The Prime Minister said people should not “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history” after four people were cleared of tearing down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were prosecuted for pulling the statue down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 2020 while a huge crowd was present. They were acquitted by a jury at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday.
A further six were given “restorative justice” outcomes, which saw them pay a £100 fine, undertake unpaid work and fill in a questionnaire about their actions.
The verdict prompted a debate about the jury system after the defendants – dubbed the Colston Four – opted to stand trial and did not deny involvement in the incident, instead claiming the presence of the statue was a hate crime and it was therefore not an offence to remove it.
But the prosecution said it was “irrelevant” who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage.
Asked about the verdict, Boris Johnson told broadcasters at a vaccination centre in Moulton Park, Northampton: “I don’t want to comment on that particular judgment – it’s a matter for the court.
“But what I would say is that my feeling is that we have a complex historical legacy all around us, and it reflects our history in all its diversity, for good or ill.
“What you can’t do is go around seeking retrospectively to change our history or to bowdlerise it or edit it in retrospect.
“It’s like some person trying to edit their Wikipedia entry – it’s wrong.
“And I think if people democratically want to remove a statue or whatever, that’s fine. But I think that, in general, we should preserve our cultural, artistic, historical legacy – that’s my view.”
Former justice secretary Robert Buckland defended the jury system, despite describing the verdict in the Colston case as “perverse”.
The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “Sometimes we will get jury verdicts that perhaps fly in the face of the law and sometimes the evidence, that is the price we pay for the admirable system, the system of jury trials that I and many others strongly believe in.”
During the trial, Judge Peter Blair QC told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence they have heard, after raising concerns in their absence that undue pressure was being placed on them by excessive rhetoric from defence barristers. He also warned members of the defendants’ many supporters about their behaviour in court.
A petition calling for a retrial, claiming the acquittal set a “dangerous precedent that endangers all of our national heritage”, has so far attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
But others dismissed claims the verdict sets a legal precedent which could give rise to other public monuments being defaced.
Describing the jury system as one of the UK’s “greatest monuments”, Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The decision does not set a precedent. It was a case decided by a jury on the facts before them.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner said on Twitter: “Anyone damaging property in future would have no way of knowing if a jury would convict or acquit them. The law is as it was.”
Earlier, Downing Street said while it respects individual jury decisions, vandalism “remains a crime” and “we expect the police to take all crimes seriously”.
It comes amid Government plans to change the law to “ensure those found guilty of desecrating or damaging a memorial face a punishment that better reflects the high sentimental and emotional impact these actions can have”.
Criminal damage can attract a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment, but the term is limited by the value of the damage caused.
Where the damage is less than £5,000, the maximum sentence is three months in jail and a fine of up to £2,500.
But the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which is being scrutinised by Parliament at present – would allow the courts to consider the “emotional or wider distress” caused by damage to public property, and raise the maximum sentence to 10 years regardless of the costs incurred.
This would extend to flowers or wreaths placed at memorials, such as on a gravestone or at the Cenotaph.