This state cop-out is a menace to society
The outsourcing of police services to private companies is a far bigger deal than most people realise.
Last weekend’s revelation that the UK Home Office is backing a scheme to privatise core police services has been described as a ‘quiet revolution’ and as a move that will get the ‘neoliberal’ government ever closer to its goal of the ‘privatisation of everything’. A union representative called it ‘a dangerous experiment with local safety and taxpayers’ money’.
The Guardian has revealed that the West Midlands and Surrey police – two of the largest forces in the country – have invited bids from companies to take responsibility for duties like investigating crimes, supporting victims and witnesses, managing intelligence, patrolling neighbourhoods and detaining suspects. The seven-year contracts would be worth £1.5 billion.
In the eyes of some, the private contracts have ‘the potential to become the main vehicle for outsourcing police services in England and Wales’. Defenders of the privatisation scheme have claimed that it would only affect office staff and would free up police from bureaucratic tasks. But the Guardian’s findings contradict this claim. The deal may stop short of allowing private contractors to arrest people, to possess and wield firearms or to assume ‘other duties of a sworn constable’, but everything else seems largely up for grabs.
This outsourcing of police powers is deeply concerning. But, far from being a mark of the Lib-Con government’s success in creating ‘UK plc’, it reveals that the state’s crisis of authority has reached unprecedented depths. The implications of this massive abdication of responsibility are more far-reaching than the fact that private-sector bobbies may lack community spirit or will get bad retirement deals.
Letting the private sector run police services is not akin to the privatisation of the National Health Service or the education sector. Contrary to those two spheres, the police force – the state’s means of coercion – has historically been central to the establishment and maintenance of the capitalist state’s power. The privatisation of the police is not a logical continuation of the privatisation of other public services, but something different in kind.
Far from this outsourcing satisfying the interests of money-grubbing capitalists, it is in fact anathema to them. As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin observed in The State and Revolution (1917), for over two centuries the capitalist class had consolidated its power through the state’s centralisation of physical force by ‘special bodies of armed men’. Through doing this, it attained a ‘monopoly on violence’, which ‘consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds… A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. But how can it be otherwise?’
Well, the UK state seems to be on a mission to find out how many of their ‘chief instruments’ of power they can dispose of. Already Britain – along with America – has largely outsourced its military presence in Iraq to private companies like Blackwater and Aegis, often with devastating effects on the ground. Across the UK, the administration of many prisons and probation services is being put out to tender for private companies to bid for. The military, prison service and the police are the very forces that have historically been seen to form a vital frontline for protecting, preserving and enforcing the will of the state.
You do not have to be a fan of the police or an ardent anti-privatisation campaigner (I am neither) to recognise that this erosion of the ultimate forms of state power is troubling. There are particular services that need centralised control in order to ensure certain fundamental standards are maintained and that a democratically elected body is accountable for them. The provision of basic security to citizens is one of those services. The riots across the UK last August showed the consequences of a risk-averse police force failing to provide basic security, leading people to take to the streets in order to defend their livelihoods and communities. A private police force – not directly accountable to the state, but to its private paymasters – effectively becomes a band of mercenaries and, as a result, may find it has other priorities than doing police duties.
The result is that the state’s ‘special body of armed men’ becomes, well, less special. They cannot be relied upon to undertake duties on behalf of the state in the same way. Yet, perversely, this is being welcomed by high-profile figures within the state. Former Metropolitan Police commissioner Ian Blair spots sudden ‘opportunities for the modernisation of policing’ here. He argues that the privatisation plan is ‘not a shock, horror idea’. But over the past 300-odd years, the idea of the state having to relinquish its most fundamental way of maintaining a grip on power would have filled the political elite with horror. The voluntary auctioning off of the means of coercion in such a way would have been unthinkable.
The fact that the state does not even recognise just how much it is weakened through the outsourcing of police powers shows how clueless it is now. In the end, this cop out will benefit no one.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He will be debating ‘To intervene, or not to intervene?’ at the Liberty League Freedom Forum, taking place between March 30 – April 1 2012.