Three cheers for juries
With attorney general Suella Braverman threatening to use extraordinary measures and a deafening silence coming from Labour’s front bench, Paul Demarty unhesitatingly welcomes the acquittal of the Colston Four
A year and a half after protesters threw a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, the four people charged with destroying it have been cleared - and a very good thing too.
They are not out of the woods yet, of course, with the government huffing and puffing about this outrageous verdict, and attorney general Suella Braverman threatening to use extraordinary measures to get the case appealed - with the ‘right’ answer to be given next time around. Whether to do so is, of course, a political calculation: even defeat in a court of appeal could provide a timely dose of anti-woke culture-war guff, and with the government presently at a low ebb in terms of its authority and coherence, it is more likely than usual that recourse will be made to such low tactics.
For the time being, however, they can celebrate a vindication not only of their actions, but of the jury system at its best. The right is quite apoplectic that what is, on its face, a pretty slam-dunk case of criminal damage has been thrown out by sympathetic jurors; but the very fact of the result testifies to the marginality of such views within Bristol itself. While the city itself is just about the wokest in the country, with Labour and Green 20 councillors apiece, the exurban sprawl contains many true-blue Tories. Only three or four miles separates the statue’s old spot from the edge of the constituency of a certain Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Then and now
The contrast with the days of Edward Colston himself could not be greater. He was born to a merchant family in 1636 and was very much a chip off the old block, going into the family trade and inheriting its reactionary political allegiances. His family were staunch royalists in the civil war period, and he himself settled into a firm monarchist Toryism, as the rest of that tumultuous century played out. His trade was initially in textiles and southern European luxuries, but he soon became involved in the nascent African slave trade, which would make him fantastically wealthy.
Not only him, of course. Bristol became one of the most important ports in the infamous Triangle Trade, and its prosperity was built on the backs of brutalised Africans transported to the colonies. (During this time, Bristol became home to one of the first black communities in Britain, thanks to the inevitable ‘leakage’ from the slave-ship system.) The philanthropy of men like Colston - perhaps a desultory effort to put some credit into the moral balance of their lives - built much of the civic architecture of the time. Though the slave trade was later suppressed, the ‘primitive accumulation’ already done meant that Bristol thrived in the 19th century too as a mercantile port; indeed, it was not until 1895 that the Colston statue was erected; for all that Colston’s actual trade was a little unrespectable, the wealthy Tory bourgeoisie of that time recognised a distinguished predecessor in the merchant marine.
Today, Bristol is a very different place: substantially deindustrialised, it has nonetheless gained a kind of prosperity based on white collar industries. Central Bristol, with its office buildings, extravagant street art and pervasive creative industries, is something of a satellite of east London, rather like Brighton. Like London, it is blighted by steep social inequality and homelessness, and its working class residents are progressively priced out of the urban core - all the more, now that home-working professionals are flooding out of the capital, London-weighted salaries intact.
In short, neither the elite nor the masses today have much use for Edward Colston, and efforts to strip his branding from the city had been gathering steam for years, and endlessly met with bureaucratic obstructionism. When patience finally snapped and the statue got tossed in the drink, the levee broke, and the old man’s footprint on the city started shrinking dramatically. The Colston Hall concert venue became the rather blander Bristol Beacon. The Colston Arms, a pub in the Cotham neighbourhood, hastily rebranded itself Ye Olde Pubby McDrunkface, inviting more permanent suggestions from the regulars - it is now the Open Arms. One of the voices raised angrily against the destruction of the statue was that of the Edward Colston Society, a quasi-Rotarian outfit of Tory charity-mongers; but it gave up the fight almost immediately, and its members voted to disband this ancient club entirely by the end of 2020.
To rightist culture warriors, this adds up to a terrifying Orwellian assault on British history; but such an account is stupid and hysterical. Cities commemorate their heroes; Bristol, for all its problems, has at last outgrown this monstrous criminal. The statue is now in its proper place - on its back in the city museum, still covered in spray-paint. It is sometimes piously objected that we should talk about these historical issues, rather than erasing traces of them in the public space; well, we are talking about it, because the statue was pulled down. Mission accomplished, surely?
