The Colston statue destroyers have no defence in law but they will never be convicted

What will happen to the demonstrators who threw the Colston statue into Bristol Harbour?

The Home Secretary has described the demonstrators’ behaviour as “absolutely disgraceful.” Clearly she hopes that they will be prosecuted and punished.

The law is on her side.

Criminal Damage

S.1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 provides:

A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.”

It is impossible to know the exact value of the statue, or the cost of repairing it (it has been sensibly suggested that it might be recovered from the harbour and re-erected in a museum), but it is very unlikely to have been less than £5,000. Anyone charged with damaging it would therefore have the right to elect trial by jury in the Crown Court.

Damaging a listed building

It was a Grade II listed building. According to Heritage England it is, or was:

A handsome statue, erected in the late C19 to commemorate a late C17 figure; the resulting contrast of styles is handled with confidence. The statue is of particular historical interest, the subject being Edward Colston, Bristol’s most famous philanthropist, now also noted for his involvement in the slave trade. Group value with other Bristol memorials: a statue of Edmund Burke, the Cenotaph, and a drinking fountain commemorating the Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition of 1893.”

The use of euphemism in the listing is remarkable:

Edward Colston (1636-1721) was the son of a prosperous Bristol merchant; … Colston established his own successful business in London, trading with Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Africa. The details of precisely how Colston’s fortune was accumulated are not recorded, but his business interests were wide. Besides trading extensively in various commodities, including cloth and wine, he acted as a money-lender, and had interests in the West Indian island of St Kitts. In 1680 he became a shareholder in the Royal African Company. The Company, which had been founded in 1672 in place of the Royal Adventurers, had a monopoly on trade with Africa until 1688, after which time it received fees from English traders. Colston took a leading role in the Company, serving on several committees, and becoming deputy governor in 1689.

His brother Thomas, incidentally, was also in business. He “supplied beads that were used to buy slaves.” No doubt that too was considered an honourable profession in the late seventeenth century.

Damaging a listed building is prohibited under S.7 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990:

no person shall execute or cause to be executed any works for the demolition of a listed building or for its alteration or extension in any manner which would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest, unless the works are authorised ….”

The maximum penalty for the offence of damaging a listed building is 2 years imprisonment.

The offence is triable “either way,” which means that any defendants charged under that Act would have the right to elect trial by jury. Prosecutions are normally brought by the local authority, but others, including English Heritage, the Crown Prosecution Service, or indeed a private individual may also do so.

Avon and Somerset Police

On the face of it two indictable offences have been committed.

The Avon and Somerset Police have adopted a rather uncomfortable position astride the fence, albeit rather further on the demonstrators’ side of it than the Home Secretary would probably like.

Superintendent Andy Bennett, speaking for the force to the BBC yesterday confirmed that the police had deliberately not tried to prevent either the toppling of the statue or its disposal at the bottom of the harbour. Colston was, said the officer:

a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years. So whilst I am disappointed that people were (sic) damaged one of our statues I do understand why its happened, it’s very symbolic. You might wonder why we didn’t intervene and we just allowed people to put it in the docks … We made a very tactical decision that to stop people doing that act may have caused further disorder and we decided the safest thing to do in terms of our policing tactics was to allow it to take place.”

Supt Andy Bennett: Colston has caused a lot of angst

Q: Should you have protected the statue?

Our policing style was from the outset low key we were not able to get to the statue in time to to protect it. And once it was toppled there was clearly a pre-planned attempt to bring that statute down, they had grappling ropes and they had the right tools, so once it was down we made a decision, the right thing to do was just to allow it to happen because what we did not want is tension ….”

Q: Some people would say … you should have intervened and challenged this behaviour?

I understand why some people will think we should have intervened and challenged this behaviour this was a very difficult policing operation there’s a lot of context that sits around it and I believe we did the right thing. …

Q: No regrets?

No regrets.”

Shortly afterwards the force issued an official statement:

The Black Lives Matter demonstration in Bristol today was attended by an estimated 10,000 people.

The vast majority of those who came to voice their concerns about racial inequality and injustice did so peacefully and respectfully.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic added a different dynamic to what was always going to be a challenging policing operation.

And I’d like to thank the organisers for their efforts to encourage demonstrators to follow Government guidance – a message which many clearly took on board, doing their best to socially distance, despite the large crowds.

Keeping the public safe was our greatest priority and thankfully there were no instances of disorder and no arrests were made.

