“The Law’s the Law”, was the title of an article I remember reading when I was young. It was a ‘top 10’ list of weird old laws, their reasons for existing long since passed, but never repealed so theoretically still in force.
I have no idea why this article stuck in my mind for 30 years, but it must have struck a chord, because I even remember some of the bizarre laws it quoted. They were like nuggets of history, and gave a quaint flavour of problems that legislators once had to solve.
For example, it was apparently illegal not to practice archery on Sundays; London taxi drivers were not supposed to work without carrying a bale of hay in their cab; and a particular favourite of mine was that, if asked, a policeman would have to use their cape to shield the modesty of any gentleman caught short in the street.
Labour took a lawnmower to the statute book during their first term in office, and if any of these laws had actually existed, they are almost certain to have been repealed, along with all the ways in which people could still theoretically have been hung for various obscure offences.
But I was surprised to come across something similar while doing some legal research recently, and not being discussed as a historical oddity, but as current legislation.
It is the innocuous sounding Public Order Act 1936 section 1(1), and it says:
… any person who in any public place or at any public meeting wears uniform signifying his association with any political organisation or with the promotion of any political object shall be guilty of an offence.
What this appears to mean is that if you are anywhere that the public has access to, and are wearing anything that shows you to be a member or supporter of a political party or cause, you are breaking the law.
You can avoid arrest by applying in advance for a permit from the Chief of Police, but he will only grant it if he thinks your wearing of the article in question is unlikely to cause ‘public disorder’. It is an unusual law, because while you can be arrested on sight for wearing your “Vote Labour” T-shirt, you can only be prosecuted if the Attorney General authorises it. However, you can be remanded in custody for eight days while he or she decides, and if convicted, you face three months in prison.
I can only find a couple of prosecutions under this law – the main one being the 1975 case of R v Moran and others.
It involved a march from Hyde Park to Downing Street by around 300 people in support of the Northern Irish republican cause. As the march got underway, one of the organisers pulled out a box of black berets, and gave them out to the marchers. Others carried Irish Tricolour flags, or banners with republican slogans. The police moved in (remember how the police used to ‘move in’ in the 1970s?) and arrested a number of people who were promptly convicted.
Their convictions were followed by an appeal, on grounds including that a hat on its own can’t possibly be a uniform, since it only covers a small part of the body. Predictably, it failed, Lord Chief Justice Widgery saying:
I see no reason why the article or articles should cover the whole of the body or a major part of the body… or indeed should go beyond the existence of the beret by itself.
So, a horrible law, giving the authorities draconian and arbitrary powers to break up marches and demonstrations – well it certainly isn’t the only one of those on the statute book.
But it did get me thinking about ties.
Once upon a time you knew where you were with ties in politics. Labour politicians wore red ones, and the further to the left they were, the brighter red the tie. On the other hand, Tory politicians wouldn’t be seen dead in anything but a blue tie, preferably one from a top public school, university, or gentleman’s club.
These days anything goes, and you are as likely to see anyone on the left or right wearing red or blue, or more likely these days, the ghastly fence-sitting purple tie. Even I have one, and I hate myself for wearing it.
But yellow ties are a different matter. There can be no sartorial reason for wearing one. Yellow doesn’t go with any of the colours in which suits are normally sold, and indeed it is one of the few colours in the universe not to look good with navy blue. Surely the only reason for wearing one is as a uniform to signify support for the Liberal Democrats, an organisation that at least on the surface, appears to be political in nature.
Now I’m not saying that everyone in a yellow tie should be herded up and thrown in prison – far from it.
But shouldn’t they at least be brought in for questioning?
After all, the law’s the law!