The acquittal of the Colston Four will prompt close scrutiny of the actions of the home secretary, Priti Patel, who became personally involved in ensuring that they were pursued through the criminal justice system.
Hours after the statue of the slave trader was toppled on 7 June 2020, Patel appeared on Sky News to demand that police pursue those responsible, saying their behaviour was “utterly disgraceful”.
“It is right that the police follow up on that and make sure that justice is taken, undertaken, with those individuals that are responsible for such disorderly and lawless behaviour,” she said.
Two days later, it emerged that she had also called Andy Marsh, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset police, to demand an explanation.
Her comments and subsequent actions have been queried by close observers. Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England, questioned why she appeared to have become so heavily involved in pursuing those involved instead of leaving decisions to police and prosecutors.
“We have a tripartite regime for a reason and that is so that politicians do not get involved in the operational decisions taken by the police,” he told the Guardian.
“It may be that she has overstepped the boundaries of that arrangement that we have had for nearly 200 years. It is not something that I think she would want to repeat.”
Stuart C McDonald, the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, said the prosecution always appeared uncalled for, ill-considered and a waste of resources. “The home secretary’s meddling was inappropriate, ill-judged and shows how totally out of touch she is,” he said.
This is not the first time Patel has faced criticism for involvement in police operations, particularly when it comes to confronting demonstrators.
Police sources told the Guardian last year that heavy-handed tactics used at the Sarah Everard vigil followed a meeting at the Home Office where it was made clear the government wanted a pandemic ban on large gatherings to be enforced. Senior officers were told Patel would make a statement saying so – but the statement never came, it was claimed.
Whitehall sources said Patel repeatedly criticised local police for not protecting the Colston statue in 2020 or making arrests on the day.
The dilemma they faced was explained and justified by the Avon and Somerset force’s Superintendent Andy Bennett, who was acutely aware of the campaign against the statue and why officers could not be seen to defend it.
“[Colston was] a historical figure that’s caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years. So while I am disappointed that people … damaged one of our statues, I do understand why it’s happened, it’s very symbolic,” he told the BBC. “We made a very tactical decision that to stop people doing that act may have caused further disorder.”
Labour MPs suspect that ministers have become obsessed with the issue of statues and whether they may be toppled because they are pursuing a “war on woke”.
Kerry McCarthy, the MP for Bristol East, said in March: “We know what it is about. It is about stoking up social and cultural anxieties to win votes, seeking out not what we have in common, but what divides us, fanning the flames.”
But Labour are facing their own dilemma following the verdict. Keir Starmer sparked unease across the left of his party the day after the Colston statue was toppled by condemning the actions of the protesters.
In a clear shift in tone from Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude to civil disobedience, Starmer told LBC radio: “It shouldn’t have been done in that way, [it was] completely wrong to pull a statue down like that.
“[But] stepping back, that statue should have been taken down a long, long time ago. We can’t, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue.”
As of Wednesday night, neither Patel nor Starmer had released a statement commenting on the verdict.