The UK government wants to stamp out dissent. Here’s how to stop it.

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.