If This Be Treason
As soon as he could after the bombs went off in London on 7 July Tony Blair came on the TV to address the nation, as is expected of all great national leaders at times of crisis and danger. His message, in the sense that it had already been largely worked out for him by the media, was unexceptional. “This is” he said, “a very sad day for the British people but we will hold true to our way of life”. Whether that “way of life” was represented by waging war on a country on the basis of lies about it being an immediate threat to world safety with its massively powerful weapons he did not say. But in case there were any lingering misapprehensions about it he plunged on: “When they [the bombers] try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated”.
This use of the words “us” and “we” was designed to create the impression that Blair was facing the same dangers, of being blown to pieces on the London Tube or buses, as the rest of us. In fact he made his defiant speech on a brief break from the G8 at Gleneagles, where the participants were protected by a high, impenetrable metal screen backed up by a few thousand police officers. When, back in London, he travels the quarter mile or so between his home in Downing Street and his workplace in the Houses of Parliament he does not face the same risks as working Londoners because he is whisked on his journey in a bullet-proof car, among a swarm of police on motor bikes, through streets which have been swept clear of other people. By most reasonable standards anyone who behaves in that way can be described as “intimidated”. Not that Blair lives by the same standards as the rest us, who are merely expendable members of the working class.
But after his intimidated bravado Blair had to give some attention to tracking down the bombers’ organisation and being seen to be actively working against another such incident. During this it leaked out that in future our “way of life” may be subject to the decisions of secret “anti-terror” courts, ruled over by “security cleared” judges with the accused being represented by “special advocates” who had also been vetted for “security”. Other news revealed that some of the defendants before such courts, if British subjects, may find themselves charged with the offence of treason. It seemed fairly obvious that these proposed changes, in the panic after 7 July, were designed to induce a retributive thrill among those whose enjoyment of our way of life made them grateful for the protection of such a stoutly unintimidated government.
Treason is defined as a violation or betrayal of allegiance which is owed to a sovereign or a country, usually through joining, or giving support to, enemy in a war or attempting to overthrow the government. This definition is more comprehensive and more complex than it may at first seem to be. There have been cases when the person accused of treason has argued that they were not of the alleged nationality and so did not owe allegiance to that country or its sovereign. Anyone who regards the world’s population as a mass of human beings may marvel at capitalism’s need to disastrously complicate what are essentially simple matters – for which many a lawyer is grateful. It may be taken as an example of this that of the four categories of treason remaining from the Treason Act of 1351 there is still the offence of “violating” the wife of the king’s eldest son, which may have caused some lost sleep among the men who consorted with Princess Diana while she was still married to the Prince of Wales.
For a long time treason was a capital offence and to satisfy the thirst of the population to witness that traitors had got their just deserts the sentence was often to be hung, drawn and quartered in public. (In fact this sentence was not formally abolished until 1947 – one of the reforms for which the Atttlee government did not, for some reason, claim any credit.) After capital punishment was abolished in 1965 treason remained as one of the few offences which could still “attract” (as lawyers are fond of putting it) the death penalty. Wandsworth prison in London, just in case anyone was in need of being hanged, kept a scaffold in good working order.
One of the more famous examples of treason trials, which came to its appointed grisly end on the scaffold in 1916, was that of Roger Casement. He was an Irish man who at the turn of the century had been employed as a consul of the British government in what was then the Belgian Congo. There he was appalled by the slave conditions and the butchery imposed on the Congolese people by the Belgian rubber companies, under the authority of King Leopold II. Casement’s character was summed up by his manager, who complained that “He is very good to the natives, too good, too generous, too ready to give away. He would never make money as a trader”. He retired in 1911, with a knighthood and a British government pension and two years later he returned to live in Ireland where, not entirely justifiably, he drew parallels between what he had seen in the Congo and Irish problems. In the cause of Irish nationalism he helped to form the Irish Volunteers, an armed militia.