However, there was a small group of people who clearly committed an act of criminal damage in pulling down a statue near Bristol Harbourside.

An investigation will be carried out into those responsible and we are already collating footage of the incident.

I’d like to thank our partners at Bristol City Council for helping us to ensure that this was a safe event for all who attended.”

It is impossible not to sympathise with the police.

All police officers swear an attestation of office which includes a promise “to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property”

On the other hand, it may well have been – as Supt Bennet suggests – virtually impossible for them to prevent the destruction of the statue. Certainly, the sight of police officers protecting a monument to a slave trader would have been a powerful symbolic image that would have been used to damage the reputation of the force.

However, despite taking a decision to stand aside and allow the destruction of the statue to be carried out, the Police now say that they are actively investigating the crime of criminal damage.

Assuming that some of those responsible for pulling down the statue can be identified and found, what could then happen?

Before any prosecution takes place the Crown Prosecution Service (or any other prosecution authority) will apply a two stage test.

First, is there evidence available to support a conviction (“the evidential test”)?

Second, is prosecution in the public interest?

The evidential test

This is not quite the same as asking whether it is more likely than not that a conviction would result. Strictly speaking the question posed by the CPS in deciding whether to charge is whether:

“… an objective, impartial and reasonable jury or bench of magistrates or judge hearing a case alone, properly directed and acting in accordance with the law, is more likely than not to convict the defendant of the charge alleged.”

Note that the Crown Prosecutor is not concerned with the actual likelihood of a conviction. The test is what a notional “objective, impartial and reasonable jury acting in accordance with the law” would be likely to do.

The test should be fairly straightforward so long as those responsible for pulling down the statue can be clearly identified on video. There can be no argument that it was destroyed (or at the very least damaged), and that its destruction or damage was intentional.

That is not quite an end to the evidential problems.

First – under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 the prosecution must prove that the statue “belonged to another.” Any technical difficulties about ownership are cleared up by S.10 (2) which provides that:

Property shall be treated for the purposes of this Act as belonging to any person –

(a) having the custody of control of it …”

It was certainly controlled by the City Council, whatever precise legal complications of ownership there might be. The Council are the owners, at least for the purpose of the Criminal Damage Act.

But the need to establish ownership raises an awkward question for the Council: do they co-operate with any police inquiry?

Normally the owner of damaged property will provide a statement to the police saying “I did not consent to the damage to my property.” A prosecution for criminal damage without one would be highly unusual. It might not always be an absolute legal necessity – the prosecution could perhaps prove ownership even without it – but refusing to give a statement would suggest not supporting the prosecution, which would imply that the Council did not care about the statue’s destruction.

The second potential evidential problem for the prosecution arises because the offence is not committed if there is a “lawful excuse” for the damage. That can sometimes be a rather slippery concept.

Belief that owner would have consented

Although a defendant’s own belief that the statue was offensive cannot be a “lawful excuse” for destroying it, a belief that “the person or persons whom he believed to be entitled to consent” to its destruction or damage would have consented if he or they had known of the destruction or damage or its circumstances,” is deemed to be such an excuse under S.5 (2) (a).

A defendant need not be correct in his belief either about the identity of the “person or persons” entitled to consent to the damage, or about the actual attitude of the that person or persons. Thus, it could be open to a defendant to argue something along these lines:

I believed the statue was the property of the people of Bristol. I believed that, taken as a whole, the people of Bristol would have consented to damage to the statue because they wouldn’t want a slave trader honoured in the middle of their city.”

The prosecution might counter that this is hardly a reasonable belief: the City Council is the democratic body representing the people of Bristol, and it is for councillors, not an unelected mob, to make decisions about the city’s public statues.

But in fact in this context the reasonableness of a defendant’s belief is neither here nor there. This is because under S.5 (3), it is “immaterial whether a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held.”

Obviously we have no idea whether any defendant would run such a defence, but if they did, unless the prosecution could prove that their belief was not “honestly held” they would be entitled to be acquitted.

In practice, without a statement from the Council saying that it did not consent to the damage, a defendant would be able to say “not only did I believe that the Council would have consented to Sir Edward being chucked in the harbour, but since they are not supporting this prosecution I was obviously right.”

 

The Mayor’s dilemma

Bristol’s Mayor, Marvin Rees was interviewed on this morning’s Today Programme.

