Conservative MEP for the East of England, David C Bannerman, has taken it upon himself to call for the Treason Act to be brought up to date. He refers to “extreme jihads”, but also to those he claims are “seeking to destroy or undermine the British state” and are “actively working undemocratically against U.K. through extreme EU loyalty”.
An update to the law has been advocated by Tory MP Tom Tugendhat and his Labour colleague Khalid Mahmood in a recent report by the Policy Exchange. This follows the decision to allow two ISIS fighters to be trialled in the US. Turgendhat explained on Twitter that “we need to update them to try criminals here, not exporting them to the US breaking our own rules on the death penalty. That means an updated treason law because betrayal matters – it unpicks society and creates divisions.”
However, the report focused specifically on the threat posed other states or organisations (such as ISIS) that mean harm to Britain. Indeed, the report concludes that new laws should be applied to people “…choosing to betray our country by aiding states or organisations that attack or intend to attack the UK or against which UK forces are engaged.”
What Bannerman’s vitriol language has done is target the 48% of democratic participants as “treasonous”. By claiming treason amounts to people “undermining” the state, he believes that the state is above the people, the state is the nation. This is fundamentally wrong as it is the people that make up the body of and are the nation.
Language such as this is becoming more common and, in doing so, becoming more dangerous. In November 2016 the Daily Mail labelled Supreme Court judges as “enemies of the people”, and it was only just over two years ago that Jo Cox was murdered amid shouts from her attacker of “Britain First”. Treason is an interesting, evocative and powerful word that if being used easily is dangerous. Used in the manner as has been done by Bannerman can easily be manipulated and lead to divisions and enemies within a nation. It intends on defining citizens by opposing one against another. Treason was typically used in times of war against another state. By using it to label those within Britain who fight for a European identity and institutions, he is using the language of war against British democratic participants.
Centralised states and nations are not natural. They have developed over a complex means over a long period of time. It is important for people to constantly question and challenge the state, otherwise, they have proven to become overwhelmingly powerful and encroach on individual liberties, as has happened gradually over the past hundred years. The state should never be deemed as above of the people, nor should the ‘nation’ be deemed as separate of the people. The people are the nation, the state is there to work for citizens. Therefore, if people do not like the work the state carries out of course they are within their moral compass to challenge and undermine the state. Neither the state nor nation should necessarily be the centre of people’s lives and a divine being.
The French Revolution of 1789 embodied the nation as “the people”. Why should “the people” be held to account to the nation or the state? The nation, and especially the British nation, is an abstract concept. Historians argue about when it began, or even if it has existed at all. Where does one look to begin? Treaty of Westphalia 1648? Act of Union 1707? Irish home rule 1920? What about 1066? Even culturally, the majority of Wales did not speak English till the immediate years before the First World War.
Thus, despite what Mr Bannerman believes, it is not treason to attempt to undermine the state. It is certainly right to protest and fight back against something you do not believe in. What is legal is not necessarily moral. The conscientious objectors in the Great War suffered greatly for their principles, and eventually won supporters, even if it took many years after their deaths. The Chartists refused to bow under pressure and continuously undermined the state resulting in the 1832 Great Reform Act, and still continued to struggle in search for equality, justice and what they deemed right through to 1848.The women’s suffrage protesters battled mercifully against the state, undermining it at every juncture. Alan Turing, the great war hero, was undermining the state by breaking contemporary laws on homosexuality. In 2003, the one million and more Iraq War protesters undermined the state. Tom Paine undermined the British state when he joined the French Chamber of Deputies and promoted the ideas of the French Revolution. At any one time, these people undermined the state and acted illegally. Yet these are the people that make up a nation and won victories that we take for granted as being right. This proves that the state can be wrong and being a citizen of that nation does not mean you have to accept and bow down to it.
And if Mr Bannerman wants to cherry pick his ideas of treason against the British state due to the EU Referendum, what about the people of Scotland who overwhelmingly voted to remain? Is any Brexit deal not treasonous to Scots? Is a state following a policy and ideology that knowingly puts the peoples’ livelihoods at risk treasonous, such as one of following a policy that could lead to the stockpiling of foods?
If the people are the nation, is it not treasonous for those running the state to see police offices and NHS Staff being forced to use food banks? For a rise in child poverty? A rise in homelessness? Is the general assault on the welfare state, treasonous?
This outburst from an elected official is another example of the democratic and liberal rights we take for granted coming under attack. 48% of the electorate voted to remain. Standing up for and protecting their voice as engaged and participatory citizens cannot be counted as treasonous. Obedience and conformity is not natural nor safe. It is against the principles of liberty that the British people have battled for years to roll over and allow the state to dictate to them. It is not treasonous to challenge and hold accountable a state that many see as leading them to hardship.