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Friday, 22 July 2011

For democracy's sake Charlie Gilmour's appeal must be successful

I've got to give Charlie Gilmour credit - it takes a lot for me to consider a grave miscarriage of justice to be justified, but he gave it a good go. That doesn't change the reality that his disproportionate sentence of 16 months for his behaviour last December during the Tuition fees protest has serious implications for our supposedly pluralist democracy. The result of his appeal will tell us a lot about the type of country we live in now.

From the outset he was a complete and utter PR disaster for the tuition fee protest movement. I have said (click here and click here) that there are legitimate arguments for an against the imposition of tuition fees, but at it's most basic, the issue is whether or not taxpayers' money should be used to fund the university education of (if New Labour's target is reached) 50% of the school leaving population.

If you wanted to paint a picture of why that shouldn't happen, I imagine you might create the image of Charlie Gilmour. Adopted son of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, he is the scion of a multi-million pound fortune. The two Saville Row suits he received as a reward for getting into Cambridge (click here for proof!) would go a long way towards paying for a year's tuition there under the proposed fee plan. Not the best poster boy when you are asking someone on minimum wage to fund university education (let's not forget that everyone pays tax, not just the rich, and it is the poor who can't avoid it).

Gilmour, allegedly under the influence of a cocktail of drugs, spent the day swinging on the Union Jack hanging from the Cenotaph (insisting he wasn't aware of the significance of the Cenotaph), attempting to start a fire outside the Supreme Court, allegedly throwing a rubbish bin at the Royal Convoy taking the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Royal Variety Performance as well as reading poetry to the police and shouting political slogans such as “you broke the moral law, we are going to break all the laws”, "storm Parliament", and, simply, "arson". He was also part of a mob who smashed windows at Top Shop in Oxford street as staff cowered inside.

16 months in prison. You can get less for sexual assault, GBH and many other crimes where people actually get hurt. What's more, Gilmour pleaded guilty from the start. No waste of court time trying to prove the case against him, just the matter of sentencing. 16 months in prison.

I don't know where to start. Apparently it is a legitimate practice for sentencing to be "exemplary" - to discourage others from acting in the same manner. Actually, it may discourage others from acting in the same manner - in that it may discourage others from protesting when they feel they are being wronged.

Let's go back to the apparent "problem" with Charlie Gilmour. He is rich. Whatever happens he will be OK because his parents have a lot of money. So, some people argued that he had no business being on that march. In that case, about 90% of the people on that march had no business being there either. In fact 90% of people on any march have no business being there.

For instance, almost all of those on the march against the Iraq War in 2003 were not actually going to be "affected" by the war. They weren't going to die, they weren't going to go throught what the Iraqi people have gone through in the last 8 years, yet there they were, arguing against a government policy they didn't agree with. Tony Blair, PM at the time - said on that day that being able to protest is a "natural part of our democratic process".

The protesters on that day were there not just in support of themselves but for those who might be students in the future. The word, I believe, is "solidarity". As Barbara Ellen points out in an excellent article on this in the Guardian (click here) "effective protest relies on disinterested participants like Charlie. Society needs, has always needed, people at marches, who don't really have a "reason" to be there, who aren't directly affected by the issues. This is not only to swell numbers, but to demonstrate that different groups will not be left stranded and isolated to fight lonely, desperate battles and that many feel, to borrow a tainted phrase, "all in this together".

Let's move on now to the concept of an "exemplary" sentence. Why prison? Surely that is a missed opportunity to use a far more effective example. Gilmour's crimes were against the community. Although he wasn't charged for what he did at the Cenotaph (as it wasn't a crime) his behaviour - even in the words of Barbara Ellen "was like watching a baboon shit on the faces of the war dead." He did attempt arson and his behaviour around the royal convoy did cause considerable distress to those within it, whether or not he threw the dustbin. So why not community service? Why not ask him, for instance, to use his considerable academic gifts to educate children about the meaning of the Cenotaph? Why not ask him to clear up after the next protest/riot (and there will be one) so he really understands the consequences of the destruction he was part of causing?

Why not find a way to ensure that the young, many of whom have been written off as apathetic but who are just finding their political voice,  learn from Charlie Gilmour's fate something more than that if you show up to protest about something you believe in you run the risk of 'exemplary' justice being done to you, whatever that means.

When we teach the functions of pressure groups in AS politics, we talk about their value as a "pressure" valve, releasing tension and allowing people to "let off steam" about their cause or sectional interest. A pluralist democracy allows power to spread amongst different groups in society. If young people feel powerless, they need to be able to associate with each other as they have done over tuition fees, and make themselves heard. Suddenly, we have our young people politically active, and we need to encourage that.

Yes, Charlie Gilmour went too far. He admitted that and he should have been punished.

But 16 months in jail? For democracy's sake this should be reconsidered.

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