As an elected politician I cannot condone criminal damage … but I am of Jamaican heritage and I cannot pretend that I have any real sense of loss for the statue or that it was anything other than a personal affront to me to have it in the middle of Bristol.”

Marvin Rees: faces dilemma

He was asked if anybody involved should be charged with criminal damage:

That’s up to the criminal justice system we do live in a country where we should have a criminal justice system which works without favour or fear.”

Since a statement from him (or someone acting under his authority) would be central to any prosecution, sitting on the fence is unlikely to be a position which Mr Rees can comfortably maintain for long. It is not just up to some nebulous “criminal justice system,” it is also up to him, or at least to the local authority of which he is the leader.

It would surely be inconceivable for a public authority not to provide a statement to the police. That would be to “condone criminal damage,” which the Mayor says he will not do. Since the Council did not consent to the statue’s destruction any truthful statement would have to make that clear. But if they co-operate with the police the Council will be seen to be supporting the prosecution of the demonstrators, a position which the Mayor and other senior council officers would also very much like to avoid.

They must be hoping that the police will not try too hard to identify those responsible so that the dilemma does not arise.

Lawful Excuse

In order to prove criminal damage – though not the listed building offence – the prosecution must also establish that there was no “lawful excuse” for the damage. At first sight this might appear to give a wide scope for the demonstrators to claim that they had an excuse to do as they pleased. In practice the scope of “lawful excuse” has been restricted by the higher courts, not least in a case involving damage to a statue.

In 2002 a Mr Paul Kelleher caused £150,000 damage to a statue of Mrs Thatcher exhibited in the Guildhall Gallery in the City of London. His did so to make a political protest. The trial judge refused to leave the question of whether this was a reasonable excuse to the jury, and the Court of Appeal held that he was correct not to do so. That seems a difficult precedent to overcome, given that the destruction of the Colston statue was also carried out to make a political point.

In a different case1 and a slightly different context, Lord Hoffman cited Hobbes with approval:

A tight control of the use of force is necessary to prevent society from sliding into anarchy, what Hobbes ( Leviathan, ch 13) called the state of nature in which

men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and what is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thomas Hobbes

78. In principle, therefore, the state entrusts the power to use force only to the armed forces, the police and other similarly trained and disciplined law enforcement officers.”

Leeds criminal QC Bryan Cox has suggested:

The reasonable excuse is that the statue was an affront to right thinking members of the public, and its existence likely to incite public unrest.”

I’m reluctant to disagree with Mr Cox (“An extremely thorough advocate who takes into account all views before extolling his legal wisdom” according to the Legal 500), but that seems very unlikely to be accepted. If that was a lawful excuse it would give the green light to any mob that wanted to destroy something by which “right-thinking members of the public” were affronted. I am sure Lord Hoffman and Hobbes are right and Mr Cox is wrong.

So, as long as Bristol Council co-operates with the police, it is hard to see that anyone prosecuted for criminal damage would find much support from the law for what they did.

Avon and Somerset Police were very probably correct to say that the tearing down of the statue was an act of criminal damage. There was no lawful excuse, although there might be some possibility of a defence if those involved “honestly believed” that the people of Bristol would have consented to its damage or destruction. However, if demonstrators are charged with demolishing (or “altering”) a listed building, no such defence is available.

The listed building offence

If demonstrators are charged with destruction of a listed building, the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 provides even less hope of a defence. The offence is absolute. There is no need to prove intent or recklessness, or indeed any particular state of mind. The belief of anyone involved in the destruction of a listed building is quite beside the point. There is not even a defence of “lawful excuse” available.

The only statutory defence is that the demolition was “urgently necessary in the interests of safety or health or for the preservation of the building,” which is hardly applicable here, although I suppose an ingenious silk like Mr Cox might try to argue that the demonstrators were so affronted by the statue that “the interests of safety” demanded its immediate destruction. In fact, that comes quite close to Supt Bennett’s decision not to try to prevent the destruction of the statue because “we decided the safest thing to do in terms of our policing tactics was to allow it to take place.” However, I would be astonished if a judge allowed such an argument to be presented to a jury.

It would theoretically be possible under S.8 of the 1990 Act for the local planning authority – back to Bristol City Council again – to grant retrospective “listed building consent” for the destruction of the statue, which would put a stop to a listed building prosecution. At present seems rather unlikely but I guess that they might come under considerable pressure to do so if any demonstrators were charged.

Would a prosecution be in the public interest?

