Treason, and traitor are words I’ve seen bandied about a lot of late, especially with regards to anyone in the UK who remains in favour of the EU (about half of us, if not more). Treason is an interesting concept that could use a more careful look.
Historically, treason is a feudal concept. Treason is the betrayal of your monarch, and by extension, your country. It comes from rebelling against the monarchy, and it is easily used to get rid of people the monarch doesn’t like. Anne Boleyn was executed for treasonous adultery, for example. As it’s a punishment primarily affecting power hungry nobles, and thus also potentially benefiting other power hungry nobles, it’s not been greatly challenged in history. And of course challenging the notion of treason would bring you dangerously close to being treasonous.
Rather revealingly, there’s also a thing called ‘petty treason’. This is the crime of social disruption and attacking the hierarchy – if a wife killed her husband or a servant killed their master, they would be executed for petty treason.
Democracy allows us to challenge and question authority. It allows us to ask for change without risk of death or injury. At least in theory. Having radically different political ideas should not be considered treason, nor should honest mistakes that lead to significant problems. In a democracy, what should we consider treason? Clearly it can’t be about affronting the monarch any more.
I think for something to count as treason now, we’d have to be looking at the deliberate betrayal of a country as a whole in a way intended to cause harm to the citizens, infrastructure or viability of that country. However, to distinguish treason from cock-up I think there would have to also be an element of benefit to the people undertaking the action. Destroying the land and polluting the water for the sake of personal profit (fracking). Ruining the economy so as to profit from short selling currency and shares. Being paid by a foreign power to harm the country. Putting life in danger by putting personal profit ahead of environmental safety. These, for me, would be modern acts of treason.
I find it strange that people can get away with destroying the fabric of the land for the sake of private profit, and that not be considered an assault on the country as a whole. Yet at the same time, people who are pro-Europe are labelled traitors.