‘Boys in blue’: someone to watch over us

As the Madeleine McCann case shows, the desire for security means the British police are more favourably viewed today than ever before.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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The on-going interest and speculation regarding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal says more about the state-of-the-nation than the state-of-the-investigation. In recent weeks, the failure to find the missing four-year-old, or to establish who is responsible for her disappearance, has resulted in a torrent of criticism in the British media for the Portugese police, while their British counterparts are lionised.

There’s a palpable sense that if Madeleine McCann had disappeared in the UK, then perhaps ‘our police’ would have wrapped up the case a lot sooner. On ITV’s Tonight programme last week, for instance, a child protection expert said that the problem with Portugal is that it doesn’t have a Sex Offenders Register as we do in the UK and that adults aren’t ‘vetted’ before they can work with children. The suggestion is that at least in the UK ‘our’ authorities take security and protection very seriously indeed. According to the British press, if the Portugese aren’t reckless with the safety of their children, then they are either incompetent in organising an investigation or just downright corrupt. Meanwhile, the British police are painted as highly trained professionals who have never stitched up a prisoner, organised an investigation in an incompetent manner or mishandled forensics. All this despite plenty of evidence in the past decade or two – from the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four through the Stephen Lawrence investigation to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes – that suggests the very opposite.

What is remarkable is that it’s not just the representatives of PC Plod who wax lyrical about the British police. Currently, the police enjoy a remarkable degree of support from all sections of society. While the authorities often appear to be wracked internally with anxiety about their role in society, the police probably enjoy more public support today than at any time in history.

When the police first emerged in the early nineteenth century, public attitudes towards them were very different. Back in 1839, the founders of the Birmingham Chartists regarded the very existence of the police as an infringement of basic liberties. As the police were routinely used to break up strikers’ pickets and occupations, as well as suppress public protest, there was a widespread perception that the police were hired muscle designed to protect the economic and political interests of private employers. And far from being a kindly institution impartially upholding parliamentary law, they were seen as crooked and corrupt. One explanation for the east London slang for the police, ‘Old Bill’, suggests the name was derived from the fact that anyone arrested could potentially evade prosecution by bribing an officer with cash.

It took until the consensus era of the Fifties for attitudes towards the police to alter significantly. As the police steered clear of the low-level struggles of the times, the state was able to foster a homely image of the British bobby helping elderly women across the road. This was personified by fictional police constable George Dixon in the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green. On Saturday evenings from 1955, Dixon could be found welcoming the nation with an ‘evenin’ all’, taking the message of harmonious policing into Britain’s living rooms. Of course, some tensions still existed between the working-class and the police. Film makers in the 1950s and 1960s were always mindful to portray police constables as incompetent dolts in order not to alienate a mass audience (2).

Nevertheless, the decades after the war were the golden age when policing by consent and the idea of police impartiality became instilled in the public’s mind for the first time (3).

It was only after major industrial action in the Seventies, particularly the ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’ in Birmingham during the miners’ strike of 1972, that the police won new powers to justify more aggressive tactics. One Tory MP coined the phrase ‘winning by appearing to lose’, whereby hard-pressed officers holding the thin blue line against strikers, hooligans and extremists could justify giving the police more ‘protection’ – in other words more coercive power. Unfortunately for the political class at the time, this new confrontational approach only aggravated hostility towards the police and the authorities further. After the 1984 miners’ strike and a series of inner-city riots, by the end of the Eighties support for the police was at an all-time low. In this climate, the adopted police strategy was along the lines of ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. Although policing by consent was preferable, in this period the police’s authority was derived from being coercive and confrontational. After all, the police’s role back then was to contain social conflict once consensus had broken down.

Ironically, the success of the police and government in defeating opposition movements exacerbated a trend in which many institutions were increasingly deprived of a sense of purpose. The police force was only one among a raft of old institutions, such as Parliament, the Conservative Party and the Church of England, to face a corrosive crisis of legitimacy. When an inquest heard last week how Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs, aka ‘plastic plods’) apparently stood by while a young boy drowned in a lake in Wigan in north-west England in May, it illustrated a lamentable lack of grit and gumption in today’s supposed law enforcers. Even so, this tragic incident has only fuelled further demands for more and better policing to keep the public ‘safe from harm’. No matter how much the authorities dither and dally, demands for around-the-clock protection grow ever louder. Since when did the police become so welcome by so many?

In the Eighties, a few left-wing MPs caused horrified headlines by criticising the police, perhaps most famously with Bernie Grant’s quote after the Broadwater Farm riots that the police had received a ‘bloody good hiding’. In the main, however, leading Labour politicians were desperately keen to show their support for the ‘boys in blue’ in order to gain political acceptance at Westminster. Some radical socialists even argued that because of the ‘ordinary’ background of many ‘bobbies’ on the beat, they should be seen as ‘workers in uniform’. From the logic of the British left, this was consistent with their political outlook. After all, more than anyone else in society, they believed that the British state, rather than the democratic participation of ordinary people, was the best instrument to create a better society. Having long established the positive credentials of the state, the left were in a unique position to rehabilitate and then change the police’s role in wider society.

