Party Man

Linsey McGoey

How many children does he have? For years Boris Johnson couldn’t say. Does he understand the lockdown rules that his government imposed in 2020? He claims not. Did he realise he was at his own birthday party? Nope. But with his much touted knowledge of Latin, Johnson can surely understand the phrase ‘ignorantia legis neminem excusat.’ Ignorance of the law excuses no one.

The principle is ancient, visible in the writing of Aristotle and Cicero, and its influence can be felt in all modern legal systems, for several reasons. First, it encourages public literacy of the law. Second, it places a burden on authorities to make laws publicly accessible. Most important, it closes an obvious loophole that Steve Martin did a comedy bit about on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s:

You’re accused of a ‘foul crime’, you just say two simple words: ‘I forgot.’ And if someone replies: ‘You forgot?’ You say: ‘Well. Excuuuse me!’

It looks as if Boris Johnson has stolen Steve Martin’s lines. And the joke’s on us, because it’s working: at least for Johnson, still clinging to power (for now), or for Priti Patel, who faced no personal penalty for the bullying claims settled by the Home Office. It works for those at the top, who think the rules don’t apply to them for the simple reason that often they don’t.

Take the idea that ignorance of the law excuses no one. At one time upheld as a universal principle, in recent decades it has been relaxed – but only for some crimes, those disproportionately committed by richer individuals, such as tax evasion. (‘You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes!’ Martin’s skit began.) As one legal scholar puts it, for the tax evader ignorance really ‘is bliss’. Forget to pay a hefty tax bill? No problem, as long as you can afford the right lawyers. Forget you had weed in your pocket? The excuse won’t fly – especially if you happen to be a person of colour in Britain, where black and minority ethnic offenders are more likely to be sent to prison for drug offences than other defendants.

The Metropolitan Police announced this morning that they would after all be ‘investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations’. It was unusual, the Met commissioner said, to investigate ‘retrospectively’, but there was a need to consider whether ‘there was evidence that those involved knew or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence.’ In other words, ignorance is now, rather conveniently, a possible excuse. If Johnson didn’t ‘know’ he was committing an offence, he could be cleared. Funny how this hasn’t been a valid excuse for others.

A 66-year-old man in Brockley who went to his allotment in January 2021 was fined £100. He told the courts: ‘I am a pensioner struggling to pay my way, and in debt already. I did not wish to break the law.’ Tough shit for him; he’s not the prime minister. Tough shit, too, for those stopped by Warrington police, who boasted on 29 March 2020 that

Overnight 6 people have been summonsed for offences relating to the new corona virus legislation to protect the public: These included;
Out for a drive due to boredom
Returning from parties

Many people at the time raised concerns with the heavy-handed police approach. How do we know someone was ‘bored’ rather than feeling threatened by domestic violence? How do we know a walk to the park didn’t stave off feelings of self-harm?

The police weren’t tasked with considering such ambiguities. The more prosecutions, the more ‘evidence’ of public recklessness, making it easier for the government to shift the blame onto those who could least afford the fines, rather than shouldering any responsibility itself for the failures that have led to more than 150,000 deaths from Covid-19.

Johnson is tough on crime – but only crimes committed by other people. ‘If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour,’ he said last August, ‘and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.’ Not him though. He’s not a real criminal. He’s rich and in power, and that makes him different.

Getting rid of Johnson will not solve Britain’s problems. The Conservative policies that have seen child poverty, homelessness and reliance on food banks soar since 2010 will not be reversed under a new leader. A defence today of the principle of the rule of law won’t make a fairer society overnight. But it’s a move in the right direction. Accepting flagrant abuses of power because it’s uncertain that anything will really change is the height of nihilism. Ejecting even one corrupt or incompetent leader is worth it as proof that it can be done.


  • 26 January 2022 at 12:07am
    CarpeDiem says:
    Exactly. It wasn't always like this, and there is no reason why it has to remain like this forever. Things can and will change, but for them to change for the better, we, the hoi polloi, have to keep fighting and resisting.

  • 26 January 2022 at 3:49pm
    dbates says:
    "It was unusual, the Met commissioner said, to investigate ‘retrospectively’"

    But surely crimes can only be investigated retrospectively? If they've not already taken place, how can they be investigated? Unless she thinks that Minority Report was non-fiction?

    • 27 January 2022 at 3:45pm
      JonathanDawid says: @ dbates
      True, but that doesn't make what the Commissioner said wrong. Most reports of non-violent crime don't lead to any investigation - just a crime number being issued for insurance purposes.

  • 26 January 2022 at 5:48pm
    cissycaffrey says:
    I did enjoy this piece but not sure I agree that 'ejecting even one corrupt or incompetent leader is worth it as proof that it can be done'. A competent Tory leader -- now there's a scary thought. I note many Tories baying for his blood and really wonder if the rest of us shouldn't prefer to keep this politically omnidirectional self-serving clown for now. O... and... that old authoritarian imperial Latin maxim is really not a principle to get behind is it? BJ's charm is his insouciance of course, but I'm just glad George Osborne, who makes the kind of laws you really have to break, is not in charge.

  • 26 January 2022 at 6:33pm
    keithbilton says:
    Presumably the opposite of investigating crimes "retrospectively" is investigating them before they have been committed.

  • 26 January 2022 at 6:45pm
    Margaret d'Armenia says:
    Good to see it quoted in Latin - ignorantia legis neminem excusat- but I wish this article had quoted the specific regulations that Boris Johnson has breached. That it is particularly so since the article appears to take it for granted (which may well prove to be the case) that the issue is not merely about 'potential breaches', as stated by the Met, but actual breaches, and that when the Met speak of 'those involved', they primarily mean Johnson.

  • 27 January 2022 at 7:26pm
    Gary Cornwell says:
    As a rule the capitalist class and their representatives in government or otherwise even if prosecuted will be unlikely to be found guilty of any offence. How could they be? They own and control society, it’s assets, it’s production and its rules. If they decide they wish to do something differently (that may or may not be deemed criminal) who is going to tell them otherwise? The working class on the other hand own nothing but their labour power. This they must sell to capital in order to live. If they are starving and steal items to feed, clothe, shelter themselves or their families then they will feel the full force of capital’s law. And under the law of capital it is not theirs. It is already owned by someone with much greater clout than them and they will squashed like a bug for their impudence.

    • 29 January 2022 at 4:54pm
      Graucho says: @ Gary Cornwell
      “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread”

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