What is really at stake is an attempt to redeem British history, in the face of the very real moral problems posed by centuries of imperialist crimes, of which the Atlantic slave trade was merely an unusually grim example. Revisionist historians would prefer us to look at the infrastructure built by colonial power, or else the rather more dubious claim that the empire spread liberal norms and civilisation in the face of rather cruel local tyranny. To see the empire in terms of slavery makes this sort of recapitulation of national pride more difficult. It is, alas, for the Niall Fergusons and Boris Johnsons of the world, a rather sharper lens than that of the Indian railways.
For all these reasons, it should be plain to any reader of this paper that acquittal was the just outcome. This stands quite regardless of the verdict’s correspondence to the actual law of the land: if the law says otherwise, the law is unjust. It may not be that the specific statutes involved are generally unjust, but that is a separate question. To take a rather grander example: in 1851, in Christiana, Pennsylvania, a group of runaway slaves had taken shelter. Their former owner attempted to take back his ‘property’, but the freed slaves and their defenders resisted and shot dead the slaveowner. No northern jury would convict these ‘murderers’, but neither the juries nor the participants in the ‘battle of Christiana’ would argue that shooting people dead in general should be legal. It was a regrettable expedient in the face of the evils of the fugitive slave law recently passed by Congress.
It is therefore, for genuine democrats, a demonstration of the importance of trial by jury. We should be animated by distrust of the legal system and the rule of law, which, in the end, are forms of systematic corruption of justice. That is precisely why jury trials have been marginalised over time, and why juries have been increasingly browbeaten into finding one way or another by the presiding judge. Bourgeois power is, from time to time, forced into concessions, but corrupts those concessions from within by maintaining control of the apparatuses that dispense them. In law, as Mike Macnair often argues, this is achieved through the ‘free market in legal services’, which ensures that lawyers are biddable, and the related system that produces judges from the ranks of the most successful (that is, typically, the most biddable) lawyers. What, Brecht famously asked, is a bank robbery compared to the founding of a bank? And what is a law-defying jury compared to a justice-defying law?
We are, nevertheless, at a dangerous moment. We already noted the government’s toying with the idea of traducing the finding of the good jurors of Bristol. At the same time, legislation is speeding through parliament to restrict the right to protest, in the light of the disorder attributed to the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements (it is not without interest that a group of XR protesters were similarly allowed to walk by a jury last year). Tory hearts bleed for the indignities inflicted upon inanimate objects - public statuary, tube train doors, central London shopfronts; all in the name of silencing solidarity with the people tossed out on the streets to please property developers or put to flight by wars and ecological disasters, in which Britain is seriously if not exclusively culpable. Here, criminal ‘justice’ legislation serves to produce the ultimate filter bubble, protecting a wholly specious image of a great and noble nation from those who remember its victims.
Here, of course, we meet the limits of single-issue movements like the one that dunked Colston, or indeed even the most ‘arrestable’ activists of XR. It is not so much the positive content of BLM politics that is a problem - though there certainly are such problems as I have argued before, I would take a year of woke diversity training rather than submit to a single day of treacly Tory revisionism - but the very form of the single-issue campaign as such. The limits, indeed, are written into the phrase itself: restricted to the terrain of one problem, no matter how morally urgent, it proves impossible to posit an alternative at the level of general politics without effectively splitting the movement.
The usual path taken is to keep the thing going, somehow, which tends to turn even the most radical of such movements into an NGO, and therefore sets them fighting each other for handouts from the liberal philanthropic funds which keep such NGOs going. Necessarily, the result is that any radicalism must then be contained within the bounds of what the Ford Foundation, George Soros or whoever else is prepared to tolerate.
Excluded from that remit, naturally, is the sort of revolutionary change to the political architecture of society that could produce a legal system for the masses. Such changes would cut at the heart of how capitalism concretely operates; their proper custodian is a political party not subject to the crippling influence of constitutional loyalism (the deafening silence of the Labour front bench on the Colston Four is testament enough to that). The present controversy, then, takes us far beyond the fight against grotesque Tory historical revisionism, into territory the left is currently ill-equipped to contest.