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New book ‘Rebel Verdict’ is a must-read for anyone concerned by the UK’s increasing attempts to curb protest

Commonweal Trustee Paul Rogers wrote this [slightly edited] column for Open Democracy earlier this year. It seems timely to repost as the Met Police launch major pre-emptive strike against climate protestors who are taking action to coincide with the start of COP27.

Just as the government is following multiple routes to curb the right to protest, juries keep acquitting activists accused of nonviolent actions.

The current government has little interest in preventing climate breakdown, whatever it may claim – and environmental protesters simply will not give up.

I first wrote about the so-called ‘perverse’ juries – as the government and right-wing media circles are wont to call them – for openDemocracy in January. The growing problem for the government is that there are getting to be rather too many of them.

Curbing protest is part of a wider move to control dissent and limit political accountability, and even extends to imposing constraints on the voting process itself. Legislation being embodied in a range of bills covering elections, nationality and borders, sentencing and judicial review all help to limit individual rights.

Moreover, the whole process is in the context of this week’s move to “clarify” the UK’s involvement in the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the UK was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Convention in 1954 and the European Court of Human Rights five years later, the aim now is to limit its relevance in the UK.

‘Perverse’ or rebel juries?

The extent of the government’s success in curbing protest will be determined by the chances of more ‘perverse’ jury decisions.

In broader historical terms, there have been occasional examples of these ‘perverse’ juries, including the 1985 acquittal of civil servant Clive Ponting for leaking information about the sinking of the Argentine cruiser, the General Belgrano, in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War. More recent examples have been the Hawk Ploughshares case in 1996 and Trident Ploughshares three years later.

But a new book provides exemplary reading and insight into one particular case for anyone concerned with the issue.

I have previously reviewed Martin Levy’s biography of Michael Randle, a remarkable peace activist and academic researcher on nonviolent social change. (I should say that I have known Michael and Anne Randle for 40 years and have long admired their work.)

Michael and his fellow peace activist, the late Pat Pottle, were the defendants in a remarkable trial at the Old Bailey in 1991, accused of aiding a prison escape 35 years earlier. It is this case, which ended in their acquittal, that Michael has written about in a new book, ‘Rebel Verdict’.

Back in the early 1960s, Michael and fellow activist Pat spent a year in jail for a direct action against nuclear weapons. In Wormwood Scrubs prison in London, they met the double agent, George Blake, who was serving a long sentence for espionage. Four years later, they, together with Anne and a former inmate, Séan Bourke, concocted an escape plan for Blake, successfully freed him from jail and smuggled him to East Germany.

The primary motive was most decidedly not sympathy for the Soviet Union – Michael had been vigorously opposed to Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, especially the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Rather, the motive arose from Blake’s own position in jail, facing what was essentially a life sentence.

After his original arrest, Blake cooperated with the authorities and his team had anticipated a long but not excessive sentence. In the event, he was found guilty on three charges and given 12 years for each. The usual practice would have been for this to run concurrently but the judge made the sentences consecutive, hence the extraordinary 42-year term.

The escape itself was at times hair-raising and is chronicled in a book, ‘The Blake Escape’, that Michael and Pat wrote in 1989 but there are two very different factors that set ‘Rebel Verdict’ apart.

The first is the level of detail. Michael concentrates on the trial and provides a finely detailed account of the whole process. This includes many direct extracts from the court speeches and is supplemented by a useful set of appendices but he makes the book highly readable, providing a rare analysis of a legal process that ended up with their acquittal on all counts.

As well as being interesting for the general reader, this makes the book very useful reading for anyone in the legal profession concerned with jury behaviour at a time when the government is likely to seek many more trials of nonviolent climate activists. It is, of course, also highly relevant for any actual or would-be activist.

The second and perhaps more significant point, is Michael’s view that the decision was not reached by a ‘perverse’ jury but rather by a rebel jury. In other words, it was a rare example of ordinary people accepting the value of moral arguments and serves as a reminder that on issues of common justice, political establishments do not always get their own way.


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Readers of this blog post may know something about Michael Randle already – not least because he is a Commonweal trustee. I got to know Michael four years ago, when I worked as an assistant in the Special Collections department at the University of Bradford. One of the delights of that job was caring for Michael’s archive, one of the jewels of the university’s collection.

The present book Ban the Bomb! Michael Randle and Direct Action against Nuclear War is a collection of my interviews with Michael and his wife Anne, the partner in many of his adventures.

And what a life it has been. The interviews carry Michael’s story from his boyhood in the south London suburbs, through his work at Peace News and for the Direct Action Committee (DAC) and the Committee of 100, forwards to his time as an academic in the Peace Studies department of the University of Bradford and then, finally, on to his active retirement in the West Yorkshire town of Shipley.

cover of "Ban the Bomb" interviews with Michael and Anne Randle by Martin Levy

All in all, these have been busy and, for the most part, action-packed, years, and Michael does not hold back in his account of their excitements and complexities.

