Conspiracy law, class and society - Part 8
Updated: Jan 10, 2021
We do not put people on trial in this country for their political views
(Judge Alan King-Hamilton, Persons Unknown trial, December 1979)
In 1920 the Communist party of Great Britain was founded. Five years later, following a police raid on party headquarters in King Street, ten leading members of the party including Harry Pollitt and Wal Hannington were charged with seditious conspiracy and with conspiracy to incite breaches of the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 The Director of Public Prosecutions had authorised their prosecution, which was based on the contents of books, pamphlets and documents seized during the raid. The Crown placed particular emphasis on the Workers Weekly, which as an organ of the party had urged troops not to help the government in the event of a General Strike. The essence of the prosecution’s case was that communism was in itself a seditious conspiracy because it sought class war, the seduction of the forces of the Crown from their allegiance and the overthrow of the government by force.
Mr Justice Swift ruled that, as a matter of law, the Communist Party was an illegal organisation, upon which instructions from Moscow were binding, and that the sole question for the jury was whether the defendants had intended to foment civil war. All the accused were convicted after a jury retirement of twenty minutes. Before pronouncing sentence, Swift offered not to take away their liberty if they undertook to have no further association with the Communist Party and not to engage in political activities similar to those with which they had been charged. None accepted this offer: they were given twelve months in prison. The case had a number of unusual features. It is one of the very rare instances of a twentieth-century sedition trial. It took place at a time when ‘political’ conspiracy cases were not in fashion with prosecutors, despite the fact of an impending General Strike. Perhaps the trial may best be understood by its results, which were most useful for the government: the leadership of the Communist Party was removed from the political and industrial scene by means of the common law at a time which was crucial for the preparation of the climax of the struggle between trade unionists and employers, the general strike.
More recently, activities in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament have been considered sufficiently serious for conspiracy charges to be brought. In December 1960 the Committee of One Hundred held a sit-down protest at the Royal Air Force Station, Wethersfield. Six of the Committee were later prosecuted for conspiring to incite others to commit a breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911, for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state, to enter RAF Wethersfield. Section 1 of the Act, allegedly the object of the conspiracy, makes it an offence if a person ‘approaches, inspects, passes over, or is in the neighbourhood of, or enters any prohibited place’. The section is clearly aimed at espionage and was rushed through Parliament after a pre-First World War spy scare. Much of the evidence against the six was given by a Special Branch officer who had infiltrated the Committee’s headquarters and taken note of their plans for the demonstration.
The defendants sought to argue that, far from being prejudicial to the safety of the state, their actions in attempting to persuade the government to abandon nuclear weapons were beneficial to the national interest. The Attorney-General, appearing in person, convinced the court that it was for the government of the day to decide what was in the public interest: discussion of this topic was irrelevant. After their conviction the judge gave the six a choice between imprisonment an assuring his that they were completely misguided and that they would give up their campaign of civil disobedience. Just as the Communist accused had done 40 years earlier, all six chose the former: five of them received eighteen-month sentences and the sixth, Helen Allegranza, was given twelve months. Their appeals were later dismissed by the House of Lords on the ground that, ‘where the Secretary of State had declared places to be prohibited, or that interference therewith would be useful to an enemy, the accused was not entitled to say that his purpose was not prejudicial to the State- the Crown alone was entitled to decide the disposition and order of the armed forces.’ Once again common law conspiracy had successfully removed the leadership of a radical movement.