We can all benefit from learning to accommodate the views of those with whom we disagree
What amounts to political incorrectness is highly subjective. As the old saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, but in so saying perhaps I may be accused of being non-PC because I failed to make it gender-neutral.
But the danger that I perceive is that the current level of hypersensitivity to any contrary opinion risks losing touch with basic reality, let alone common sense.
The notion that we should all get along with one another regardless of differences of opinion is, I suggest, a measure of the extent to which human beings are civilized as distinct from mere animals fighting to survive.
This is hardly a novel concept. Certainly Voltaire’s thinking along the lines that “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was articulated in the mid-18th century.
We can all benefit from learning to accommodate the views of those with whom we disagree profoundly, but that presupposes that we have given them the opportunity to express themselves.
I disapprove of pulling down or desecrating statues of people who, historically, behaved in a manner judged fundamentally wrong or immoral by current standards.
There are more constructive and informative ways of reminding us of the tragic legacy of the past than just destroying such statuary.
History should never be expunged or rewritten if subsequent generations are to learn from the mistakes of the past.
In absolute terms, what is the difference between removing 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston’s statue from its perch in the English city of Bristol and denying memorials to the victims of Tiananmen Square?
Instead of throwing Colston’s statue into the harbor, how much more could have been achieved by attaching an explanation of the man’s involvement in a diabolical trade, to remind people that slavery, in any form and at any time, is evil?
The acquittal of the four people indicted for criminal damage to Colston’s statue has set up a hue and cry among swaths of Conservative members of the British Parliament and the minions of the fascistophile yellow press who are screaming for a law that will prevent such a miscarriage of their concept of justice.
There are more than enough laws on the statute books to deal with the impugned behavior. Yet all these yapdogs have found a champion in the person of Suella Braverman, Britain’s current attorney general.
This worthy is actively considering referring the jury’s verdict to the Court of Appeal under a rarely used statutory power in her armory.
To do this, she will have to point to a grave error of law in the trial judge’s directions to the jury. The particular beauty of acquittal by a jury selected randomly from the local population is that, ordinarily, it cannot be overturned.
Even if Braverman does refer it to the Court of Appeal and that court finds fault in the judicial directions, the acquittal of the four people charged cannot be reversed.
But the concern of leading lawyers expert in criminal law is the attack upon the jury system, because, as the late Lord Devlin said, no tyrant could afford to leave a subject’s freedom in the hands of 12 of his countrymen.
Rather than being blinded by what appears to have been verdicts that ran counter to the evidence, Braverman should be asking herself why a jury of ordinary Bristolians returned this verdict.
Every barrister experienced in criminal law – which Braverman is not – knows that juries have a remarkable facility for effecting a just outcome. That is part of the genius of the jury system.
Even if given impeccable directions by a trial judge and equally appropriate guidance by prosecuting counsel, a jury will return a verdict that accords with their understanding of their oath to try the defendant faithfully and give a true verdict according to the evidence. The critical words are “true verdict.”
There are occasions when a jury’s verdict of not guilty may conflict with the evidence that has been adduced. But a close examination will usually reveal that the verdict is true to the innate justice of the case.
Some of us have experienced such an outcome where the judge abused his position of power over the proceedings to favor the prosecution. Done with skill, such judicial bias can withstand examination by an appellate court.
But a jury alive to such judicial attempts to achieve a conviction will, on occasion, do justice by acquitting the accused. By and large, juries dislike attempts to railroad them into a conviction.
Or as one cynic observed, should a jury be deprived of its inalienable right to be told what to do by the judge?
On other occasions, it may just be that the compelling human drama of the case conflicts with the letter of the law, and a jury sensitive to the facts effects justice by an acquittal.
Sometimes, a critical analysis of the prosecution’s case indicates that the majesty of the law is akin to taking a steamroller to crush a nut. A robust jury could demonstrate its low regard for such a mismatch.
Suella Braverman, as a product of an administration mostly notable for its lack of anyone of genuine judgment or ability, not counting the liars and sleaze merchants, really would be wise to consult appropriate members of the legal profession before demonstrating such bigotry and jumping on board the ignoramus express.
Much the more significant issue is why such a jury would thumb their nose at the law. One answer readily to hand is that they wished to show the contempt in which they hold Prime Minister Boris “Bunter” Johnson.
What should not happen in an advanced society is the sort of knee-jerk reaction Suella Braverman epitomized in her pronouncement in the light of the jury’s verdict.
This prostitution of the law for political purposes is anathema to the basic philosophy of the common law.
But Braverman has form for this.
While paying lip service to the obligation to honor an international treaty, her plastic concept of legality holds that a treaty can be breached because, in the cant of the Brexiteers, Parliament is sovereign. This overlooks the fact that it was the government holding a majority in Parliament that entered that treaty.
As the Bristol jury demonstrated, pigs do not have wings.
Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.
This article was originally published on Asia Times. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.