I suppose for most readers, however, it will be Micheal and Anne’s involvement in the escape from prison of the Russian spy George Blake in 1966 that will be the stand-out issue in the interviews. But for me it is Michael’s long commitment to the anti-nuclear movement.

Typically, Michael speaks of his contribution to fighting the Bomb with modesty and understatement,but, during the 1950s and early 60s, he was one of the movement’s major figures, a friend and colleague of other noted rebels like Terry Chandler, Pat Pottle, Ian Dixon, April Carter and Pat Arrowsmith.

No wonder he got up the nose of the establishment!

The book contains a foreword by Michael’s former Bradford University colleague Paul Rogers and is published by Ibidem.

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When George W Bush won race for the White House in November 2000 his team immediately began to change US foreign and security policies to usher in the much-vaunted New American Century.   The United States would now go its own way and provide global leadership as the world’s only superpower, ensuring a new era of peace and stability modelled on the American neoliberal free market model.

With this in the background the 9/11 attacks came as an appalling shock and were seen to challenge direclty the very idea of an “American century”.   That added to the decision to go to war against al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

Within a few months this expanded into a war on terror against an “axis of evil” of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Iraq being the immediate target.   The results over the past twenty years have been little short of catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, many more maimed for life and millions of refugees fleeing their homes, all stemming from four failed wars:

  1. Afghanistan is in the headlines as the Taliban take control, but we easily forget about the other wars.
  2. In Iraq there remains deep insecurity and violence stemming from the original western occupation back in 2003.
  3. In North Africa the 2011 Franco-British operation to terminate the Gaddafi regime in Libya appeared to succeed but Libya is now little more than a deeply insecure failing state that has acted as a conduit for arms and paramilitaries through the Sahara and further south.
  4. Finally, there was the 2014-18 US-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where armed drones and strike aircraft used 100,000 missiles and “smart” bombs, killing at least 60,000 people, and seeming initially to have defeated ISIS.

Since then, ISIS is reported to still  have at least 10,000 fighters still in Iraq and Syria but even more significant is the rise of extreme paramilitary groups linked to ISIS or al-Qaida elsewhere, especially in Africa.   Right across the Sahel from Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, extreme violent groups are active, frequently recruiting from the hundreds of thousands of marginalised young people, mostly men, as they expand their areas of control.

To the east, others are active in Somalia and across the Red Sea in Yemen, and to the south more paramilitary groups are active in the DRC and northern Mozambique.   Western states respond with armed drones, special forces and local militias in scarcely reported ongoing wars.  To make matters worse, ISIS is already active in Afghanistan, and has links with groups elsewhere, not least in southern Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

It is all such a long way from those apparent successes in Afghanistan and Iraq and it further supports the alternative approach that the response to 9/11 should not have been a war on terror since that was just what the extreme movements wanted.  Instead, the attacks should have been seen as appalling acts of transnational criminal activity.   The response should have been to bring those behind the attacks to justice.   It might have taken a decade or more but would have had far more world-wide public support and cooperation than wars that followed.

Even more important would have been to undercut the development of the extreme movements by learning why they got so much support in the first place and how to undermine and countering that support.

It was an approach that was argued by just a handful of people at the time but got nowhere in the headlong rush to war.   It was eloquently put by Walden Bello of the Philippines in an Oxford Research Group analysis just after 9/11 that argued against going to war, when he said:

The only response that will really contribute to global security and peace is for
Washington to address not the symptoms but the roots of terrorism. It is for the
United States to re-examine and substantially change its policies in the Middle
East and the Third World, supporting for a change, arrangements that will not
stand in the way of the achievement of equity, justice and genuine national
sovereignty for currently marginalized peoples. Any other way leads to endless

And endless war is what we now have.

Paul Rogers, August 2021


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Holly Spencer works for Stop Fuelling War, a Quaker organisation in Paris that highlights the extensive French arms trade.

Holly Spencer

1) What is Stop Fuelling War (SFW) all about, Holly?

Stop Fuelling War is a French association (also called Cessez d’Alimenter La Guerre) that was set up in 2017 to raise awareness of the arms trade in France and more specifically the arms fair Eurosatory.

It was also created to be a counter-voice to the pro-arms press, which is very prevalent in France, and to promote peacebuilding alternatives.

It builds on 20 years of Quaker witness outside the Eurosatory arms fair and is supported by a network of French and European pacifist or anti-militarist groups.

We like to use humour, graphics and cartoons as well as research, appealing to the eye and heart as well as the intellect.

Stop Fuelling War - Paris cartoon

  Continue reading Stop Fuelling War: an interview with Holly Spencer

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Ryan Sandford-Blackburn is the Permaculture Association’s strategic communications coordinator.

