Why are the police in a state?

Neither police brutality nor anti-police sentiment are what they once were in British society - yet the crisis of authority appears worse than ever.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello, what’s all this then? Something strange is afoot in the furore about the policing of G20 protests in London. There has been a riot of attacks on the Metropolitan Police in the mainstream media, as major newspapers and broadcasters race to get the latest bit of video of police officers hitting or shoving protesters while the victims compete for publicity; one of them is reportedly represented by Max Clifford. Senior politicians have joined in the complaints about police brutality. The chairman of the Police Federation has warned that a dangerous anti-police bandwagon is gathering speed.

Now, I have never been averse to trying to start a bandwagon against police violence and repression. After the inner-city riots sparked by police racism back in the 1980s, the anti-racist campaign I supported had a best-selling badge demanding ‘Police Off Our Streets’ (the idea at the time being that local people could organise to police their own areas). Yet I can’t see much to get excited about in the current backlash. If there is a bandwagon of complaint, it is filled more by the media than the public (not unlike the G20 protests themselves). The discussion of policing seems marked by amnesia about the past and naivety about the present. And the entire thing appears to be driven more by a crisis of authority within the state than a demand for more liberty in society.

It is not all right for the police to assault protesters. But let’s be honest. The incidents broadcast across the media to date have been relatively minor in comparison to past clashes with the police. If they do not exactly show the cops wearing kid gloves, then neither are they evidence of any policing with an iron fist. Ian Tomlinson, the non-protester who died during the G20 protests, was shown being pushed in the back and hit on the leg by a policeman. After two post-mortems it remains unclear what role, if any, these unspectacular assaults played in his death. Others were variously filmed being backhanded by one officer, hit and shoved with a shield by another, and having a police Taser pointed (but not fired) at them. Unpleasant and unacceptable, of course, but if that is your idea of ‘police brutality’ you must have led a sheltered life.

Stripped of all its democratic and caring finery, the foundation of the capitalist state’s power is a body of armed men. As a central part of that state machinery, the primary role of the police force is to protect private property and above all to maintain public order – not, as civil liberties lobbyists naively claimed this week, to facilitate public protest! The British police have always sought to present themselves as public servants; from the first they were dressed in blue in order to look more civilian and distinguish them from the redcoats of the British army. But when required the police have been deployed to intervene forcefully and keep the public in order – whether by breaking strikes, putting down riots or suppressing protests far more violently than they did on 1 April. They did so in the knowledge that they were effectively immune from prosecution or punishment for offences committed in pursuit of their duties to their political masters.

If it is inaccurate to claim that the G20 police were guilty of unheard-of brutality and thuggishness, it is also wrong to suggest that there is a new anti-police mood in society. In the past there was far more public hostility to the police. In the nineteenth century mobs were reported to have attacked police in a bid to free criminals and even murderers.

In his newspaper report of the great 1855 Hyde Park demonstration against restrictions on Sunday trading, Karl Marx noted how ‘the metropolitan electric telegraph had informed all police stations that a riot was about to break out in Hyde Park and the police were ordered to the theatre of military operations. Soon one detachment of them after another marched at short intervals through the double file of people, from Apsley House to Kensington Gardens, each received with the popular ditty: “Where are the geese? Ask the police!” This was a hint at a notorious theft of geese recently committed by a constable in Clerkenwell.’ Similarly, it was said that the saying ‘If you want to know the time, ask a policeman’ originated because policemen were notorious as fences for stolen timepieces.

Much more recently a deep-seated antipathy towards the police still existed in working-class communities. In the 1960s, after Harry Roberts shot dead three policemen, the song ‘Harry Roberts is our friend / He kills coppers’ (to the tune of ‘London Bridge is falling down’) became popular among football crowds and young people generally. When I was growing up in the 1970s, the acronym ACAB – All Coppers Are Bastards – was commonly painted on walls and tattooed on teenage arms. Such was the hostility to the police in inner-city areas during the 1980s that the Met even invented a new phrase to describe it – ‘slow rioting’. Against this background there were violent outbursts of hostility to the oppressive and racist police force, from the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side and elsewhere in 1981 and on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham in 1985 (where a policeman was killed), to the year-long battles between striking miners and an occupying army of paramilitary police in 1984/85.