When the First World War began he advised Irish men against joining the British Army, on the grounds that the war with Germany was no concern of theirs. On a false passport he went to Germany with the intention of persuading Irish prisoners of war to fight against Britain. This was not as welcome as he might have hoped; the Germans found him an embarrassment and hastily shipped him, in a submarine, back to Ireland where he was quickly captured. At his trial he tried to argue that he was an Irishman, a case which was fatally weakened in law by his accepting employment as a British consul, a knighthood and a pension. He was quickly convicted and executed at Pentonville on 3 August 1916. After his death his diaries came to light, providing evidence that he was not only a traitor but also a homosexual, which was enough to provoke popular satisfaction that it was entirely appropriate to do away with him. It was not a time notable for rational assessment of such issues.
There were similarities between that case and of William Joyce, whose broadcasts from Germany during the Second World War eventually earned him the name of Lord Haw Haw and a death sentence at the Old Bailey. Joyce was accustomed to dazzling people with his somewhat undisciplined knowledge and his oratory. Organisations found it difficult to cope with him and he had to leave the Army, the Conservative Party and then the British Union of Fascists. All of this was expressed in his virulent anti-semitism; typical of his descriptions of Jews was as “submen with prehensile toes”. But for this he might have done well in the Tory Party (he was once close to being their parliamentary candidate in Chelsea) and in the BUF he held a position only a little below that of Oswald Mosley. Joyce was ejected from the BUF in what Mosley described as an economy drive; he went on to form the National Socialist League, which was closer to the Nazis (their meetings ended with shouts of “Sieg Heil”) but the NSL never made any headway and was about to be wound up when Joyce went to Germany just before the start of the war.
Although there is little evidence that Joyce’s broadcasts had any significant effect on the war morale in Britain, he did provoke a kind of bemused fascination and became the stuff of myths and rumours. At all events his pro-German activities were enough to ensure that when the war ended he would be arrested and brought to England to be tried for treason. Anticipating by some 60 years the Blair government’s manipulation of the legal system, Parliament rushed through the Treason Act of 1945, which replaced the elaborate and prolonged trial procedure which had been in force in cases of treason with a simpler and brisker style, similar to that of a murder trial.
It soon emerged that Joyce had a serious defence against the charge. He had been born in the USA of Irish parents who had become naturalised Americans in 1894. But as a young man he had come to England and had applied for a British passport by lying about his place of birth. His defence argued that, however he had described himself, he was in fact not British but the prosecutor – handsome, brilliant Hartley Shawcross, Attorney General in the 1945 Labour government – persuaded the jury, with a little help from the judge, that “common sense” should override procedure. The long queues which had formed overnight to witness Joyce’s trial were hungry for a guilty verdict and it took the jury only 23 minutes to agree. A little over three months later Joyce, having exhausted all the avenues of appeal, was executed at Wandsworth prison. Popular revenge had been satisfied.
Class and Patriotism
Among his admirers Joyce had a reputation as a relentlessly logical thinker. It was a strange kind of logic which accommodated his support of Germany’s war effort against Britain with his rabid British nationalism. (“The white cliffs of Dover! God bless old England on the lea” he exclaimed to his guard when he was being flown across the Channel to his trial). At the end he tried to escape the hangman by claiming to be an “alien”, which was the kind of accusation he was accustomed to make, in suitably contemptuous invective, about Jewish people. There was – and still is – nothing exceptional about such inconsistencies, which expose the fallacy of patriotism, with its essential creed of “my country right or wrong”. Workers, who make up the majority of capitalism’s people, have no country; however the system arbitrarily divides them according to ruling class rivalries, the workers are united in their poverty. For example it was not a coincidence that the number of victims of recent disasters such as the Asian tsunami and the Katrina hurricane was clearly related to the degree of their poverty. If you could afford it you got out in time; if you could not afford it.
That its workers should be patriotic is vital to each national ruling class and this, fertilised by official lies, is exploited by all governments. Following the 7 July bombs in London one politician after another rushed to denounce the bombers for killing innocent people, as if the British and American forces in Iraq were not also doing that, on a much larger scale. The response of the Blair government was very much as we have come to expect – distortions of facts, the creation of new offences and the revival of the treason charge, designed to stimulate a panic under cover of which the politicians could feel free to do what they would. The strategy in all this was to cement the workers’ patriotism, their loyalty to British capitalism. But as the smoke of the bombs cleared and the dead were counted the central fact remained that for workers to accept such a weary, discredited case is treason against their class.