Andrew Lilico is an economist with Europe Economics and a member of the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee.
It is now widely accepted that the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” affair has involved policemen conspiring to smear the name of a Cabinet Minister. The case has drawn comparisons with other examples of police conspiracies to hide or distort the truth, including extremely serious matters such as the Tomlinson affair, Jean Charles de Menezes, Hillsborough and others. I do not intent to argue that the smearing of Andrew Mitchell is equivalent to the covering up of the circumstances surrounding a death. However, the contention I do wish to offer here is that a police conspiracy to smear a member of the Government should be regarded as more serious than an equivalent offence against a private citizen.
In a rare lapse, Daniel Hannan complains, with respect to the Mitchell affair, that “our criminal justice system depends on being able to accept the word of a police officer”. That is incorrect. The traditional English criminal justice system is based upon virtually the opposite assumption, namely that malicious or simply inaccurate accusations can be made by anyone, so we should assume that anyone is innocent until proven guilty and the burden for demonstrating guilt lies entirely on the side of the accuser.
The temptation to make false accusations is such a fundamental aspect of human nature that one of the Ten Commandments (the Ninth) is devoted to it, stating: “Do not offer false testimony”. When children are taught this commandment they are often, quite wrongly, taught that it is equivalent to “Do not lie”. It is much more specific than that. The Ninth Commandment tells us not to make false accusations or to fail to counter false accusations if we know them to be false. We are easily tempted into making false accusations or failing to speak out against them in all kinds of settings – family gossip, analysis of failings at work, political smears, mob attacks on those accused of sex crimes. Sometimes people make false accusations from apparently good intentions, just as they sometimes steal or murder from apparently good intentions. A policeman who believes he knows who a serial killer is may be tempted to plant evidence so as to prevent further deaths. A newspaper that believes a minister dangerously incompetent may run with a poorly sourced smear because it thinks her removal in the public interest.
Thus we should not assume that even well-intentioned police officers will always be truthful and accurate. But for policemen there are further serious issues here, for not all crimes are alike.
For example, not all murders are alike. Murdering the Monarch or the heir to the throne or murdering one of the Queen’s Justices in the pursuit of his duty is not simply the crime of murder, but of high treason – carrying the death penalty in the UK until 1998, long after the death penalty was abolished for mere murder. The reason is that such murders are not simply offences by one private citizen against another or even offences against the Queen’s Peace. Rather, they are injuries against the state as a whole.
In much the same way, for police officers to conspire to smear the reputation of an individual is an appalling slander, and if they falsify police records may even be a crime. But these are crimes against private citizens. For the police to conspire to smear a Cabinet Minister in a way that makes him lose his job is a different sort of crime altogether: it is an assault by the police upon the state.
If indeed it is proven that police officers have conspired to smear Andrew Mitchell, that is not simply a slander – something for him to sue for damages in civil court. If they have falsified police records that is not simply the ordinary sort of falsification offence, where proportionality might determine to what extent it is merely a disciplinary matter. A conspiracy by police officers to smear a Cabinet Minister so as to make him lose his job is an assault upon the state, upon democracy itself. It should be seen as a crime (if necessary, a crime falling under some ancient offence), and if it is proved the officers concerned must go to jail.
Otherwise, what are we saying? That it is for the police to select who governs us, and if they are caught doing so they get a slap on the wrist, maybe lose some pension entitlements, perhaps have to pay slander damages? Is that what our appetite to protect democracy has come to?