The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 20th, 2005

I’d rather PC Plod than PC Clever Clogs

If the price of freedom is constant vigilance, the price of constant vigilance seems to be constant confusion, at least in Blair’s Britain. I mean Sir Ian Blair, the chief of the Metropolitan police. His Dimbleby lecture last week was most confusing. Calling repeatedly for a public debate on policing, he made an impassioned protest against the silence that has for too long surrounded the police service.

“The silence can no longer continue. The citizens of Britain now have to articulate what kind of police services they want.” But that is odd, because there has in fact been a great deal of vociferous public debate about the police for years, and — contrariwise — if anyone has been rather silent, it is Blair himself.

He was extremely reticent about the shocking death of Jean Charles de Menezes and about the use of the “dum dum” bullets that killed him. And when confronted last week with accusations on all sides that the police cravenly agreed to put pressure on MPs to support the government’s notorious 90 days’ detention without trial — the Met’s most senior anti-terrorist officer was sent to Westminster to lobby Labour rebels — Blair’s response was to resist all calls for an interview and stay silent until Wednesday.

We have learnt from this government the hard way to be suspicious of official calls for a public inquiry. We should by now be even more suspicious, surely, of officialdom’s constant call for public debate, or worse still, in contemporary cant, for a “national conversation”. It is almost as bad as the official obsession with consultation.

All have become weasel words meaning pretty much the opposite; the public is invited to have a say and get its feelings off its many chests and then the apparatchiks will carry on as before, but with a permanent “mandate” — that is, a permanent excuse for doing just what they wanted in the first place. Public consultation has become a way of protecting one’s rear end with a pretence of democracy. “But we consulted,” the cry goes up when there’s trouble.

Yet with anything that really matters, there’s usually very little inconvenient “conversation” or “debate”; a classic example, in a case which really matters, is the home secretary’s proposal, keenly supported by Blair, to reduce the police forces in England and Wales from 43 to 12. There hasn’t been much public debate there, still less an invitation to one. Perhaps there is something revealing in what Blair said about police reform to an interviewer last Wednesday: “I haven’t got time for royal commissions. I want to get on with it.”

In all this — which is, in effect, new Labour think — there seems to be a schizophrenic attitude to popular democracy. On the one hand the public must be consulted and listened to and empowered at the grassroots. On the other hand the man in Whitehall still knows best. Reducing the police forces in England and Wales to only 12 regional bodies is entirely at odds with the ceaseless wittering at all levels of government about localisation.

I don’t suppose for one second that Blair wants my opinion on policing, but since he has unwisely asked for it, I will give it, and not for the first time. He asks whether we think the police are there to fight crime or to fight the causes of crime, to help build stronger communities or to undertake zero tolerance. The question itself is wrong.

The police are not there to “fight the causes of crime”; the police are not social workers or teachers or foster parents or psychiatrists, nor should they be even if they had the time or the money or the manpower. The police are not there to build communities of any sort: a monstrous idea.

The idea that officials of any kind can “build” communities — another piece of modern cant — is alarming. It is part of the unthinking statism of our time. A community is made, almost unconsciously, by its members not by public servants or officials. Officials can destroy communities by bulldozing terraced houses, as John Prescott did, or by throwing poor people into high-rise ghettos, or by ruining schools, but they cannot create neighbourliness no matter how much they spend.

What the police can do is remove the obstacles to community, such as violence and disorder and public nuisances. What they can do — could do much more — is stay so close to the community they police that they can anticipate crime and deter it by their close knowledge of who’s who and what’s going on. Failing that, they are there to catch criminals. You do not need a public debate to discover that that’s what most people think.

Labour’s verbiage about the role of the police — “to build a safe, just and tolerant society, in which the rights and responsibilities of individuals, families and communities are balanced, and the protection and security of the public are maintained” — is just unthinking, undesirable guff.

The question Blair should have asked is not what kind of policing we want. The bottom line — the thin blue line — is clear enough. The proper question is whether the police are effective enough, and if not why not. And if he wants informed discussion he need look no further than a recent report by the think tank Politeia, called Policing Matters. I think he must have read it, judging from some of his remarks in his Dimbleby lecture. But it makes a nonsense of his complaints about silence and the need for informed discussion.

You could hardly get a more expert group of contributors, including a former chief constable and president of the association of chief police officers, a former deputy chief constable and a former chief inspector of prisons. Their research is complex but their recommendations are simple. Better recruitment, higher entry standards, better training, better fast tracking for the most able, better management, less bureaucracy, and above all more local responsibility and accountability and less Whitehall control. Not much about building communities there.

One point on which they would agree with Blair is that the police service doesn’t attract enough high-flyers or intellectuals like himself. Clearly, in the public mind, a policeman’s lot is not a classy one and this has evidently been a thorn in the side of Blair’s vanity for many years. But if high-flyers think and talk like Blair, perhaps the police don’t need many more of them. It would just be confusing.