A tale of two crimes
Updated: Feb 9, 2019
Vote Leave broke the law. So did some fracking protesters. Who goes to prison speaks volumes about UK politics
This tale of two crimes tells us much about the current state of politics in the UK.
There are two fundamental principles to the constitution in the UK. One is that the Westminster parliament is the land's sovereign political authority. The other is that the rule of law applies equally to everyone, irrespective of social status, religion or political beliefs.
The arrival another member of the royal family has garnered many headlines in the past 24 hours. Surely more significant for the future of the UK's polity is the asymmetrical treatment of two groups of people at opposite ends of the political pile. We begin with the story of Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Rich Loizou.
The Cuadrilla Three
The curious geology of Great Britain means that there are hidden curiosities under the surface of this country. Rich seams of carbon were discovered deep underground during the industrial revolution. The coal that powered machines of the 18th and 19th centuries weren't the only source of carbon buried in the rock strata below our feet though. Natural gas - methane or CH₄ - lies trapped in shale rock that forms the foundation of large swathes of the country.
The technology to bring to the surface this carbon fuel has only recently been developed. 'Tight gas' or 'unconventional gas' are euphemistic names given to a substance that is deep underground and almost impossible to get to. Hydraulic fracturing - better known as fracking - is a process which forces sand, water and a heady mix of other chemicals horizontally into the rock strata. They are put there by a drill boring first straight down and then perpendicular to the surface. The immense pressure of the fracking fluid shatters the rock and the methane is forced to the surface. From there it is piped away for commercial and domestic use.
There is no space here for a lengthy explanation of how harmful fracking is. The are two salient points worth mentioning. Firstly, that in order to prevent the climate breakdown elucidated so clearly by the IPCC last week, sources of most of the fossil fuels currently underground have got to stay there. Secondly there is a large body of evidence that fracking heinously pollutes water sources, as the fluid used cannot possibly be contained and will inevitably find its way into water courses and aquifers. Fracking is environmental vandalism of the first order.
There has been a committed campaign by local groups to prevent the fracking company Cuadrilla from operating a site at Preston North Road. All possible legal and political avenues have been explored for preventing the fracking site from becoming operational. The governments of David Cameron and Theresa May have on several occasions the planning process less restrictive in order to make it as easy as possible for fracking to go ahead. This 'dash for gas' is just one of the ways in which a Conservative Party that espouses the benefits of free-market capitalism constantly uses the levers of the state in order to boost projects it wants to see prosper.
The protesters resorted to non-violent direct action when all legal avenues had been closed to them. Three of the campaigners - the three men mentioned above - were arrested having taken part in a 'lorry surfing' action in 2017. This involved climbing on top of lorries serving the site in order to prevent work going ahead. They stayed on top of the lorries for a period of between 45 and 84 hours. They were convicted at the end of September of 'causing a public nuisance'; a common law crime that is no longer regularly used to secure prosecutions.
The clear conclusion to draw from this case is that the state has manipulated the law to give fracking an easy ride and used the same legal power to silence dissent and intimidate others who might also speak out against fracking. To further strengthen this impression, it was revealed soon after the sentences were announced that the presiding judge in the case Robert Altham had family links to the oil and gas industry. It doesn't inspire confidence in the principle that the rule of law truly applies equally to all.
Vote Leave's wrongdoing
Compare the fate of the Frack Free Lancs campaigners with that of those running the leave.eu campaign.
The 2016 EU referendum campaign was divisive and bitter. Eurosceptics who had pushed for a vote on the UK's membership of the European Union had waited, in some cases, a lifetime for this opportunity. It was to be a once-in-a-generation vote with the most far-reaching consequences: political, economic and cultural.
Added to this, it has since become clear, there were many others who wished the UK to leave the auspices of the EU because of the opportunities for making an unregulated profit were the UK to depart. In the fallout from exiting the EU, the UK would inevitably have to try to attract business by making London in particular a 'business friendly' environment. This attitude can currently be observed in those arguing that corporation tax should be cut to 10% or lower. There was a significant constituency of well-funded and well connected people for whom the UK becoming a giant Lichtenstein or Singapore would potentially mean enormous personal gains.
One of the unofficial groups campaigning to leave - leave.eu - was found (following an investigation by the Electoral Commission) to have mis-spent campaign funds and breached electoral law. A lengthy campaign by the journalist Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian exposed this law-breaking. Those in charge of the leave.eu campaign appeared in front of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee, bullishly rebutting all charges.
In the end, the Electoral Commission did all it could. It issued the maximum fine of £70,000. Given that the crime was essentially one of attempting to pervert democracy, and the size of the budgets for the referendum campaign, such a punishment can only be described as incitement to commit such acts of political arson again in the future.
It was up to the police to investigate further. It is the place of the civil police in a democracy to investigate any potential law-breaking without fear or favour. Stakes could not have been higher: this was about the fate of British democracy. There is no more important issue to be decided in a generation than the membership of the EU. It was a close result and the veracity of the result has been called into question.
In fact it has been uncovered by the OpenDemocracy website that the Metropolitan Police have sat on the case, despite 'substantial' evidence of wrongdoing because of the 'political sensitivities' of pursuing it. In all democracies, and the UK in particular, the continued functioning of the political system relies upon different parts of the state checking up on one another and sticking to the rules and principles which govern their actions. If they do not then the whole edifice could very quickly fall.
In admitting that there are political motivations behind a failure to fully and swiftly investigate a crime the curtain has been pulled back on the partiality of the police and the uneven application of the rule of law to different parts of the same society.
Once crime to destroy, one to defend
The two crimes committed were met with very different punishments. They were also actions which were inspired by very different aims. The actions of the leave.eu campaign were motivated to destroy something: the fragile thread that binds this country to the other nations of Europe, as well as a body of legislation that fairly regulates and life in the UK.
The Cuardrilla activists had as their motivation only to protect; to vouchsafe for the future the stability of the climate and the environment of their home in Lancashire. Yet the law is applied to punish one and spare the other.
Who, in truth, are the public nuisance? And to whom does the rule of law apply?