By comparison there appears to be relatively little explicit hostility to the police in society today (although young people in inner-city areas are hardly fans). This is the age of what spiked writers have previously described as the New Authoritarianism. That refers not only to the tendency for the authorities to intrude more into our affairs and police people’s lives, but also to the way that the prevailing climate of fear and insecurity has made many people far more open to accepting such surveillance and intervention – and indeed, demanding more of it. The way that the police have sought to play on these sentiments to reconnect with sections of the public is illustrated by the current poster campaign asking us to inform on our anti-social neighbours – slogan: ‘You have the right NOT to remain silent.’ Although there is plenty of criticism of the police for their uncaring inefficiency in protecting the public, the basic objection is always that they should be doing more, not less – ‘Police ON Our Streets!’ is the common demand of the age.

Yet despite the absence of widespread or intense opposition, the police today appear to be in a worse mess than ever before. After some initial attempts at spinning their way out of the G20 row, they have more or less collapsed – apologising, suspending officers and questioning one under caution for manslaughter, while the Met’s top anti-terrorist cop has added to the chaos by immediately resigning when he was photographed outside Downing Street with a shopping list of terrorist suspects under his arm.

What this demonstrates is the crisis of authority within the state and the police itself today, and the internal corrosion of institutional coherence and purpose. Those factors were reflected in the policing of the G20 protests. The apparently controversial tactic of ‘kettling’, for example, looks like a rather cowardly way of keeping a crowd at arm’s length while jostling with a few protesters at the edges. You let them smash a few windows, video it all, then try to identify and arrest the culprits months later. The pretty spineless response of senior police officers to the media furore that has followed confirms the crisis of authority within the Met and the wider law and order machinery. Ever since the Met declared itself ‘institutionally racist’ after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry a decade ago, police chiefs have seemed more adept at self-flagellation than beating up other people. The mess they have got themselves into over the recent scuffles confirms that they no longer have a clue how to hold the thin blue line.

More broadly the post-G20 palaver shows the British establishment (if we can still grace it with that name) in disarray, near to imploding as the authorities and their supporters squabble amongst themselves. Thus the mainstream media, having in many ways supported and even inspired the G20 protests with their low crusade to scapegoat a few rich bankers for the crisis of the system, have now turned into the big propagandists for the protesters in their stand-off with the police. The fall of Bob Quick, the anti-terror chief, was part of the same implosion – the Tories were out to get him over his role in the arrest of Damian Green MP, and over his close relationship with New Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith.

Once large sections of the public distrusted or actively despised the police while the authorities and media were their firmest supporters. Now the media and politicians are in the front rank of protesters while the mass of the public stand by as indifferent spectators. This has little to do with any real impulse for liberty, and a lot to do with the extent that, from Fleet Street to Westminster and Scotland Yard, the British power elite now seems unsure of what it stands for and incapable of standing together in a crisis. What would they do if faced with a real opposition?

The crisis of authority means that we are left with an uncertain state machine exercising power without purpose, in a situation where it seems nobody can stick to a firm line or decision about anything. If we are indeed drifting towards a ‘police state’ as some warn, it will be one where the police themselves appear to be in a state of fear and confusion. That can lead to a big display of impotence mixed with petulance such as the G20 policing, or to a panicky lashing out such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Mostly it will mean we are left with the dead weight of a law and order machine pressing down on society, doing little of purpose beyond making petty arrests.

There are serious questions to be discussed about liberty and British policing today. But they are rarely even asked. Instead what we get is shrill screeching about police brutality that bears little relation to events, from protesters whose only real purpose on those confused and pointless G20 demos seemed to be to film themselves being oppressed.

Maybe dusting off those old ‘Police Off Our Streets!’ badges would not be the answer today either. But we do need some more serious debate about the police, state power, democracy and the New Authoritarianism. If instead all we get is a phoney media war between a police that no longer believes in itself and protesters who seem to believe in little beyond their own imagined martyrdom, well – evening all.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black though Britain looked like a Police Academy state, and argued that in making himself London’s top copper, Boris Johnson revealed his authoritarian streak. Robin Walsh urged: ‘Kick the police out of politics’. Josie Appleton said drinking control laws give British police the right to behave like gangsters. After the Madeleine McCann case Neil Davenport wrote that the desire for security meant the police were more popular than ever. In defiance of a law making it a potential crime to photograph police, Nathalie Rothschild went cop-snapping in London. Or read more at spiked issue Crime and the law.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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