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Artillery Row

The case of Anna Soubry vs Amy Dalla Mura

Why are MPs considered unusually vulnerable and in need of protection from the criminal law?

Elections in England aren’t what they once were. The kind of cheerful anarchic free-for-all associated with the Eatanswill hustings gleefully described in the Pickwick Papers (“a troubled sea of heads … from whence arose a storm of groans, and shouts, and yells, and hootings that would have done honour to an earthquake”) largely went out with the Reform Acts.

Until fairly recently, however, a vestige of the old regime remained. Whenever a politician showed himself in public, and certainly whenever he gave an interview or made a speech, it was pretty well open season for people to shout at him, interrupt him and generally say in colourful terms what they thought of him, his party and his policies. The mildly eccentric political fanatic with a bee in their bonnet and a habit of turning up at inopportune times was an accepted hazard of life; politicians might privately curse such people, but in a representative democracy they were expected to put up or shut up.

Popular protest must happen on their own (respectful and non-provocative) terms or not at all

No longer, it appears. The political class have decided that this won’t do; popular protest must happen on their own (respectful and non-provocative) terms or not at all. Anything else will be firmly suppressed; a point demonstrated by an episode taking place around the 2019 election, and which finally culminated a couple of weeks ago in Southwark Crown Court.

In January 2019 the maverick Tory MP for Broxtowe, Anna Soubry, held a meeting in the faintly posh surroundings of the Bloomsbury Street Hotel. Ever since she had come out as a fanatical Remainer in the debacle following the 2016 referendum, she had acquired a bête noire in the shape of Amy Dalla Mura, a partly-disabled and rather offbeat retired sportswoman, fanatical Brexiteer and vocal member of the English Democrats. Ms Dalla Mura, known online as Based Amy, made no secret of her opinion of Ms Soubry. Having got a ticket for the meeting, she heckled her, repeatedly accused her of refusing to respect the 2016 referendum result, and vociferously argued her point with her and the audience. To Ms Soubry’s displeasure she also filmed the whole proceedings.

Two months later, by which time Ms Soubry had decamped to the Independent Group, she was giving a Newsnight interview in the lobby of House of Commons. Amy popped up again here, nicely spoiling the publicity effect by shouting in the background “Anna Soubry is a traitor. We voted for Brexit”, before being blocked and thrown out by the Serjeant-at-Arms’s men. Meanwhile Ms Soubry, clearly livid, repeatedly intoned “Get the police. Get the police.”

Nothing happened for some months, and by all accounts Amy was led to believe that nothing would; she might be a pain in the neck for the establishment, but that was par for the course, and the matter would be allowed to go to sleep. She was unfortunately wrong. In September the Crown Prosecution Service issued a warrant for her arrest over the events earlier that year. She was taken into police custody, strip-searched, locked up overnight and hauled before Westminster Magistrates the next day charged with harassment. The magistrates bailed her to come up for trial in November.

By then, things had moved on. The Independent Group had morphed into the more catchily-titled Change UK; Boris Johnson had called the general election; and, most interesting of all, standing against Ms Soubry in Broxtowe was … Amy dalla Mura. At a very late stage before the trial it was announced that the trial would be presided over by Chief Magistrate and Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot. Married to an ex-Tory MP and active Tory peer, she was every inch a member of the political class, known for her view that politicians needed careful protection from what the rest of us might regard as the rough-and-tumble of political life. Only a week earlier, to the astonishment of prosecutor and defence lawyer alike, she had summarily sent down for 28 days a young man of good character who had thrown an egg at Jeremy Corbyn, telling him that he had been guilty of an intolerable attack on democracy itself.

Amy had neither thrown anything, nor for that matter not got anywhere within remote striking distance of Ms Soubry; all she had done was make herself a thorough nuisance by heckling a sitting MP. Nevertheless, she was convicted on the harassment charge. The magistrate told her that what she had done was “oppressive and unacceptable” and magistrate bailed her to come up for sentencing after the election. Here is another point: the bail conditions were truly remarkable, though they attracted little comment at the time in any of the mainstream media. The magistrate regarded Amy’s act in standing in Ms Soubry’s constituency not as an act of democracy but as itself entirely unacceptable; she was forbidden so much as to set foot in Broxtowe in the course of campaigning, and prohibited from even mentioning Ms Soubry’s name in any literature.