This is a trickier question. Even if an objective jury would be likely to convict, it does not follow that a prosecution has to be started. The CPS (or other authority) will only prosecute if it considers a prosecution to be in the public interest.

That does not mean prosecutors can simply decide for themselves what the public interest requires. They are expected to follow the guidance set out in the Crown Prosecution Service Code for Crown Prosecutors.

The starting point is that “the more serious an offence is, the more likely it is that a prosecution is required.”

When assessing the seriousness of an offence prosecutors should include in their consideration the suspect’s culpability and the harm caused, by asking themselves [these] questions:”

What is the level of culpability of the suspect?

and

What are the circumstances of and harm to the victim?

Culpability

The level of “culpability” of those who destroyed the statue is high. The offence was, according the police, “pre-meditated.” Offenders came equipped with “grappling ropes and other tools.” This was no accident or even reckless ignoring of the risks. It was entirely deliberate.

Harm

The “harm” to the victim is more difficult to assess.

Who was the “victim” anyway? The Council were at best ambivalent about retaining the statue and many of the people of Bristol, those most affected by the presence or absence of the statue, actively wanted it removed. On the other hand many did not, and it was (according to its listing) a “handsome statue” of “particular historical interest.”

Of course culpability and harm are not the only criteria which a prosecutor can take into account when deciding whether a prosecution is in the public interest but where the damage is significant, culpability is high and the effect on the “victims” is arguable either way, if the CPS follows its own guidelines it is likely to find that the public interest requires a prosecution.

Would a jury convict?

Assuming the statue is valued at more than £5,000 any protestor charged with criminal damage has the right to a trial by jury. The listed building offence, likewise, is triable in the Crown Court.

A real – as opposed to the CPS’s notional – jury is not bound to follow the strict letter of the law. The right of a jury to follow its own conscience and refuse to convict even when the evidence and the law appear to leave it no option was established by the famous case of Penn and Mead, otherwise known as Bushell’s case (1670) Jones T 13, 84 ER 1123, in which the Court directed the release of jurors who had refused to find Penn and Mead guilty of “tumultous assembly.” The jury, said the court “cannot be coercively directed by the Court.”

The jury is perjured if the verdict be against their own judgment, tho’ by direction of the Court, for their oath obliges them to their own judgment.”

In recent times, especially in cases which are seen to have a political dimension, juries have occasionally put their own judgment above the direction of the court. Clive Ponting was acquitted of breaching the Official Secrets Act despite the trial judge instructing the jury that he had no legal defence. Greenpeace protestors in 2008 stretched the limit of lawful excuse almost to breaking point, but successfully nonetheless.

An even more dramatic – many would say egregious – example of a jury refusing to convict despite the overwhelming weight of the evidence (the defendants had written a book admitting their guilt and explaining exactly how they did it), and the fact that they had no defence in law, was the case of Michael Randle and Pat Pottle who were acquitted of helping the Soviet spy George Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs and then transporting him to Berlin. They argued that their prosecution was motivated by political considerations, something that was beside the point as a matter of law. They made what turned out to be a shrewd decision to represent themselves, exploiting the fact that a litigant in person is sometimes accorded rather greater latitude than a defendant represented by counsel. The jury agreed with them and sensationally found them not guilty.

Anyone prosecuted for causing damage to the Colston statue is likely to be tried in Bristol. Even if the case were to be transferred away from Bristol my view is that, whatever direction a trial judge might give, it would be extremely difficult to find a jury with at least 10 members willing to convict them for the destruction of a symbol of slavery.

Some may say, with Hobbes – by coincidence a near contemporary of Colston’s2 – “that way anarchy lies.”

Others will be with Bushell and his fellow jurors – also contemporaries – and will think that very occasionally a jury’s conscience must permit it to ignore the strict letter of the law.

1Jones and others [[2006] UKHL 16

2Hobbes’s own views on slavery are complex and not easily summarised. Those who wish to know more could start by reading  Phillip Pettit Freedom in Hobbes’s Ontology and Semantics. He was certainly not opposed in principle to all forms of slavery.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

29 thoughts on “The Colston statue destroyers have no defence in law but they will never be convicted”

  1. The Criminal Bar Association chairwoman in her 8th June Monday newsletter appears to question the public interest in prosecuting those who demolished Colston’s statue.
    This is reminiscent of the Yorkshire police’s reluctance to pursue Asian child sex abusers.

