During Britain’s Covid crisis, the state had little hesitation in cracking down on citizens deemed to violate the rules. Just eight days before the party in the prime minister’s garden, a 45-year-old homeless man was hauled before the courts for violating lockdown restrictions. In fact, the police were so overzealous in their use of lockdown rules that the Crown Prosecution Service later found three in 10 cases had been incorrectly charged.
All in all, more than 100,000 fines have been handed out to people in England alone for an assortment of offences: from not wearing a face covering to mixing with people outside of your bubble. Needless to say, fines were not evenly distributed, with Black people seven times more likely to be fined by the police for lockdown breaches than white people. Of the total number of people fined, 371 people have been slapped with the maximum fee of £10,000 for – and wait for it – hosting gatherings of more than 30 people.
Such a sum is easily payable if you are earning something like – to pluck a random figure – the prime minister’s £161,401 salary. For millions of people, such a sum is financially ruinous: as it is, around two-thirds of the UK’s population carry personal debt.
All of this stands in the great tradition of the British state, of course. Many of our ministers have admitted to snorting or smoking a cacophony of illegal substances and cocaine traces have been found in parliament – unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with political circles, who knows that drug use is rife in them. Yet our ministers face no legal consequences for their substance use as they cheerlead a war on drugs that leaves Black people more likely to be arrested, charged and imprisoned for drug offences, often with life-ruining consequences. Our legal system cracks down on benefit fraud committed by the poorest, yet offers a whole series of legal tax loopholes for the well-to-do to exploit with abandon. One rule for them, another for us isn’t a cheap rhetorical device – it’s a statement of fact.
That our prime minister and dozens of his officials were necking booze in the garden while ordinary citizens were being harassed by police officers is a self-evident affront. That the Metropolitan police have so far had insufficient evidence to take legal action against No 10 for multiple parties despite numerous officers being posted on the estate, but have wrongfully prosecuted so many working-class and, disproportionately, Black citizens tells its own story.
Rather than wringing our hands at this injustice, we should be demanding action. There should be an immediate amnesty for those charged with breaking lockdown rules and their fines should be withdrawn. Those who have been made to pay often completely unaffordable sums should be reimbursed in full. The very people who designed the rules were able to shamelessly flout them while the state forced tens of thousands of often financially struggling people to open their wallets for lesser offences: this cannot stand. Pay them back, or tell the world loudly and proudly that British law exists to crack down on the poor and marginalised, while allowing the rich and powerful to run riot.