One law for MPs, another for everyone else?
In the twentieth century we worked long and hard to get rid of privileged castes and reach the position where anyone, plutocrat, pauper or politician, was entitled to the same protection from the state.
Some years ago an articulate American gave me an example that he saw as the essence of modern republican virtue. En route to work in the morning gridlock of an East Coast city, he noticed the state governor’s official car draw up next to him en route to an important engagement. No flashing lights or outriders here, however; the great man knew his place. He waited, more or less patiently, with everyone else to take his turn. Unfortunately our own politicians, aided and abetted by the great and the good, seem to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. They see in such pretensions to equal treatment an affront to their dignity.
A straw in the wind came last month. Following a long and honourable tradition of political protest, a young man had accurately planted an egg on Jeremy Corbyn. The victim, perhaps characteristically, had failed to see anything funny. Now, as assaults go egg-throwing is at the harmless end of the scale; they normally merit a legal slap on the wrist. But Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot was having none of it. This, she said, with all the pomposity and self-importance we now expect of the political class (she is after all married to an ex-MP, now an active Tory peer), was an attack on democracy itself. Politicians needed to be protected from such atrocities. To the prosecutor’s astonishment she sent the man down for 28 days.
Three weeks ago, and more worryingly, we got much the same attitude from the parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee under Harriet Harman. This group is currently busy investigating perceived threats to MPs. Amid lurid tales of parliamentarians receiving death threats and being advised to walk around in pairs, members of the Committee let slip – one suspects deliberately to a friendly journalist – that they thought we needed a new law. In so far as an offence amounted to threats or harassment committed against a politician, that very fact should be regarded as an aggravation leading to an increased sentence.
This is a terrible idea, even by the standards of the second-raters who tend to man select committees. For one thing, think how such a law would be used. Sentencing powers for serious things like threats to kill are quite adequate as it is. Any new law would undoubtedly be used against speech critical of politicians; for instance to make an example of commentators online with the temerity to be rude about an MP (grossly offensive material under the Communications Act 2003) and members of the public who repeatedly criticised politicians (harassment). It wouldn’t only be the courts either. One can just see the police, encouraged by an annoyed MP, barging into the home of a critic (or even a journalist) and telling him that he was guilty of a serious offence; that if he didn’t pipe down they’d make sure he got banged up; and that if it happened again they’d make life impossible for him by seizing all his computers and notes as evidence of serious crime..
It’s not even as if MPs are in some way more vulnerable than the rest of us, in the way that it might be said that (say) racial minorities, or the disabled, or the old, are. They are actually pretty well served. Their home addresses are almost a state secret. They can almost on request have panic buttons installed in those homes guaranteeing an immediate police response; and unlike the rest of us, who must make do with what the police class as important, they are virtually assured that if they press them or phone then someone will come, and quickly.
Furthermore, like any selective sentencing law this one will create yet more arbitrary distinctions and excuses for inaction. The existing hate crime legislation, privileging certain groups but not others, is a case in point. Beating up a child because of his race carries a bigger sentence (and in practice a higher police priority) than if it was done because he wears glasses or is a swot: one might be forgiven for thinking the beating up was all much the same to the victim. We will now see the same thing in spades in the political sphere. A crowd heckling and throwing the odd egg at an MP who despises their uneducated views on Brexit will face the full force of the law and a stiff sentence – they’re a threat to democracy, don’t you know. On the other hand the gang of yobs in the next street shouting and breaking the windows of a woman who has had the temerity to complain about acts of vandalism won’t. Theirs is just an ordinary crime, hardly worth bothering about.
But the worst thing about all this is the attitude it shows on the part of our rulers. In the twentieth century we worked long and hard to get rid of privileged castes and reach the position where anyone, plutocrat, pauper or politician, was entitled to the same protection from the state. Unfortunately our parliamentarians increasingly see themselves and their trusted friends as the only ones who really matter. The rest of us are the little people, to be humoured at election time, but otherwise kept at arm’s length and prevented as far as possible from interfering with their plans. That way, our politicians can get on with the really important things in life, like making sure we don’t read anything they disapprove of on the Internet, and telling us that our uninformed vote for Brexit means a vote for Brexit if and only if they in their wisdom deem it good for us.
It’s not quite back to the eighteenth century, when Anthony Henley, MP for Southampton, could write this to constituents in 1714:
Gentlemen: I have received your letter about the excise and I am surprised at your insolence in writing to me at all. You know, and I know, that I bought this constituency. You know, and I know, that I am now determined to sell it, and you know what you think I don’t know, that you are now looking out for another buyer, and I know what you certainly don’t know, that I have now found another constituency to buy. About what you say about the excise. May God’s curse light upon you all and may it make your homes as open and free to the excise officer as your wives and daughters have always been to me while I have represented your rascally constituency.
Anthony Henley, 1714
Not quite, perhaps: but it’s not for want of trying by at least some MPs.