Here he talks to us about what permaculture has achieved worldwide, and the solutions it offers to a range of urgent contemporary problems.

Ryan Sandford-Blackburn

1) How would you describe permaculture to someone who was completely new to it?

Permaculture is much simpler than a lot of people believe. You can take courses and read dozens of books on the subject, and adding knowledge is always valuable, but you just need to grasp the basics.

Anyone who is working towards a more sustainable way of living is probably working within permaculture ethics without even realising it. There is benefit to conscious design, though.

It’s a practical approach to developing efficient systems in harmony with the natural world that can be used by everyone, wherever they happen to be in the world.

Permaculture encourages us to think carefully about how we use resources, while looking at how we can be as productive as possible for far less effort, which is something most of us would like to be better at!

It also encourages us to learn from nature and mimic how it deals with everything from water storage to diversity.

It began as a combination of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’. But it’s a lot more than just food growing. Continue reading Designing to thrive: an interview with Ryan Sandford-Blackburn of the Permaculture Association

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In our December giveaway in 2018, activist Dan Kidby won these three titles:

The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible – Charles Eisenstein

‘This inspirational and thought-provoking book serves as an empowering antidote to the cynicism, frustration, paralysis, and overwhelm so many of us are feeling…’

Blueprint for Revolution – Srdja Popovic & Matthew Miller

‘How to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other nonviolent techniques to galvanize communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world.’

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! – George Lakoff

‘George Lakoff returns with new strategies about how to frame today’s essential issues.’

Here, Dan reviews all three for us and also recommends other other key reads for nonviolence activists.

Continue reading Over to you: Dan Kidby’s key reads for nonviolence activists

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In 2018, we gave away books in each of Commonweal’s core areas to a number of lucky winners.

Here’s a reminder of those core areas:

  • methods of nonviolent action
  • personal change
  • equalities
  • regenerative living
  • peace and peace-keeping
  • political and economic alternatives

Six areas of focus - Commonweal

And you can find the full list of books here.

In this post, we hear what some of our winners got out of the books they received.

Unite Community Cornwall

A set of all 18 titles went to Unite Community Cornwall, after its chair, Zoe Fox, won the competition.

Zoe Fox plus Commonweal books Unite Community Cornwall

Zoe Fox with the prize books at Unite Community Cornwall

Continue reading Over to you: feedback from some of our 2018 giveaway winners

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Samantha Fletcher is a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Much of her research focuses on ‘crime, harm, and global justice’, and she has a particular interest in ‘new social movements that seek to challenge global inequalities and injustice’.

Samantha Fletcher

1) Please tell us, Sam, how you interpret the terms ‘crime’ and ‘harm’, with examples?

The discipline of criminology has a long history of overwhelmingly focusing on matters of crime, as defined by criminal law and the state.

In contrast, over the years, various scholars within criminology and beyond have sought to depart from this narrow conception of the ‘crime’ agenda.

They have instead sought to recognise that ‘crime’ as defined by laws and states severely limits the attempt to truly understand and adequately recognise all forms and wider conceptualisations of harms and violence.

Continue reading Crime, harm and the question of justice: an interview with Samantha Fletcher

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Paul Allen

1) How would you summarise the work you do, Paul?

Since its inception in 2007, the Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) project has offered the hard data and confidence required for visualising a future where we have risen to the demands of climate science.

It has helped to reduce fear and misunderstanding and open new, positive, solution-focused conversations by showing that it is possible for the UK to rapidly transition to net-zero emissions with existing technologies.

My current work is to offer the most up-to-date support tools to citizens and councils who have declared a climate emergency, or are considering a declaration or action locally.

ZCB offers access to ambitious up-to-date modelling that shows that we can

  • provide a reliable energy supply for the UK with 100% renewable energy and flexible carbon-neutral backup
  • grow the vast majority of the food we need for a healthy, low-carbon diet, and manage our land to capture carbon, nurture biodiversity and increase the health and resilience of ecosystems
  • deliver a modern lifestyle, create employment, help reduce poverty, improve our well-being, and ensure that the future we leave for our children and generations to come is safe and sustainable.

Continue reading A climate emergency action plan: an interview with Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology

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Arthur Goodman is the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Liaison Officer of the organisation Jews for Justice for Palestinians. We asked him about JJP’s work and what inspires it.

1) On your website, you quote Rabbi Jeffrey Newman: ‘Without justice for Palestinians, there is no hope for Israel.’ Can you tell us why you agree with him, please?

Rabbi Newman has understood Zionism’s existential moral ambiguity. Yes, there was a just cause in the history of European persecution of Jews for Zionists to want a Jewish state, but the Zionists’ determination to have an exclusively Jewish state and to take over all of Palestine led them to expel as many of the indigenous Palestinian population as they could in 1948.

It later led them to occupy and settle the remaining Palestinian land in 1967. Continue reading ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow’: an interview with Arthur Goodman

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