British police: enforcers of the therapeutic state

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

This week, Sara Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said the police needed to shift their focus away from ‘traditional’ offences, such as burglary and car theft. She admitted that, under this new regime, officers may not even attend the scene of a reported burglary. According to Thornton, the police should focus on ‘sexual offences, concerns about terrorism and cybercrime’. No doubt she was stoking fears about home security as a way of highlighting budget cuts to the police. But, logically, a tighter budget should mean prioritising key services and responsibilities – namely protecting the public – rather than spending money on, say, high-profile trawling exercises aimed at nabbing historical sex criminals or offensive tweeters.

Thornton is right to point out that the police’s role has changed in recent years. In cracking down on Twitter trolls, football fans and drunken nightbus ranters, the police have become the enforcers of the political class’s position on ‘unacceptable’ or ‘inappropriate’ speech. Similarly, as politicians and the press have stoked up panics around sexual abuse, the police have followed their lead. The high-profile investigations into decades-old sex-abuse cases and the headline-grabbing arrests of hate speakers shows that the police are completely on-message regarding the censorious, hysterical and, above all, therapeutic turn of public policy and discourse.

The proposed downgrading of burglary and car theft to the status of minor crimes also signals an abandonment of the importance of private property, and the state’s role in protecting it. In previous decades, the sanctity of private property was always ideological, a standpoint that demonstrated hostility towards socialism and the abolition of private property. But contained within that conservative belief was the important idea that ‘every Englishman’s home is his castle’ – a private space in which official and unofficial intruders were not welcome.

By downplaying the seriousness of burglary – once treated as a traumatic violation – Thornton’s statement showed how much the private sphere has been compromised in recent years; not by a rise in socialist fervour, but by officialdom’s problematisation of private life. The tendency of policymakers to present the private sphere as open to abuse has fuelled the witch-hunt around historic sex allegations. No wonder the police think it is no big deal to raid the homes of alleged celebrity sex criminals like Cliff Richard.

The police’s disregard for the sanctity of the private sphere should make them deeply unpopular. But, today, it has the opposite effect. The idea that the police should do everything in their power to clamp down on hate speakers and alleged abusers is thoroughly mainstream – and former radicals in the media class are some of the new cops’ most passionate supporters. Budget cuts or no budget cuts, the police’s legitimacy now depends on them becoming the armed wing of the therapeutic state.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

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Topics Politics


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