    This happened in the very centre of Bristol
    It was clearly premeditated, because grappling ropes were used.
    The City Council could have been persuaded to remove this statue
    It is a clear case of premeditated criminal damage
    Your point is a good one that it should not be tried in Bristol

    1. “Anyone prosecuted for causing damage to the Colston statue is likely to be tried in Bristol. Even if the case were to be transferred away from Bristol my view is that, whatever direction a trial judge might give, it would be extremely difficult to find a jury with at least 10 members willing to convict them for the destruction of a symbol of slavery.”

      This is contentious and rather offensive. For generations Colston was seen by Bristolians as the statue depicts him: a merchant prince, MP for the City, and Bristol’s greatest ever philanthopist. He was a role model of virtue, because of his great generosity. The many schools he founded commemorated him with pride. He was not seen as a symbol of slavery.

      He was sent to London as a boy, to be apprenticed to the Mercers, and then became one, trading as Historic England says in wine, corn, and wool with the Continent. He represented the city of Bristol as its MP, and he had other interests. He made a huge fortune. He joined the RAC at the age of 44, having had shares in it before, as did his brother. This must have been like working for an oil company today: respectable at the time, but later seen as evil, as opinion changed.

      It was only very recently that agitators arrived in Bristol to stir up grievances against this Victorian work of art depicting a 300 year old historic figure, and to rewrite Bristol’s history. It is not the case that the city’s fortunes were founded on slavery, but rather were made from wool, wine, corn, glass, pottery, tanning, and mining etc. all long before the arrival of tobacco and sugar.

      Colston traded from London, not from Bristol, despite being extraordinarily generous to his former home. A lifelong bachelor, he would say, “I have the widows of Bristol for wife and all the poor orphans for children.”

      All that propaganda about his ships bringing slaves into Bristol’s harbour is based on fantasy.

      Once stirred up out of blissful ignorance, people had to cross over several lanes of fast moving traffic to be offended by the statue. But people who appreciated art and history have lost something without being consulted. They also lost the good name of their city, as the world saw it falling under mob rule without police protection.

      1. Excellent piece by Liza. I agree wholeheartedly.

        (2) The local rag, Bristol Post &, online, Bristol Live has refused to publish photographs of the wreckers, although requested to do so by the police.
        This has made it impossible for the police to identify them

    2. The premeditated criminal damage was also freely discussed on the internet beforehand. The police are not coy about searching there for thought crime so should have known in advance and been prepared. We no longer have a police force but a “police service”, thoroughly demoralised and corrupted by the extreme consequences of Scarman and Macpherson.

    1. Colton as well as the lot of British colonial masters. I agree with you – but I would not call another human being scum.

    2. It’s a reliable rule of thumb that any person who calls other people “scum” a) is not able to help the situation in hand in any constructive way and b) isn’t especially happy.

  2. If a decision is made not to prosecute those actively responsible for the damage & destruction then the CPS give the green light for the premeditated targetting of any building, monument or indeed any symbol, of this countries history. Whilst I sympathise with the extremely difficult position Police found themselves in, they must now reestablish some sort of authority by ensuring that all those involved are reported for the offences. If it is left to slide then, any group that feels aggrieved by a mere symbol or presence will feel justified in being “offended” and thus, destroy whatever suits their cause.

  3. I think that if somebody chooses to destroy property as their method of protest, they have to accept that criminal sanction may follow – no matter how noble their cause may be.

    It may well be that jury nullification could be the result, although we enter dodgy ground and it is probably not something they should count on – for every one of the cases where juries have refused to convict somebody obviously guilty on the grounds of sympathy for their cause, there are dozens of sympathetic defendants who have been convicted by juries following the law.

    David Allen Green has suggested that, if convicted, those concerned might receive an absolute discharge. I wondered if you had any thoughts on that.

    1. I hadn’t seen that, and I would doubt that. It would imply the CPS were wrong to prosecute, and = for the reasons set out at inordinate length in th blog – I don’t think.they would be, not necessarily anyway.

  4. re “these people are scum, all if them”… yes, I’d say Picton, Colston and other slave traders and mass murderers accomplices are all scum…
    about time their hypocritical attempts to memorialise themselves as philanthropists was exposed and others were also demolished…

    there are no statues of Hitler in Germany with good reason

  5. Superb as always. I note that section 59 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 creates a distinct offence of intentionally causing damage to a listed building, which is summary only (maximum fine £1000), thwarting any defendant wanting a jury. At first glance, that would seem to be more pertinent than the section 9 offence to which you refer of carrying out works within section 7 without authorisation under section 8. However, as you may have realised, section 59 applies only to a defendant who would otherwise “be entitled to do or permit the act in question”. I can imagine this creating something of a catch-22 for the defence in some cases. But in the prosecution scenarios you envisage, it seems more likely that section 59 would drop out of the picture for lack of legal entitlement, leaving the fate of any prospective prosecutions under section 9 or the Criminal Damage Act to be determined by the fuzzier considerations that you identify.

