In Maidstone Crown Court, Six Greenpeace climate change activists have been cleared of causing £30,000 of criminal damage at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, in a verdict that is expected to embarrass the government and lead to more direct action protests against energy companies. In earlier cases over the last dozen years, vandals acting in the name of Greenpeace or other leftist causes have been acquitted of damage to GM crops, damage to an incinerator, damage to a Trident submarine and damage to a British Aerospace Hawk jet aircraft.
The defence of the Maidstone six was essentially that their behaviour was justified by the potential damage to the environment which could be caused by the power station.
These decisions represent a direct challenge to the rule of law as we understand it. There is a defence in cases of criminal damage that the damage was undertaken to prevent a greater evil — so it would be OK, for example, to break a stalled car’s window so as to move it out of the path of an on-coming train. But if the mere opinions and personal convictions of the vandals can be held to be a justification, then we are facing anarchy. Historically, those — like the Suffragettes — who broke the law on the grounds of conscience, knew and accepted the consequences of their actions. They were prepared to go to jail for their cause, and whether we agree with them or not, we can respect their courage and commitment. Now, it seems, the conscience justifies the criminal action, and absolves the vandal from any penalty.
I personally believe that The Hunting Act is a denial of my rights as a free-born Englishman, and I believe that hunting (especially fox-hunting) is good for wild-life and bio-diversity; good for countryside and landscape; and even, in a broad sense, good for the welfare and sustainability of the fox population itself. Is this a defence if I break the law on Hunting? I also believe that wind farms cannot be justified in either environmental or economic terms (see the excellent report today from the Renewable Energy Foundation), and that wind-farms blight homes and communities. I believe that the government’s huge reliance on wind in its energy planning is a threat to our country’s energy security, to our economy, to the prosperity and security of everyone in the UK — a threat as serious, and much more likely to happen, than Global Warming. So is it OK if I blow up a few wind turbines?
There are Animal Rights lunatics so exercised about the suffering of laboratory animals that they will blow up research facilities, release caged animals (in some cases, such as that of mink, causing great ecological damage), beat up the staff of research companies, and even dig up and hold for ransom the earthly remains of the relatives of research company directors. Are their actions justified by the animal suffering they imagine they are saving?
There are those in America, and perhaps in the UK, who believe that abortion is murder, that an abortion clinic is a den of infanticide. So they feel justified in attacking clinics and shooting medical staff. Can they use conscience as a defence? There are those (bizarrely) who seek to justify paedophilia on the grounds of “children’s sexual rights”. Is this a defence when they stand trial?
Most conspicuously, terrorists frequently believe their actions justified by a greater good. Apparently the 9/11 bombers believed that in destroying the Twin Towers, they were doing God’s will. If they had survived, would their claimed religious beliefs have been a defence?
We are on a slippery slope here. If we can be acquitted of serious crimes because we happen to believe that we serve a greater good, the Rule of Law in our country is hopelessly compromised. The issue is not whether, in a particular case, a jury happens to agree with the conscience and prejudices of the accused. The issue is whether large groups of people are entitled, because of their religious and other views, to break the laws which the rest of us obey. If so, then the Rule of Law will be replaced by the Law of the Jungle.