What influenced this process was a growing prejudice on the left that working people were a reactionary, atavistic mob. By the late Eighties, for instance, leftist social workers believed that working-class parents couldn’t be trusted to raise their children properly, while radical feminists implored the police to tackle domestic violence and cases of sexual harassment.

The real watershed, however, came after the tragic murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 in Eltham, south London. For many radical left-wingers, this violent murder confirmed that the authorities ‘must do something’ about far-right organisations and freelance racists. For over 20 years, the police had acquired an unsavoury reputation for harassing, falsely imprisoning and killing black people during the course of their duties. This demand that the police ‘do something’ about racism enabled the force to re-invent itself as a committed anti-racist service (4). This wasn’t merely an empty PR stunt; the outcome of Sir William Macpherson’s report into the Lawrence investigation nearly caused the police to implode and police forces have been on a crash course in self-flagellation ever since. Nevertheless, by loudly accepting that they were ‘institutionally racist’ the police have been able to create new sources of authority by singing from the therapeutic hymn sheet.

What’s really made this transformation possible, though, is that in today’s generalised culture of fear, the police are in constant demand to ‘do something’ – namely, to provide a bit of security in the face of a whole raft of real and imagined fears. As society has become fragmented, many of the old solidarities that held people together no longer exist. When people have very little connection with others, or appear not to have much in common, then strangers can appear as a potential threat rather than potential allies. Media reports on stabbings, shootings and, yes, child abductions are now more likely to play on individual fears and insecurities than ever before.

As a result there’s a constant demand for the police to provide order and stability because there’s a perception that all kinds of individuals are out of control. The existence of the police provides a kind of reassurance that at least something is holding us disparate individuals together. Judging from personal experience amongst many friends and acquaintances recently, old-style anti-police sentiments are now greeted with shock and intense disapproval. This is because there’s a palpable fear of how society might be without the boys (and girls) in blue – a kind of holiday camp for thuggish criminals, weirdoes and general miscreants.

What’s striking about the Madeleine McCann case is how it has brought some of these fearful sentiments to the surface. While it’s true that the British people are ‘united’ in empathy with the McCanns, what drives it is a widespread fear and insecurity that parents need around-the-clock protection from predatory child abductors. As a consequence, this demand for security and order means that the British police are now looked upon entirely favourably. In further education colleges, for instance, there’s a relatively new course devoted to studying the Uniformed Public Services Sector. In the approved textbook for this course, the police are now simply presented as being of the same ‘caring’ and ‘altruistic’ stripe as the fire service, ambulance workers and nurses.

This isn’t merely about favourable PR and presentation. When power in society appears so diffuse and difficult to locate, it’s true to say that the police no longer appear to defend any recognisable sectional interests. One day they might be leading dawn raids on suspected terrorists, the next they’re intent on questioning former prime minister Tony Blair over the ‘cash for honours’ scandal. With class antagonisms virtually non-existent, the police no longer have to coerce working people to accept shoddy wages or working conditions. Instead, their authority is now derived from acting like ‘civic minded’ volunteers. So while the introduction of Police Community Support Officers might appear to undermine or even outsource the ‘real’ police’s authority, the PCSOs shows they’re a non-elitist, ‘ordinary’ and ‘inclusive’ part of the (imaginary) ‘community’.

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that the police’s new role is any less reactionary or dangerous. While they may no longer be battling on the picket lines against print workers or miners, they are now seen as responsible for holding both democracy and individual autonomy to account. Ironically, their role and their reach are far greater now than in the past, even compared to periods of social conflict and confrontation. If the reaction to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal has revealed anything, it’s that ‘our police’ are seen as a reassuring presence in a nervy, insecure world. Nevertheless, far from demanding the police or the ‘plastic plods’ keep a watchful eye over us, surely the Birmingham Chartists’ spirit of democracy and freedom is a better place to start?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. He is speaking at the session Teach the world to sing at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Patrick West suggested that the character of Gene Hunt from Life on Mars is an old-fashioned copper who got the job done. Frank Furedi said we have nothing to fear but the culture of fear itself. Mick Hume examined New Labour’s legacy. Brendan O’Neill shot down fears of a gun culture. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.

(1) ‘Exactly how guilty are the Portuguese police?’ by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 11th September 2007

(2) Cited in Never Had It So Good, by Dominic Sandbrook (2005), Abacus

(3) See ‘The Rise of Political Policing’, by Toby Banks, Living Marxism, January 1989

(4) See Trial By TV and Tabloid, by Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics


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