Should David Cameron have gone to prison?

David Cameron comes out with his hands up
The game's up, sonny

The Prime Minister has been in a tough-talking mood lately. He has been adamant that there can be “no excuses” for the kind of “sheer criminality” that plagued London and other English cities in the early days of August. He has told the House of Commons that anybody involved in violent disorder should expect to go to prison, and welcomed the swift and stern retribution handed out during all-night court sittings. But even this is not enough to slake the government’s thirst for vengeance, for councils are being urged to use their powers to evict families from their homes if their children are charged with looting. Asked if it was fair to make people homeless, Mr Cameron replied forcefully: “They should have thought about that before they turned on their own communities.”

It is fascinating to contrast this uncompromising rhetoric with the excuses Mr Cameron offered for his own behaviour as an undergraduate in Oxford. It is widely known that he, Boris Johnson and the other members of the Bullingdon Club saw it as great sport to dress up in £3,000 tailcoats and hold raucous dinner parties in posh restaurants, at the end of which they would smash the establishment to pieces. When asked about this noble tradition in 2009, he admitted to being “very embarrassed” but observed: “We do things when we are young that we deeply regret.” Shortly afterwards the famous Bullingdon club photograph starring Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson was withdrawn from circulation, and a line was drawn under the incident. But in the light of the Prime Minister’s merciless zeal for punishing wrongdoing with the harshest sanctions available (and then some), it seems only proper to ask how his own behaviour would have measured up.

Precise facts about the extent of Mr Cameron’s Bullingdon antics are hard to come by. Most accounts of the 1987 outing note that he had left the scene before the destruction began (unlike Mr Johnson, who had to hide in a hedge when the police arrived). After a plant pot was thrown through a restaurant window, six members of the group spent the night in Cowley police station before being released without charge. The general consensus is that because Mr Cameron had departed before the missiles started flying, he was not directly involved in any trouble. Unfortunately for him, the law of conspiracy to commit criminal damage does not allow this as a defence:

“The essential element of the crime of conspiracy is the agreement by two or more people to carry out a criminal act. Even if nothing is done in furtherance of the agreement, the offence of conspiracy is complete.
“The actus reus is the agreement. This cannot be a mere mental operation; it must involve spoken or written words or other overt acts. If the defendant repents and withdraws immediately after the agreement has been concluded, s/he is still guilty of the offence.”

(source: Crown Prosecution Service)

There can be no ambiguity: had it been proved in court that the Bullingdon Club members planned to go out and damage property as a group, they would all have been guilty as charged. The law does not distinguish between which individuals carried out the damage and which merely planned it: in fact, they can still be found guilty even if the plan is never carried out. What’s more interesting is that the offence of conspiracy to commit criminal damage is triable only on indictment – that is, it is deemed too serious to be handed by a magistrates’ court. So had the police chosen to press charges against Mr Cameron and his fellows, they would have been looking at a hearing in the Crown Court and a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.

Great as the temptation is to despise the young Cameron and his preening brethren, only an idiot would contend that any good would have been served by incarcerating these bright young men. Yet this is exactly the kind of blinkered justice that he now wishes to mete out to others. An intelligent approach is being trashed in favour of one which puts the welfare of whole families at the mercy of their teenage children’s whims. If this policy were pursued to its logical conclusion, most of the homes in Britain would be empty by the end of the month.

Why does it matter? In the current climate, when people are being sent to prison for six months for stealing water bottles worth £3.50, or facing even longer sentences for taking cakes from a bakery, it is vital that the law retains a sense of proportion. Many of the people being sent to prison are first-time offenders; some of them will have felt genuine shock and remorse for their actions. All of them will find it harder to get a job on their release. To tar everybody with the same brush is to criminalise a generation who could have benefited from a second chance. It is inconceivable that David Cameron would have got anywhere near the dispatch box if the guidelines applied to today’s rioters had been in force in Oxford in 1987. He wouldn’t even have been entitled to vote during his spell in the clink. (And let’s not forget that his deputy, Nick Clegg, narrowly avoided being charged with arson as a 16-year-old over what he has since excused as a “drunken prank”).

Moreover, despite Mr Cameron’s vow to hunt down and punish those who carried out the recent violence, the reality is that most of the main protagonists will get away with it. Experienced criminals know that it is hugely difficult to gather conclusive evidence amid the chaos of a riot. Those who were caught red-handed or handed themselves in out of remorse will be severely punished, while the unrepentant will plead not guilty and walk away for lack of proof, or never be caught at all. In practical terms the message is clear: if you’re going to riot, go in prepared. Above all, have an escape plan handy, just as our Prime Minister did all those years ago.

The Bullingdon years continue to be a sore point for David Cameron, but nobody should apologise for raising them again in the wake of recent statements. By his own stringent standards, he would very probably have spent part of his twenties in jail. He has insisted in the past that whatever he did before entering politics should remain private. Quite frankly, he should have thought about that before he started hatching plans to smash up restaurants. Perhaps, too, he should reflect upon the leniency of the police in those days, and ask himself which is really the more constructive approach.

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