September 18th 2014 | Scotland

Beasts on trial

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 12 September 2014

In the sixteenth century the residents of Autun in France took the local rat population to court – charging them with “having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley-crop of that province.”  

Such trials were fairly common in parts of Europe up until the 18th century. In fact there are records of rats, locusts, weevils, pigs, slugs, eels, moles and grasshoppers being made to stand trial.

Writing in the Journal of Law and Economics, Peter T. Leeson writes: “One interpretation of vermin trials is that the judicial officials who conducted them were mad. In examining these trials’ records, it is tempting to conclude as much. In the records, we find distinguished judges ordering crickets to follow legal instructions, dignified jurists negotiating a settlement between farmers and beetles.”

“Vermin trials pose a peculiar puzzle. As one scholar describes that puzzle, ‘[N]obody knows what they were for, and nobody has ever known’. Whatever vermin trials were for, uncovering their raison d’etre would seem to defy penetration by rational choice.”

Now the campaign has not reached the ‘animal trial’ level of weird. Not yet.

But from David Cameron inviting Scots to give the ‘effing Tories a kicking’ to Ruth Davidson promising they would lose the next election, with each passing day the number of extraordinary events seems to rack up.

Yesterday offered a prime example – with RBS’s statement, indicating it would move its headquarters to London after a Yes, leading to the First Minister being heckled by the BBC’s political editor during a statement to the international press.

Robinson – not yet a foreign visitor – asked Salmond if he accepted that RBS moving its HQ would mean a loss in revenue from corporation tax.

Salmond’s response was pretty brutal – pointing out that corporation tax is based on economic activity and not where a company’s headquarters are based (meaning little reduction in revenue), before questioning the BBC’s impartiality in the debate.

He highlighted that the broadcaster had referred to Lloyds moving HQ too – though it has always been based in London.

Remarkably, the assembled audience applauded his attack on the BBC. No supporters reacted by suggesting there were independence supporters in the audience. Yes supporters congratulated the foreign press for seeing through BBC bias.

Then today Jim Sillars was reported as warning of a ‘day of reckoning’ for institutions like Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life after a Yes vote. Threatening the financial industry is not normal campaign behaviour. But then this is not a normal campaign.

He said: “This referendum is about power, and when we get a Yes majority, we will use that power for a day of reckoning with BP and the banks.

“The heads of these companies are rich men, in cahoots with a rich English Tory Prime Minister, to keep Scotland’s poor, poorer through lies and distortions. The power they have now to subvert our democracy will come to an end with a Yes.”

Sillars continued: “BP, in an independent Scotland, will need to learn the meaning of nationalisation, in part or in whole, as it has in other countries who have not been as soft as we have been forced to be. We will be the masters of the oil fields, not BP or any other of the majors.”

In 16th century Autun a lawyer, Bartholomew Chassenee, was appointed to defend the local rats.

In the end he was successful, even if he won on a technicality. His defence relied on two points.

First, the court had not provided enough time to notify so many rodents of the trial date.

Second, and more importantly, even if the rats were made aware of the trial, the court could not guarantee them safe travel without risking meeting their mortal enemy – cats. The rats were let off.

And after a Yes it is likely that Salmond will do all he can to court banks like RBS. His immediate aim will be to ensure that the transition to independence is as smooth as possible.

He may be right to argue that moving headquarters is just a matter of moving a brass plaque, but the symbolism of the decision could play badly.

The rats in France were on trial for eating up resources. The banks are being threatened with a trial, or reckoning, for fleeing Scotland as if it is a sinking ship.

As beasts go, the banks have the power to do a lot more damage than rats to a field.

No one is saying that RBS is like a pack of rats – though after the financial crisis it may have been tempting.

But given its importance to Salmond (a former RBS employee) it would be no surprise if, after a Yes vote, the banks get off on a technicality too. 

Liam Kirkaldy