A police state, without any police
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
Some claim that we are living in a police state. But it is a strange sort of police state, where there do not appear to be any police.
The Government is accumulating an impressively illiberal arsenal of legal powers in its wars against terrorism and organised crime. It even wants to lower the standard of proof for a conviction in these cases, from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to ‘on the balance of probabilities’. Tony Blair insists that this change will be acceptable within certain categories of crime, providing that the crimes are ‘big enough’. So the more serious the crime you are charged with, the less evidence will be required to convict you. That is a novel interpretation of criminal justice, even for so creative a lawyer as Mr Blair.
Yet while the Government piles up the sort of illiberal laws usually associated with tinpot dictatorships, the streets of Britain are not exactly ringing with the stamp of jackboots, or indeed the squeak of comfortable police footwear. You might see a couple of community support officers (sort of decaffeinated coppers), or traffic wardens empowered to issue tickets for dodgy driving. But proper police are a far rarer species, unless keeping neighbourhoods awake at night in a helicopter or endangering public safety in a speeding riot van.
Last week, in our quiet corner of north east London, a suspected cannibal was charged with murder after a dismembered body was found in a flat. This was barely more shocking than the fact that 60 police officers turned out to keep each other company at the scene. Safety in numbers, I suppose; we’ve all seen those Hannibal Lecter movies.
Now comes news that many of London’s town centre, blue-lamped police stations are to be sold off. Instead, little police kiosks will be sited in public places such as supermarkets, presumably alongside the AA stall, while the local constabulary retreat behind the reinforced walls of new bases on industrial estates.
Even when they do venture out to deal with serious situations, the police rarely seem keen to take risks. A year ago, armed police stood for 15 days besieging a Hackney flat, only venturing in after the hostage had escaped by his own efforts, and the lone gunman had started a fire in which he perished. Last December in Gloucester, police did go in and arrest a student suspected of terrorism offences at his parents’ home – after deploying 26 armed units, evacuating 119 homes and closing off city centre streets.
More draconian laws, less decisive policing; the common factor is the culture of fear. Critics accuse the British and American governments of preying on public fears of terrorism and crime to justify authoritarian measures. But what they miss is the extent to which the culture of fear has infected the authorities, too.
Today an insecure Government views the world with an outlook characterised by one top Downing Street advisor as ‘organised paranoia’. That is why it can blow up the threat from al-Qaeda or organised crime out of all proportion. It is even reported that there are plans to evacuate Mr Blair’s Government from London in the event of a terrorist bomb – something Winston Churchill refused to contemplate in the face of full-scale military invasion. Shaped by such a defensive siege mentality, that wall of illiberal laws looks like an Israeli-style fence from behind which the Government can both hide and lash out.
The irony is that the same insecurities motivating repressive laws also make the State less able to play the authoritarian card effectively. No public body seems more disorientated than the police: robbed of old certainties about where to draw the thin blue line on issues such as drugs; racked by worries about whether they are a service or a force; and in turmoil over breast-beating admissions of institutional racism. Lucky for them that they do not have a real enemy to fight; on the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike, it seems unlikely that either the politicians or the police would have the will to wage such a militarised campaign today.
As one who grew up subscribing to the old maxim, that there is no situation so terrible that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of a policeman, I am no member of the more-bobbies lobby. But this police state without police is the worst of all worlds. It risks undermining important liberties while intensifying public fears, empowering the police to take extraordinary measures while rendering them incapable of doing anything useful.
In 1984, George Orwell describes this vision of a totalitarian future: ‘Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ Today’s equivalent might be: ‘Imagine a law that allows judges to sanction stamping on a human face in exceptional circumstances, except that the boots are all on sick leave suffering from Pre-Face Stamping Stress Disorder.’
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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