Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 112
19th September 2003
An Afternoon with Tony Martin
by Sean Gabb
Since time immemorial, on the third Thursday in September, Thame in Oxfordshire has hosted what is now the largest agricultural fair in the country. From all over England people come to buy and sell things and to see one another. There are tractor displays, and cows, and horses, and stalls selling clothing and food and drink, and vast car parks for the thousands of people who attend.
I was there yesterday at the invitation of the BBC. Bill Heine, a populist libertarian from America, has a show with Radio Oxford, and is in the habit of getting me on air every week or so for five minutes at a time. Yesterday, he wanted me not on the end of a telephone, but in person. Without offering the usual fee that I charge for leaving home, he wanted me to drive for a round trip of 300 miles to spend an hour live on air discussing rural crime and the right to self defence. For that distance and that time, regardless of fees, I would normally have refused. However, this was different. One of the other guests was to be Tony Martin.
He is the farmer who shot two thieves in August 1999, killing one and wounding the other. He was put on trial for murder and convicted. On appeal, his conviction was changed to manslaughter, and he was eventually released on Friday the 8th August this year, having spent more than three years in prison. He could have been released last year, but the authorities argued at the parole hearings that his lack of repentance made him a continuing danger to any thieves who might try to break into his home. He is presently facing a tort action for damages from the thief he neglected to kill—the man is claiming for loss of earnings and for reduced sexual function. His legal fees are being charged to the tax payers.
This is a case that has at times filled me and many other people with incandescent rage. It is the perfect summary of all that is wrong with modern England. Now, I was invited to meet the man at the centre of the case. Let alone driving—I might have walked the entire circuit of the M25 to be with him. So off I went.
The radio show was by design an anarchic affair. Bill Heine took us off the stage that had been set up for the broadcast, and had us mingle with the large crowd that stood around. He darted here and there with his microphone, every so often taking calls from the listeners. His guests were Tony Martin, I, and a Bill Bradshaw, who used to be the Vice Chairman of the Thames Valley Police Authority. I think he had been given a peerage by Tony Blair—which is, of course, to be regarded as null and void; and so I will call him Mr Bradshaw. He sprayed us with the usual junk statistics—burglary is unusual and diminishing; we are likely on average to be attacked in our homes once every 285 years; and so on and so forth. Al I can say in his favour is that he showed courage in turning up to a debate in which he could not possibly get the sympathy of his audience. I have done that, and it can be unnerving—even when you believe what you are saying; and I cannot believe he was entirely persuaded by the truth of some of his claims.
I do not intend to fill this article with an account of my own doings. In any event, I am to be sent a recording of the broadcast, and I will make this available on my website for anyone who wants to listen. However, I do need to explain how I came to be seen as a minor hero at the fair, and how I was able to speak so freely with people. I made my own introductory statement roughly as follows:
There is in any society an implied contract between state and citizen. We give up part of our right to self defence—only part, I emphasise—and all our right to act as judge in our own causes. We resign these matters to the state and obey its laws. In exchange, it maintains order more efficiently and more justly than we could ourselves. In modern England, the state has not broken this contract. If it had simply given up on maintaining order, that would be bad enough—but we could then at least shift for ourselves. No, the state in this country has varied the terms of the contract. It will not protect us, but it will not let us protect ourselves. If we ignore this command, we can expect to be punished at least as severely as the criminals who attack us. That is what the Tony Martin case is all about. This is not just a matter for the country. The towns have it just as bad, if not worse. If you are a victim of crime anywhere in this country, you are in it alone and undefended. Call for the Police, call for a home delivery pizza—see which arrives first.
Mr Bradshaw insisted I was talking nonsense—that the response times for burglary was excellent; and that the law on self defence was “plain” and had not changed in “hundreds of years”. I poured scorn on this:
The modern law says we may use “proportionate force” to defend ourselves. What does this mean in practice? It means this: You wake at 3:00am. Someone is moving about downstairs. You must go down and ask—”Excuse me, but have you come to tie me and my wife up and torture us slowly to death? Or are you here just to lift some cash and the car keys? If the former, I will consider what force to use that will be proportional. If the latter, I will retire upstairs and wait for the police. What nonsense! Anyone who is unlawfully in your home should be regarded as taking his life into his hands. If you kill him, that is his tough luck.
That got a big round of applause, and—as said—made me a hero for the day in Thame.
After the broadcast, I fell into conversation with Mr Martin. I was no sure what to expect. His coverage in the media has been almost wildly hostile. The usual picture of him shown is of a man with staring eyes and a morose look about his mouth and lower face. He is described as a “loner” with incoherent and nasty opinions about the world. This can all be discounted as the smears of a controlled media. The man I met yesterday—and I have photographs which I will publish to show it—was a cheerful, rather stolid farmer, though with an unusual fluency of speech. Far from avoiding company, he went into the crowd and mingled as if he had been doing outside broadcasts all his career. At least once, he carried on a three way conversation with someone in the crowd and with a telephone caller.
