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Easter special: the Pilate state

Most reflections in the public sphere this weekend centre on the protagonist of the Easter story - on Jesus. But in 2024 Conservative Britain, Pontius Pilate appears to be the more emulated man. The machinations surrounding the Bibbi Stockholm barge are a case in point. 

March 30 2024, 12.18pm

“The natural body of the King may die, but his dignity is eternal”.

Easter crowns the story of the Gospels, and as ever with a great story that nears towards the end, events follow thick and fast. Jesus is celebrated by crowds one day and is mobbed the next; feasted in the evening and betrayed at night; pledged to by disciples and renounced by the greatest of them before the rooster crows; and, of course, dies a terrible, drawn-out death and emerges, briefly, three days later.

Among the crowded scenes of this larger-than-life drama - the mobs, the Roman guards, the feast, the death, the resurrection, the ascension - stands one encounter, one crucial juxtaposition so timeless it could have happened at any age, and at any time, on any scale; and indeed does happen, every day, everywhere, wherever officials of the state need to decide between people’s lives and their system - including here, in Britain.

For someone directly in charge of something as momentous as the only instance of deicide - the killing of God - in any of the Abrahamic religions, Pontius Pilate is not depicted as a actively malicious - compared to Herod or even to Judas, say. He meets Jesus; recognises the humanity in him; is convinced of his innocence. But he also had an empire to answer to, and a restive crowd to placate.

Pilate’s role is to preserve power, which means to preserve order, which means to prevent disorder. And as, in this scheme of things, one unworldly man seems like the lesser sacrifice to make, Pilate refocuses not on innocence, or guilt, but on liability: his own. From different bits of practices, ritual, bureaucracy and laws, he stitches together a referendum by acclamation, a sleight of hand that will continue to haunt the community he scapegoats for millenia to come. And when the mob makes its choice, Pilate washes his hands off all responsibility.

This particular form of crowd baiting on one hand, and desperate legal sophistry on the other has become characteristic of twilight Conservative rule, and it is infectious. From the ministers to the civil servants carrying out their increasingly chaotic whims, the state is no longer focusing on what is right or needed, but merely on how much it can get away with, without the machinery of statecraft tangling up and breaking down. How much money can you move around to pretend to both increase spending and resume austerity? How many bits of different laws can you rip up and restitch to allow you to please the mobs, real and imaginary? The attempt to legislate into reality the notion of Rwanda being a safe country is the most risible example. But it is not the only one.

The quote that opens this editorial note is not a line from an Easter homily. It is a line from Government lawyers trying to explain to a court why the Bibby Stockholm, the claustrophobic, disease-ridden barge forcibly housing hundreds of asylum seekers, can be moored in Portland, irrespective of the horror of the local community, or indeed without the local community even being asked.

The story of this trial - and the deep, dark weirdness of the Crown Estate and some of the uses it is being put to - forms one half of our Easter special. The other is the story of a group of Labour MPs trying to penetrate the malarkey and board the barge to see for themselves if the disturbing stories they’ve been hearing from its forced residents are actually true.

These two stories are the beginning of two series. We will be coming back again and again to the Bibby Stockholm and to the lives it warps, from asylum seekers to decision-makers to local residents. But we’ll also keep tracking those instances where the mating of mob-baiting and legalese breeds monsters.