Boris: making himself London’s top copper
Boris Johnson’s hounding of Sir Ian Blair reveals the London mayor’s own authoritarian and arbitrary approach to politics.
If there’s one thing the resignation of Sir Ian Blair has proved, it’s that London mayor Boris Johnson, far from bringing respite from the neurotic control-freakery of New Labour, seems intent on replicating its worst excesses.
Although some have seen fit to praise him as a ‘champion of diversity’, Blair, the copper who put the PC into police work, has never been less than ‘controversial’. And it’s not hard to see why: his three-and-a-half-year tenure as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police of London has encompassed, amongst other things, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes (plus an abortive cover-up), accusations of racial discrimination within the Met, and alleged favouring of a friend’s company in the awarding of a £3million communications strategy contract.
But despite a litany of cock-ups and cop-outs sufficient to shame lesser men, Blair’s resignation was no act of conscience. Rather, it was the result of a sustained blunderbuss of criticism from the mayor Johnson, resulting in Blair being told ‘in a very pleasant but determined way, that he [Johnson] wished there to be a change of leadership at the Met’. ‘Without the mayor’s backing’, Blair said as part of his resignation statement, ‘I do not think I can continue in the job’.
The problem with this, as many have noted, is that Johnson has no formal power to choose the Metropolitan Police chief. As it currently stands, this decision is the sole prerogative of the home secretary (and the Queen). No such protocol was adhered to in this case: if Johnson didn’t quite push Blair on to his sword, he certainly provided the guiding hand. As Jenny Jones of the Metropolitan Police Authority sardonically remarked: ‘We know you [Johnson] have no constitutional powers, but we are not sure you know that you haven’t.’
Johnson’s disregard for official procedure, or ‘bureaucratic piffle’ he no doubt calls it, has at least been brazen. At the Conservative Party conference last week he declared: ‘I’m not proposing to intervene in day-to-day operations, but if the mayor is to hold the police to account and if the mayor is to be held accountable for crime in London as he or she must be, then that means having proper power of appointment over the commissioner.’ As it turned out, any power of appointment will do, proper or not.
Critics have been quick to round on Johnson for ‘politicising’ the commissioner’s role: ex-mayor Ken Livingstone argued, without irony, that the precedent set makes the role of commissioner ‘much more political’; Observer columnist Henry Porter noted that Blair had been treated as a politician, not a public servant; and the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, argued that the commissioner ought to be ‘allowed to operate according to his or her judgement and ultimately [their] accountability will be to the law’.
But there’s a major drawback to such a vein of critique: Johnson is not embarking upon a new era of political interference, he’s simply crowning New Labour’s glory; that is, the overt political colonisation of state machinery. Indeed, from the ill-judged advocacy of government policies such as 90-day detention without charge for terrorism suspects, to his palliness both with Livingstone and the other, less popular Blair, Sir Ian was a triumph of the elision of state and party-political allegiance. From this perspective, Johnson simply wants his own man in situ, not one of Tony’s tarnished cronies.
This has prompted some to long for the halcyon days of the British Establishment, when the line between public service and political allegiance was far more strictly drawn. Unfortunately, for those indulging in nostalgia for an age of deference, the police, despite the pretensions towards an ideology of public service, have never been un-politicised, even before the Two Blairs.
Firstly, insofar as the police enforce the rule of law, they enforce a politically informed conception of the public order, one in which the formal universality reproduces the iniquities of the social whole. To paraphrase Anatole France, everybody is forbidden to steal, both those with and those without. And secondly, from the high watermark of the Dixon of Dock Green image of policing during the 1950s, public trust in the police’s political neutrality has constantly been challenged. Be it the protests and industrial disputes of the 1970s, the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, or the accusation of ‘institutionalised racism’ in the Macpherson report in 2001, the veil of impartiality has been consistently rent.
Moreover, while the ruling elite might once have felt confident enough in their vision for the whole of society, as indeed it did during the 1950s, to ride out the conflicts in their midst, such self-certainty has long since ebbed. Each miscarriage of justice, each allegation of racism always seems to hit the police with disproportionate force. Not that such insecurity is surprising. Just as every other pillar of the state is afflicted by a crisis of confidence, from the Foreign Office to the Treasury, so too the law enforcers.
But what ought properly speaking to be grasped as the crisis of the police as an institution, Johnson approaches as a problem of its leader: ‘There comes a time in any organisation when it becomes clear it would benefit from new leadership and clarity of purpose. I believe that time is now.’ Johnson’s longed-for ‘clarity of purpose’ could be applied to various institutions of the British State.
This is the real meaning of what is termed ‘politicisation’. These deracinated institutions of the British State, long deprived of their traditional roles, their raison d’être as part of the soundless if slow machinery of governance, have altered in function. They have become vessels for politicians desperately in search of the vocation their public position demands. When Johnson talks of restoring a ‘clarity of purpose’ to the Metropolitan Police, he gives voice to the lament of the political class as a whole.
Unfortunately for the capital’s citizenry, such a determination to get stuck into the police force, to infuse and galvanise it with a ‘clarity of purpose’, will no doubt lead to a whole new raft of policy wheezes and ‘bloody good ideas’. Certainly, if Johnson’s idea of purpose consists of banning booze on Tube trains, and introducing knife arches, the capital’s inhabitants can look forward to a combination of the arbitrary and the authoritarian.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Neil Davenport criticised the modern police for skewing crime reporting. Josie Appleton and others asked What kind of London do we want?. Nathalie Rothschild described Boris Johnson as London’s new PC crusader. Brendan O’Neill discussed the London booze ban and the politics of behaviour, condemned London’s new rulers as intolerant and exposed the real Boris Johnson. Or read more at spiked issue: British politics.
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