What most impressed me most, however, was his modesty. I come across many people who have been plucked from obscurity to face some public injustice inflicted by the authorities. Quite often, they come to regard themselves as people of immense importance, and take on airs and graces that sit ill on them. Now, Mr Martin has suffered more injustice than anyone I have ever met. He was treated as a common criminal and spent years in prison for doing what in any sensible country would be regarded as a public service. One of his dogs died while he was inside. His remaining dog—a black Rottweiler called Otto—had not at first recognised him after a three years absence. He is a continuing victim of persecution because of that law suit, and may lose still more before it has ended. To suffer all this would send many people mad. Mr Martin, though, behaved throughout yesterday’s appearance with quiet good humour. People came up to him in a continual stream, to shake his hand and give him their thanks and best wishes. He smiled. He gave as well as accepted sympathy. He had a kind word for everyone. I may have been a minor hero, but he was the main attraction. And it did not turn his head. I have met half mad loners. This was not one of them. I thought of John Hampden. By an odd coincidence, I later read that he had gone to school in Thame. So did John Wilkes.
We spoke for about an hour. Again, it was a chaotic affair, interrupted by other people and an interview he did with a rival broadcaster. We shook hands and said goodbye three times before we did part. We spoke about the shootings at his farm in 1999. He said that, after so much discussion of what happened and what he was supposed to have thought, he could no longer recall what had really happened. He said he was angry about his treatment by the Police. In particular, they had made much of the fact that he was fully clothed when the thieves broke into his home. They used that as evidence of intent to use violence. “If I was sleeping in my clothes” he asked, “what business was that of anyone? Surely what I do at home is my business alone. Ask any farmer if, after a hard day’s work, he always bothers to get changed for bed.”.
I asked if he was worried about further attacks. He showed me his mobile telephone. It had a red button on the top. “If I press this” he said, “a police helicopter will be overhead in five minutes. These people do not want still more bad publicity. But”—he smiled—”I don’t know what good a police helicopter can do me after five minutes. A lot can be done in that time”. Of course, he no longer has a shotgun licence. He reminded me of the motorcycling injury from his younger days that left him with a propensity to deep vein thrombosis. Had those thieves in 1999 taken him by surprise, they would have tied him up. That might have finished him there and then. Next time, without effective means of self defence, he might not be so lucky.
His opinions can be described as old-fashioned Tory. I can understand why these are so shocking to the media and political classes. But I heard nothing yesterday that any reasonable person could have found objectionable. “Democracy is dead in this country” he told me emphatically. “It was good while it lasted, but it’s now gone. The Government doesn’t care about ordinary people. The Police treat us with contempt. The way things are going, there will one day be a revolution in this country. Then, we shall need a benign dictatorship. I don’t mean this present lot will have more power. I mean a benign dictatorship that will give ordinary people back their rights.” Nothing eccentric there, I think, regardless of whether I agree with it. We exchanged addresses and parted—he back to his farming, I to look around the fair. Bill Heine had passed on to a debate about tractors that drive very slowly down country lanes. The debate was heated, but did not touch me.
Over by the Countryside Alliance stall, I fell into conversation with an old woman. She was 87, and had lost her husband and both brothers in the War. One of her sons was settled in America with his family. But another had a farm in Oxfordshire. He had been threatened repeatedly by intruders. He had lost crops and machinery to them. The Police had told him they were unable to help, but had warned him not to “take the law into his own hands”. She was safe in her own home. She had good neighbours who kept an eye on her. But she looked about her with quiet despair. “I have been coming to this fair and to others like it all my life” she said. “I used to think it would go on forever—always changing with the times, but continuing generation after generation. It will see me out, I suppose. But I don’t believe it will go on much after that. You should think yourself lucky you have seen it while you can. There will be nothing for your children. They will have neither country nor freedom. Sometimes nowadays, I almost regret I survived the bombing.”
I tried to assure her that even this Government could not last much longer, and that the forces of reaction were swelling in both numbers and conviction. But her own conviction had been too much for me. Perhaps this is the approaching end. All nations die eventually. Why should ours be different? If the present collapse can be dated to the appointment of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, it was not without advance warning. It was preceded by a long corrosion of values and of the institutes that embodied them. Mr Blair’s Government did not take power by anycoup. It was elected and re-elected by regular process. We retain a freedom of speech and constitutional safeguards that would be formidable in any nation still inclined to make use of them. Nothing has been done to us yet that we could not have stopped had we only the will as a nation to resist. For doing hardly worse, Charles I was put to death by a revolutionary tribunal. His son James II was run out of the country for doing far less overall. We live in a country where the majority are inclined to grumble, but are more interested in voting people out of the Big Brother house than in getting rid of the cast of traitors and buffoons who run our lives. My words of assurance were hollow, and we both knew it.
Still, I did see one of the last English heroes yesterday, and I did see a little fragment of the old England. My thanks to bill Heine —and, oddly enough, even to the BBC that made it possible.
© 2003 – 2017, seangabb.
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