Get the police out of politics
…and put some politics back in.
The notion of a police intervention bringing down an elected government is normally associated with, well, a police state. But if recent headlines are to be believed, the future of Britain’s New Labour government is now at more immediate risk from the actions of PC Plod than from the electorate.
In recent days we have witnessed a public shouting match rather more shocking and significant than any televised row over stock cubes on Celebrity Big Brother. This one has been between members and supporters of the New Labour government on one hand and the police on the other, after the arrest of one of prime minister Tony Blair’s top aides as part of the investigation into the alleged loans-for-peerages scandal.
Both sides have attempted to seize the moral high ground. But the tawdry bunfight between pillars of the new establishment only demonstrates the low state of both politics and policing at the end of the Blair years.
Ruth Turner, Blair’s director of government relations, was arrested at home in a dawn raid on Friday morning, on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. Senior New Labour figures quickly went public to assert her innocence and criticise the police. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell, former home secretary David Blunkett and top New Labour donor Lord Puttnam variously condemned the arrest as unnecessary and ‘theatrical’.
If that was extraordinary, so was the response. The New Labour complainants were publicly told to keep their noses out, not only by the Police Federation and former chief constables, but also by one of their own senior supporters. Len Duvall, chairman of both the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Greater London Labour Party, acted as unofficial spokesman for the police. Duvall told these cabinet ministers and others to ‘shut up’ and stop ‘whingeing and whining’ about the police investigation, assuring everybody that they would ‘look fucking stupid’ when the evidence came out.
Duvall even described the intervention of Jowell and Blunkett as reminiscent of the government’s actions over the Hutton inquiry, and accused them of playing ‘Big Brother’ politics – as in reality TV contestants rather than Orwell: ‘This childish, “we’re being picked on” [attitude] is like Big Brother.’ It was a dramatic illustration of how things are falling apart at the centre. I don’t know about honour among thieves these days, but there appears to be very little of it left among top politicians, officials and police officers.
Of course there is nothing new about tension between the police and governments of every political stripe. But they normally argue over how best to deal with criminals ‘on the streets’, not whether there are criminals in Downing Street. When coppers knock at the government’s door, it is usually with a wish list for more resources in hand, rather than arrest warrants.
The police raid was undoubtedly ‘theatrical’ (although it was a bit rich to hear that allegation from Blunkett, the home secretary who helped pioneer policy-by-headline). Why did four officers turn up on Turner’s doorstep before 6.30am? What did they think she might be doing – making bombs perhaps, or preparing to make a run for it? Maybe they thought she might put up a fight, and needed the strength in numbers? It seems a wonder they did not take armed back-up, just in case it developed into a shoot-out.
This sort of thing is actually something like ‘standard police procedure’ these days, though not in the way that the force’s apologists have claimed. It is typical of the type of stunts they now stage in an age of celebrity coppering, when police chiefs often appear obsessed with issues of profile and PR and media image.
The police rarely miss an opportunity to make an appearance in a celebrity scandal, as in their ‘theatrical’ arrest of supermodel Kate Moss after pictures were published of her apparently taking cocaine. They also demonstrate an increasing tendency to treat serious investigations like reality TV programmes, for example by inviting the media to accompany them on raids or putting themselves at the centre of the story, as in a Suffolk police spokesman’s press conference confession that the force had been ‘emotionally overwhelmed’ by the recent murders of five women.
Against this background it was no surprise to hear that, on the same day that they arrested Turner, police had turned up at the Celebrity Big Brother house on eviction night, reportedly to ‘quiz’ Jade Goody over alleged racist remarks. The punters might have been banned from booing Jade and denied their moment of fame, but the police are not so easily kept out of the picture. It was only a wonder that they did not insist on raiding the house at dawn and dragging her away in pyjamas and handcuffs.
All of these theatrics are a result of the crisis of legitimacy in the UK policing and criminal justice system. Like other state institutions, the police have suffered a loss of old certainties and felt the ground shifting beneath in recent years – see the debates over whether they are a ‘service’ or a ‘force’, the top-level confessions of ‘institutional racism’, the angst over everything from health and safety to human rights, etc. Feeling isolated and insecure, the police are keen to ‘connect’ with public opinion, yet worried about coming into too close contact with the public. The theatrical stunts, PR gestures and games of Cop Idol are intended to bridge that gap via the media.
New Labour would be perfectly entitled to tell the celebrity-coppering police to keep their noses out of political affairs. But the problem is, who was it that invited them in? As we have argued consistently on spiked, since before it was elected in 1997 New Labour has done more than anybody to make allegations of sleaze and corruption central issues in British political life. Blair and his supporters defeated the last Tory government by effectively attacking them as crooks rather than Conservatives. The new prime minister then staked his government’s authority on being ‘whiter than white’. They are now paying the price for substituting moralistic posturing for politics.
The practice of political parties nominating their major donors and supporters for peerages, and therefore seats in the House of Lords, has long been accepted on all sides. Yet it has now become caught up in the anti-sleaze crusade. New Labour passed a law declaring that all political donations over £5,000 must be declared. When this put the big parties in trouble during the last election, they tried to get around it by accepting secret ‘loans’ from anonymous rich benefactors (many of which they hoped not to repay). Once this apparent sleight of hand was leaked, police started investigating whether or not these loans had been made on ‘commercial terms’ (as that New Labour law insists they must be), and whether they had broken the 1925 Honours Act by being given in return for peerages – something which could have been considered normal had they been straightforward donations.
So what we have here is a major political scandal that has been talked up as a threat to Tony Blair’s final few months in office and New Labour’s future in government, yet which effectively centres on a dispute over book-keeping measures and creative accountancy. New Labour has been hoist with its own petard, accused of infringing a law it passed only as a ‘theatrical’ gesture of its own (and the Tories are not yet off the hook either).
Entertaining though this spectacle might seem to some, however, the rest of us should not just stand by and laugh. Nobody who hopes to see a future for democratic politics should want to see an elected government, any elected government, at risk of being brought down by police intervention.
In response to the Jowell-Blunkett complaints about the dawn raid on Turner, one former head of the Association of Chief Police Officers said that, if ministers and politicians started interfering in police investigations like this, ‘I worry for a free democratic country. They should keep their mouths shut.’ Where the pursuit of criminals is concerned, that is no doubt right; there is far too much political interference these days. But when it comes to political life, it is the police who should keep their mouths shut and their boots out of the door.
Meanwhile, as always when scandal becomes the stuff of political dialogue, bigger issues are being ignored. Why, for example, is a body like the House of Lords allowed to exercise such power whether its members got their seat by paying for it or by patronage? We would be better off getting rid of them all.
And what about the real party political crisis behind the scandal? The fact is that the major parties are dead men walking, without enough active support to campaign and raise money, so increasingly dependent on rich benefactors to fund PR campaigns through the media. Instead of another round of tired allegations and counter-charges about political dishonesty, we need an honest and open debate about these issues. A debate in which state funding of political parties should be publicly and forcefully opposed, rather than sneaked in through the back door. And in which we should insist that, putting all talk of sleaze aside, there is nothing wrong with giving money to political parties. But if those parties are too bankrupt politically to persuade people to give them support and money, then they should be allowed to die.
It would also be a good thing if rather than petty whingeing about the police, we had a proper discussion of the rise and rise of celebrity coppering and the consequences for criminal justice – not to mention a free democratic society.
As Brendan Behan might have put it today, there is no political crisis so dismal that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of a policeman.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: British politics
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