  6. The question never asked: ‘Who sold slaves to Colston?’. The answer: Africans. 90% of the slaves sold to European slave traders were already slaves of Africans, the vast majority from their birth. Every West African country has apologised, formally or informally, for their role in the trade. These issues are never discussed, although well known to students of the subject.

    1. Does this in some way reduce Mr Colston’s culpability? I am not sure what you are arguing for.

      1. I’m asking for a rounded, historically grounded, mature discussion about slavery. The black intellectuals Thomas Sowell and Henry Louis Gates might be your starting point. Throwing statues in rivers releases heat but does not generate light.

        1. Agree with that so if any statues of these African slave traders exist let’s pull them down

          Thousands of white British people were transported to Australia, often for petty crimes, stealing a loaf of bread in famous legend. People were press ganged onto naval ships.

          I don’t want to see any mark of respect like a statue standing of human traffickers, whatever their race or the race of their victims

  7. Thank you for this – as someone pointed out, a really forensic dissecting of the issues.

    However whilst the act of disposing of the statue was clearly illegal it does not answer the question that I am interested in.

    Was the act illegal? Most certainly yes.
    Was the act ethical? Most certainly yes.

    Law and ethics. Different kettles of fish.

  8. Matthew, there seems to be a transcription error in your piece.

    You quote Andy Bennett’s official statement saying that 60,000 people attended the demonstration but, the statement itself says that 10,000 people attended.

  9. Every time Yale University issues a statement to establish its woke credentials I remind myself that Mr Yale was a slave trader. Yet they’ve not changed the name of the institution. A puzzler, eh?

  10. A wonderful analysis of the Criminal Damage and Damaging a Listed Building perspectives in this case, the considerations on a successful prosecution are fascinating and enlightening, but if we consider the history and context of the Statue, there may be another issue to consider – that of International Law?

    Cultural Heritage is really important to people, it creates that sense of belonging, and people of cultures are rightly angry when their culture is stolen in acts of Cultural Appropriation. The heritage which defines the development of a nations culture is similarly important. Cultural Heritage is protected by International Law and treaties, and our countries give an undertaking to protect it from destruction

    Over the history of every country, there will be moments of inspired brilliance, and there will be moments that we rightly decry and look to back on, to learn lessons, yet the heritage of this journey remains with us as the Cultural Heritage of a Nation.

    That Cultural Heritage, is the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that is inherited from past generations, be that positive or negative. Where this Cultural Heritage forms the significant history in the development of a Nation then rightly it should be preserved and contextualised so the lessons aren’t lost to humanity.

    Cultural Heritage is rightly protected by International Law and Treaties that civilised societies have signed. Yes there will always be people who wish to further their own agenda, by destroying the Cultural Heritage of others, we have seen it with the destruction overseas of places such as religious sites, museums, and even areas of World Heritage.

    Countries are required by UNESCO and UN Charters to keep a register listing their Cultural Heritage, and English Heritage do this for the Nation, grading them by their importance to the Heritage of the Nation. The designation highlights a building, site or area’s special interest and value to this and future generations and gives it protection under law or policy. 

    The statue of Colston is listed by English Heritage as Grade II, ‘of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them’. ‘Not only for its artistic and historical interest, but also its context within the group setting within the city’.

    It is an established fact that Bristol’s fame and wealth were built on the slave trade, with people such as Edward Colston. On his death in 1721, he bequeathed his wealth to charities and his legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, memorials and buildings. This inescapably makes his legacy however you judge it, as part of the Cultural Heritage of the City of Bristol. After many requests there never seems to have been a democratic mandate given by the people of Bristol to remove the statue, as evidenced in the various historic newspaper and social media polls.

    Now we have also seen people try to re-write his history, to say that his abhorrent Slave ‘trafficking’ should be defined as ‘transported’ like he was some innocent 17th Century travel agency. Yet today we can not escape the fact that we would not be having this debate had it not been for the divisive nature of that infamous statue, and we would also not be having the debate, had the statue been sanitised in some museum with a narrative label.

