrarian, to distinguish himself from David Cameron, about whom he remains insecure and jealous?

Is the toppling of a statue ever justified?

According to the law, yes, there is a justification for causing criminal damage – which is what the unauthorised toppling of a statue amounts to. That justification is ‘lawful excuse’, as stated in section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act (CDA) 1971. What constitutes a lawful excuse? This, too, is defined in the same Act. Section 5(1) says a person has a lawful excuse if:

  • they believed at the time that those whom they believed to be entitled to consent to the destruction of or damage to the property in question had so consented, or would have so consented to it if they had known of the destruction or damage and its circumstances; or
  • at the time of the act or acts alleged to constitute the offence they believed:
    • that the property, right or interest was in immediate need of protection; and
    • that the means of protection adopted or proposed to be adopted were or would be reasonable having regard to all the circumstances.

Section 5(3) includes a subjective element:

For the purposes of this section it is immaterial whether a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held. In addition to this, as ‘Secret Barrister’ explained, the defendants offered three defences, and the jury also took into consideration the question of proportionality.

Residents of Bristol had gone on record as saying that the presence of the statue caused them great anguish. They had been campaigning to remove the statue for years, but the council was dragging its feet. Indeed, going back to when the statue was first erected, it was hoped that it could be achieved by public subscription, but the public showed little interest, and so it had to be funded privately. While there is support and appreciation for Colston in Bristol, it is far from universal and appears to be a minority position. Most of those raising their voices to defend the statue do not live in Bristol.

There was a proposal to put a plaque on the Colston statue to provide context, but the wording was so dismissive of his slave-trading activities as to cause even greater offence. Francis Greenacre, a former member of the Society of Merchant Adventurers that oversees some of Colston’s charities, admits, “Someone walking past his statue, which makes no reference to the slave trade; if they are a descendant of enslaved Africans they may feel genuinely offended; indeed, some feel not just hurt but real anguish and that ought to be addressed.”

As Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that. Certainly, none of the MPs who are up in arms about the verdict appear to know it. They include one of our local MPs, Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East), previously thought to be one of the more sensible ones, and a potential future leader of the Conservative party.

It is astonishing that Ellwood, a lawmaker, has no understanding of how our legal system works. The Rule of Law does not necessarily mean juries always share your opinion. Not liking a jury’s decision does not mean it is wrong, that there has been a miscarriage of justice, or that there must be some sort of loophole that lawmakers must act to close. Jury decisions cannot possibly be binding because each jury must decide based on the evidence before them, and no two cases present the exact same set of facts. Besides, the deliberations of juries are secret. They do not set precedent.

When MPs, newspapers and pundits pontificate on the result of a court case, despite having not been in court to listen to the facts presented, and having no legal training, or been party to the deliberations of the jury, it is best to ignore them. Instead, YouGov decided to jump into the tabloid furore with its ‘do you agree with the verdict’ poll – a poorly framed question calculated to whip up more of the division that is this government’s weapon of choice.

Worse still, our useless Attorney General (AG), Suella Braverman, has joined in the jury-bashing. This underqualified, inexperienced and vacuous MP, who was only made an honorary QC so that she could accept the AG post, does not appear to realise it’s her job to ensure government acts within the law, rather than to bend or break it to suit the government. She has already damaged Britain’s reputation as a nexus for legal services by backing government’s ambition to enshrine law-breaking in law in the Internal Markets Bill, and now wants to meddle with trial-by-jury, which is one of the cornerstones of our constitution.

Oh, the irony of this government attempting to smash one of our greatest traditions, first enshrined in law in the 1215 Magna Carta. The same Magna Carta that the Far Right usually likes to bang on about in the name of ‘preserving history’. And is it not odd how selective this Conservative government is with history? They go into bat for slave-trader Colston, and ignore Bishop Wulfstan, the only Anglo-Saxon Bishop allowed to retain his position after the 1066 Norman Conquest, who preached against slavery on Bristol’s docks and ended the vile trade there in his lifetime.

And how much better it would be if they were to make history for once by convincing Iran to free Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, for instance, or taking meaningful steps to end modern forms of slavery, or caring about the 150,000 covid victims and their families or caring about the fate of the hundreds of thousands of clinically vulnerable, as much as they do for statues.