On 18 May 2006, a fully-clothed Gough boarded a 6.45am flight from Southampton. After the pilot announced the descent into Edinburgh, Gough visited the toilet and emerged naked. “I knew I wanted to go to court naked and I suddenly thought, why not now? The flight attendant asked if I’d put my clothes back on. I said politely that I wouldn’t and she went away. Nothing happened until we landed and the police came on.”
Gough was arrested. His solicitor at the time, John Good, describes a court hearing not far short of slapstick. It emerged that after Gough returned naked from the toilet, the male passenger sitting next to him reacted by falling asleep. The arresting officer’s only issue in removing Gough from the plane was the delighted reaction of a hen party. For Gough, however, his midair strip meant a four-month sentence. He has been in prison ever since.
Gough isn’t mad. “They do evaluations all the time.” He smiles. “I’m on top of my game mentally. I’ve got clarity. If I feel down, then I’m straight on the case, trying to work out why.”
He emerged from more than two years of segregation with faultless psychological examinations. “If you or I spent two years in segregation,” Good says, “we’d probably show signs of trauma. It just shows how focused he’s become. He’s immune to his surroundings.”
Gough agrees: “I live at a deep level.” Yet he admits to experiencing doubts about his stance. “Yeah, of course. I wake up in the morning and think, what the fuck am I doing here? But what I’m doing isn’t about me. I’m challenging society and it must be challenged because it’s wrong.”
In Scotland, breach of the peace is partly defined as “conduct which does, or could, cause the lieges [public] to be placed in a state of fear, alarm or annoyance”. The prosecution has very rarely managed to rustle up witnesses to claim Gough’s nakedness has had any of these effects on them. What is keeping him in prison is simply the theoretical idea that it could.
“I do not believe that an ordinary, reasonable person would feel any of those things if they saw me [naked] in the street,” Gough says. He believes that to achieve his stated aim – to leave HMP Perth and return to Eastleigh naked – “the law doesn’t have to change, just the interpretation”.
Twice Scottish sheriffs found in Gough’s favour that no crime had been committed, both in him being naked in public and being naked in court. “Both times the sheriffs were elderly females,” notes Good, who represented Gough for more than three years (they parted company in 2010 so Gough could represent himself, making it harder for him to be excluded from the courtroom for being naked). “Stephen then chose to leave court naked and was arrested for being naked in public.”
Initially, Gough was a legal novelty in Scotland and support came from surprising quarters. In 2008, Edinburgh-based solicitor Joe MacPherson prosecuted Gough, a position with which he says he was uncomfortable. “I looked at the case and thought a man walking down a public street would not cause the requisite fear and alarm to an ordinary person. It would be odd, or amusing perhaps, but nothing more. The judge said his hands were tied. Seeing a man’s penis was felt to be enough to cause fear and alarm.”
Eventually Gough’s case was heard at Scotland’s appeal court, where it was found that breach of the peace should indeed be interpreted to criminalise his behaviour. Since then Scottish sheriffs have fallen in line; his sentences have steadily increased to the maximum and, should he keep refusing to dress, he will be caught in an endless cycle of two-year sentences. He insists if he were allowed to return home naked to Eastleigh, he’d cease being naked in public “when I don’t have to do it any more”.