    It can be argued that the importance of that statue as now increased significantly, and its shared value within a multi-racial society, has become even more significant, reinforcing it further as part of the shared Cultural Heritage of Bristol and the UK.

    Within a multi racial society, shared Cultural Heritage can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging within a group and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from, and to understand better the issues of our society.

    As our society moves to address the injustices of the past, and the inequities of the present, we must preserve the lessons of today, as our shared Cultural Heritage for future generations. The Banksy idea of the monument toppling being enshrined as the future legacy, has such merit, preserving heritage and emerging history, especially if it is within the original context of the statue.

    Also the lessons and legacy of today must not be lost to some side annex of a dusty museum store, or the dark corner of the museum, the future of the Statue should match its newfound significance in the shared Cultural Heritage of our multi-racial society, for Bristol this event has hopefully become one of the seminal moments of our shared culture.

    The final irony for Colston would be if the statue can now bring the city together.

    So to the point, and the questions I pose:
    Could the protesters in destroying the statue also have broken International Law?
    Could the operational decision by the Police, to allow the destruction, also have broken International Law?
    Could the Council, not supporting prosecution be breaking National and International Law by condoning the destruction, and by not maintaining the Cultural Heritage in the context of its English Heritage listing?
    As other Councils now rush to dispose of their seemingly inappropriate Cultural Heritage, and create intentional damage to listed buildings, could they also be breaking National and International Laws?

    The legal debate can, and perhaps should now move on, from what could be considered legitimate protest, about the discrimination, inequity and inequality faced by black people in our communities, and now be considered on the conduct at the corporate, Local and National Governmental levels?

  11. Sir Edward Colston was a successful businessman of his time whose fortune came , in part, from the slave trade. Does he therefore deserve to bear the full weight of guilt for the slave trade?

  12. Would like to see a Matthew S. led discussion on this Jailing of a pisser –
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-53051096

    Just to show I am mainly interested in the legal aspect – the man himself may be ashamed, and so he should be, but is it really an imprisonable offence to public decency that HE committed?

    …or was it the people who shared his picture of him peeing adjacent to a memorial that caused the greater offence?
    and who was actually offended at the time?
    Does not precedent say that if the only person who witnesses such an event is a working member of the police force then no members of the “public” can have been offended?
    and if it was a journalist who took the photo and then widely published it… is he really able to claim that he was being offended, rather than offensive?

    From what I can gather Mr Banks was part of a group of people who were generally attempting an offence to public decency, in that they set out on a demonstration under a pretext of “protecting statues” but managed to turn that intention into an attack on police lines, when the police were already “protecting statues”.

    I just fear that we have an over-reactive CJS when something gets a massive media fed reaction.
    the man relieved himself without exposing his genitals – in the nearest corner his sadly drunk mind could quickly find – (he had reportedly drunk 16 pints)
    I sincerely doubt that he read (or could read?) the sign that showed he was right next to a memorial for a murdered PC… and I believe that he had no mens rea to pee on that plaque nor insult any dead policeman…

  13. Pedant.
    “prevent all offences against people and property”

    Isn’t ‘and’ being misused here when ‘and/or’ is applicable ?

  14. I was reminded of another act of criminal damage, and one much more egregious, because it involved an artefact of huge and genuine historic significance, namely the Stone Of Destiny, and its repatriation to Scotland. The Scottish activists who broke into Westminster Abbey (forcing a side door in the process) actually dropped and broke their precious burden. But in an act of true enlightenment, the authorities of the day wisely decided – after initially charging them – not to prosecute those involved. Their leader, Ian Hamilton, went on to become a renowned QC. One wonders how a criminal conviction would have affected his career path.

    My late mother played a very minor subsidiary role as a last minute relief driver up in Scotland when one of their vehicles broke down (she’d promised her brother, who was out in Canada, that she wouldn’t let anyone else drive his garaged MG, but convinced herself that she could drive it for such a worthy purpose). In her later years she suffered from dementia. The others had covered up the minor part she played, so she was never even charged, but she became convinced that the police would come and drag her away for her youthful misdemeanours.

    Seen from today and with hindsight, the decision not to prosecute was an extraordinary one. I truly can’t see Ms Patel and Ms Braverman supporting such a canny move.

    The circumstances were of course very different, but there are perhaps lessons to be learnt from the earlier events.

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