No statue is safe. No building, antique or artistic treasure. For the Colston trial has now set the precedent — if not in law, then in the public consciousness — that people are at liberty to destroy things that offend them.
Activists and academics who make their living from the subject of slavery have spent the last eighteen months systematically (if tenuously) intertwining it with every aspect of British history. From statues and buildings to paintings and sugar bowls, the logic follows that all are now fair game for the permanently offended.
The idea that a statue erected over a century ago can today constitute a “hate crime” is patently absurd to most, but is in fact the next “logical” step in the inexorable shift of our law towards feelings over facts. It started with the spurious concept of “hate speech” and evolved to the near-Orwellian “non-crime hate incident”. “Offence” has now been elevated to the most heinous of crimes, far outshining boring old criminal damage.
This shift has also led to an increasingly apparent two-tier legal system, where the politics behind an offence are more important than the offence itself, with additional leniency shown towards “woke” causes. Fresh in the memory remain the “conditional discharge” of the Black Lives Matter Cenotaph arsonist and the repeated lack of punishment for disruptive Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain activists.
History on Trial
We can now add the Colston trial to this ignominious list. In scenes reminiscent of the Cadaver Trial of Pope Formosus, whose corpse was propped up in court to face judgement, the defence somehow managed to put Edward Colston on trial. Colston has been dead for three centuries; at least Formosus had only been gone seven months.
Sitting alongside Colston’s corpse in the dock was the institution of slavery itself
Thus, instead of the actions of the accused, the centre-piece of this show trial became the testimony of a historian — an “expert” witness whose impartiality towards the defendants was apparently not undermined by his previous avowal that he “desperately” wanted to join them. His performance instantly transformed proceedings from a criminal trial into a moralising history lesson, and from that moment on any hope of justice was lost.
Sitting alongside Colston’s corpse in the dock was the institution of slavery itself. Today’s new generation of wannabe activists, desperate for a virtuous cause, like to imagine they are part of a movement to expose historic (but not, of course, modern) slavery. The only problem being that they are two centuries too late. Britain had the argument about slavery long ago and came down firmly on the side of abolition. So firmly, that it incurred one of the largest debts in history to enact it and then placed itself at the vanguard of the fight to expunge the global slave trade at huge expense in blood and treasure.
Of course, most people understand this trial was never about Colston or slavery, but important principles of law, order and democracy. With this verdict, the long-revered precept that violence should never be the answer has been overthrown — toppled, if you will — and this way lies chaos.
A Vandal’s Charter?
In response, numerous MPs have raised concerns about this “vandals’ charter” and written to the Attorney General to review the case and clarify the law for future cases. My petition calling for the same has garnered over 20,000 signatures in two days. To be clear, this is the Attorney General’s job, and the ability to review cases is an important and established part of our judicial system.
Nobody is calling for an end to juries or for more powers for government. Both those things would be a disaster. But we shouldn’t seek to deny legitimate scrutiny of our legal system under existing mechanisms where there are clear questions. The judge in this case expressed concern about “undue pressure” on the jury after the defence warned them to be “on the right side of history” with the world watching their decision. Add to that the febrile atmosphere around the court, with large crowds outside and an unruly public gallery within, and there are fair questions to ask about whether such an atmosphere was conducive to a fair hearing.
The law has never been perfect. It is an evolving canon with many loopholes closed and many others still open. Now, as woke thought continues to permeate and capture our institutions, our legal system is on a slippery slope. To ask questions is not to undermine it, but to support it. This judgement, if left unchallenged, heralds the legitimisation of mob rule and puts all of our heritage at serious risk.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe