Coppers: the armed wing of therapy culture

Chasing tweeters, raiding ageing celebs' homes... the police are fuelling the culture of victimhood.

Neil Davenport

Topics Free Speech

If you are unfortunate enough to have your car radio stolen or your home burgled, chances are the local police will ask you to turn private detective and solve the crime yourself. Everybody else has forgotten about the UK Conservative Party’s Big Society initiative, whereby citizens become public-service volunteers, but it seems the police are keenly embracing it. According to news reports last week, police advise the would-be sleuths, trying to track down their stolen goods, to check CCTV footage and see whether the stolen property turns up on second-hand websites. So prevalent is this trend that, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary, the police have more or less ‘given up’ on investigating offences like petty theft to the extent that they are ‘on the verge of being decriminalised’. It’s a deflating sign of the times: once formidable and powerful British institutions, now completely lacking a guiding purpose, are being reduced to impotency and inertia.

This tendency of the police to not investigate petty theft isn’t the only example of them falling asleep on the job. Three years ago, the police’s authority and control of London quickly collapsed in the face of youths rioting and looting. This poor showing came, remember, from an institution that once crushed far tougher adversaries than delinquent youth, such as striking coal miners and Irish republicans. Yet although police no longer face trade-union militants on picket lines, or even football hooligans, they appear a strangely nervy and rudderless force.

While the police appear unable to tackle rioters and paedophile gangs, in other areas they are happy to throw their weight around. In recent years they have started arresting football fans for offensive chanting and prosecuting individuals for making racist comments or sending sexist tweets. They have been busy arresting journalists on phone-hacking charges and elderly entertainers for alleged sex crimes. Where once they confronted trade-union militants, now they raid the home of Sir Cliff Richard. At first glance, it appears the police have gone simultaneously soft and schizophrenic: cracking down on free speech, free expression and ‘historic’ crimes, but unsure when faced with more imminent crimes like violence and theft. The police, it seems, have evolved into a very different force in the twenty-first century. But what is driving this contradictory approach to policing and criminal justice?

The police’s hardnosed reputation was forged in the turbulent Seventies and Eighties. In that era, ‘policing by consent’ had been consigned to the history books. The image of the avuncular bobby on the beat was replaced by political policing, a transparent attempt by successive Conservative governments and employers to use the police to contain strikes, picket-line violence and political activists. Far from being a neutral law-and-order institution, the police’s primary role was to ensure the government defeated its opponents. Indeed, for all the shocking revelations of police officers failing to investigate burglaries or car thefts today, something similar happened back then, when, for example, the entire Metropolitan Police force was preoccupied tackling striking coal miners in South Yorkshire. So although the police were a lot more confident and fearless in the Seventies and Eighties, they were as keen on dramatic, made-for-TV operations as they are now.

However, if political policing was on the rise during the Seventies and Eighties, the past decade has seen the advancement of what could be called post-political policing. In cracking down on Twitter trolls, football fans or drunken night-bus ranters, the police are simply following a strongarmed interpretation of the political class’s position on ‘unacceptable’ or ‘inappropriate’ speech. Equally, as part of the Operation Yewtree probe into ‘historic’ child sex abuse, the police have been stoking up panics around sexual abuse far more than UK politicians and tabloid newspapers. Where political institutions lead, the police tend to follow and become the truncheon-wielding wing of a given crusade. Given that the police are apparently failing to follow up on even the most basic of crimes, it does seem that they have an alarming set of priorities.

Although, formally, the police’s role is to protect the public and catch criminals, they still consider shaping public behaviour according to the whims of the political class to be more important. As political priorities have changed over the past decade, so have the police. So while raiding the home of a 72-year-old pop singer may seem light years away from punch-ups on the picket line, they’re both a reflection of the political priorities of their time. It may appear bizarre for the police to arrest an abusive tweeter rather than chase a burglar, but the high-profile arrests of tweeters demonstrates that the police are on-message regarding the ‘dangers’ of free speech and free expression. In turn, these arrests send out the powerful message that individuals can no longer expect to ‘get away with’ rash or foolish words.

However, it is not only the government, the Tory shires or the Daily Mail that are propping up the clampdown on hate speech and offensive football chants; young (and not-so young) radicals also welcome all of this new police activity. Indeed, many feminists and radicals actively implore the police to clamp down on these new crimes; anyone who questions the motivations of the police force’s obsession with paedophile cases is often met with a ‘what about the victims?’ retort. Officers investigating cases under Operation Yewtree always justify tenuous prosecutions under the claim that ‘victims must be heard’ and they are met with head-nodding agreement by the kind of radicals who might once have mistrusted the police.

When the police play to the gallery, arresting abusive tweeters or light entertainers, they are tapping into a fresh source of legitimacy and authority among the political class and the opinion-forming elite. Unlike the Conservative Party, the Union or other institutions associated with Old Britain, the police have done a remarkable job of reinventing themselves as the strongarm of therapeutic victim culture. As potentially anybody can be a ‘victim’ of words and speech these days, it’s little wonder the police haven’t got the time to chase burglars and car thieves.

Neil Davenport is a writer and teacher based in London. He is speaking at the debates Me, my selfie & I: narcissism or empowerment? and Keeping the faith schools? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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Topics Free Speech


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