The prime minister said on Thursday he would not comment on the verdict – but went on to attack efforts to “change our history or to bowdlerise it or edit it”.
Mr Johnson compared attempts to revise British history to making changes to an online encyclopedia. “It’s like some person trying to edit their Wikipedia entry – it’s wrong,” he told reporters.
The PM said: “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.”
Mr Johnson added: “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.”
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 last June. Dubbed “the Colston Four”, they were acquitted by a jury at Bristol Crown Court on Wednesday.
The verdict prompted a debate about the jury system after the defendants 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.
Former justice secretary Robert Buckland said he thought the jury’s decision in the case of was perverse. The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Frankly I do. I think anybody watching those scenes cannot fail to be disturbed at the very least and appalled by what happened.”
Mr Buckland added: “I don’t think we want to see our crown courts becoming political playgrounds – they’re not places for politics, they’re places for the law to be applied and for the evidence to be assessed.”
Former minister Robert Jenrick, the Tory MP for Newark, said on Twitter: “We undermine the rule of law, which underpins our democracy, if we accept vandalism and criminal damage are acceptable forms of political protest.”
But Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described the jury system as one of the UK’s “greatest monuments” after criticism from Tory MPs that the verdict set a bad precedent for future “defacement” of public monuments.
Jen Reid, a Black Lives Matter campaigner from Bristol, said she was “full of joy” after the verdict, telling Sky News the court case “should never have happened – I think it was a waste of the taxpayers money”.
Legal commentator David Allen Green responded: “Jury verdicts do not ‘undermine the rule of law’. Jury verdicts are part of the rule of law. An acquittal is as much an aspect of due process as a conviction.”
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