MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith was “astonished” after a man accused of “slamming” him over the head with a traffic cone and calling him “Tory scum” was cleared of legal charges due to “weak” evidence. Three protestors, one of whom claimed the use of the traffic cone was a “practical joke”, followed the MP through a city centre following the Conservative Party Conference last year. Elliot Bovill, 32, of no fixed address, was charged along with common assault – but the chief magistrate, Senior District Judge Paul Goldspring, said the evidence that identified him was “weak” and “tenuous”, dismissing the charge.
Sir Iain said he told the group “you are pathetic” as they followed them, while Lady Duncan Smith said she, her husband and her friend had been confronted with a “barrage of rudery”.
The 68-year-old MP told the Daily Mail that he was left “astonished”, adding that the court’s decision set a precedent that politicians were “fair game”.
He said: “Seemingly you can now walk down the street screaming abuse at me, and your right to protest trumps my right not to be intimidated. No matter how threatening the behaviour of protesters is, no action will be taken against them.”
He had told Manchester Magistrates’ Court he feared for his wife and her friend as they were followed by the protestors down Portland Street in Manchester, who Lady Duncan Smith also claimed “used the c-word, the f-word, they called us scum, Tory scum”.
Mr Goldspring later acquitted co-defendants Radical Haslam, 29, of Douglas Street, Salford, and Ruth Wood, 51, of Oak Tree Avenue, Cambridge, of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress. The chief magistrate explained the case against Mr Haslam and Ms Wood centred around using the phrase “Tory scum”.
He said the way they used the phrase was “insulting and pejorative, and I don’t accept that that wasn’t their intention.”
But Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act detail the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. Mr Goldspring said that within this context, the behaviour was “reasonable”.
He said: “The courts do not criminalise free speech. The Crown has not shown me it is proportionate to criminalise those words.”
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The judge also stressed that his decision that the use of the words “Tory scum” was not criminal was only relevant to “this court, in this case, on this evidence”. He was clear that his ruling could not be applied to other contexts.
Ms Wood, who manages a homelessness charity project, denied that they had called the group “c****”. She described this kind of language as “problematic terminology” that she would not use.
The charity worker added that Mr Haslam was “making some quite good points”, and that she herself wasn’t “really chanting very much”, and was “just drumming along”.
Ms Wood said: “There was nothing particularly threatening about what we were doing, in my mind. Not once did he turn round or try to tell us to stop. It just didn’t seem to me as if they were concerned at all.”
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She added that the cone had “seemed to me at the time like a practical joke”.
Mr Haslam, who said he was a student at Manchester Metropolitan University as well as a writer and a poet, said he saw their interaction as an “opportunity to have my voice heard”.
He said: “We saw a politician and saw an opportunity to express our political views. We live in a democracy where protest is legal. I was hoping for some sort of exchange.”
The student agreed that he shouted a series of comments at the MP, saying “shame on you” in relation to a range of policies relating to child poverty, climate change and homelessness.
He said he was making a speech which, he acknowledged, ended with the phrase “Tory scum”.
Asked about the use of the cone on Sir Iain, Haslam said: “He didn’t come across as alarmed or distressed. He came across as angry that it had happened.”
Mr Goldspring had earlier told the court that Mr Bovill was identified by a detective following poor-quality CCTV footage, which he described as “vague and flawed”, meaning his identification was “weak, it’s tenuous, and it is completely unsupported by any other evidence”.