In the event, as we know, Ms Soubry came nowhere. Amy herself polled 432 votes, beating at least one other candidate and doing quite respectably for someone ordered by the courts to campaign with one hand, if not both, tied behind her back.

At the sentencing hearing a few days after the election, the magistrate’s remarks were both hostile and tendentious. Amy had, she said, been guilty of “bullying” and “intimidating” conduct likely to discourage “decent people” from becoming MPs. Having the temerity to stand in Ms Soubry’s constituency had only made things worse (she said, memorably, “I don’t mind standing in Hove but certainly not in Broxtowe”). As well as this, in common with most of the political establishment, she dragged in the the murder of Jo Cox, saying that after it it had to be made clear that MPs would not put up with intimidation. The sentence? Amy, like the egg-thrower, went down for 28 days.

The praetorian guard of policemen who look after MPs, an elite group known as PLAIT (Parliamentary and Investigations Team) and linked to the diplomatic protection squad, were clearly exultant. They immediately issued a statement referring to the Met’s “commitment to dealing robustly with incidents of harassment and abuse against MPs”, saying that strong political views were “no excuse for intimidating elected representatives” and promising to “always treat such allegations seriously and seek to bring offenders to justice.”

After her release Amy, feeling that a matter of principle was at stake, arranged crowdfunding and raised money for an appeal to Southwark Crown Court. Forbidden to cross-examine Ms Soubry in person on what had actually been the effect on her, she failed to make any impression: after a two-day hearing the appeal was formally dismissed on 27 July. Not a single news source reported it; it only reached the light of day because two well-wishers kindly sat through the appeal proceedings and took notes.

At first sight this may look to you like just another dangerous far-right fanatic properly dealt with. That’s certainly the way the anti-populist political establishment, the police and the Guardianistas would like you to see it. But there’s rather more to it than that.

For one thing, while Amy probably was guilty of technical harassment (it is a wide offence that requires proof only of a likelihood of distress – probably too wide for the proper protection of freedom of speech, but that is by-the-by), that isn’t the end of the story. It’s hard to justify prosecuting it at all in a case like this, let alone sending anyone to prison for it. You can watch both the relevant events on Youtube (see here and here). Amy never comes to close quarters with Ms Soubry, nor does she try to. There is no evident threat of violence, or indeed anything more than some loud and at times bad-tempered argument. If Ms Soubry feared for her personal safety as a result of them, as she said she had, this seems simply bizarre. If this sort of thing is regarded as a threat to our democracy which must be stamped on, we’re in a bad state.

It’s odd to regard MPs as unusually vulnerable and more in need of protection from the criminal law than the rest of us

Secondly, it’s odd to regard MPs as unusually vulnerable and more in need of protection from the criminal law than the rest of us, as the magistrate made clear she did. If anything it’s the other way round. The abuse aspiring politicians have to put up with in the course of being selected and elected is itself likely to weed out all but those with the thickest skins. Nor is there any indication whatever that Ms Soubry was in the shrinking violet category. In the aggressive shouting-down stakes she is up there with the best of them, both in parliament and out of it, as journalists like Brendan O’Neill who have argued with her on air have found to their cost. As for invoking the murder of Jo Cox by a crackpot in 2016 to show somehow that all MPs are now in mortal danger and need protecting against all but the most polite and gentle words from the general public in 2020, this is both nonsensical and very dangerous for freedom of speech.

Looked at dispassionately, it’s hard to avoid concluding that what we saw in the Amy Dalla Mura affair is not so much a peril threatening our politics, but an instance where a politician affected by big self-importance and over-inflated amour propre was allowed to use her position to squash a campaign that was annoying her. All that would have been required was a discreet call to PLAIT, mentioning that there was some woman who was making life difficult for her, and could they please do something about it. Unlike the rest of us, MPs can rely on the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to jump to it when called on. They duly did. The result was that a curious but harmless eccentric went to prison, while the establishment washed its hands and said “Thank heavens that awful woman is out of the way. Now we can get back to politics as usual.”

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