Sunday Times November 13 2005
It’s not a Blair police state we need fear, it’s his state police
Tony Blair was stung. In the middle of his Commons speech last Wednesday someone shouted: “Police state.” He erupted. “Did the right honourable gentleman say a ‘police state’?” he asked and bitterly denounced the charge.
The heckler should have reversed his words. Had he shouted “state police” he would have been nearer the mark. The key to the headlong rush of police chiefs into Blair’s bunker last week was an explosive document lying on the home secretary’s desk. It is his plan completely to reorganise policing in England and Wales.
The present 43 local forces will become just 12 regional ones under the Home Office and its quangos. This means that 43 jobs appointed locally will become a dozen appointed centrally. The police will be not “politicised” but nationalised. Last week Sir Ian Blair, London’s chief commissioner, was popping in and out of Downing Street for all the world as if he were minister of police.
The saga of the 90-day detention law has been a textbook case of what happens when ministers control policemen. It is plain that suicide bombers can deploy more deadly explosives than their precursors. This is worrying for the police and the public. July 7 was a serious failure and the police response — not to admit fault but to demand more power — was understandable but debatable. Recent evidence suggests that what is needed is not more power, which the police have in abundance and sometimes abuse, but more intelligence and resources in the right place.
Even so, what is debatable should have been properly debated, especially if it has delicate ethnic, security and even constitutional implications. In the past this would have meant an inquiry, however brief, to take evidence and secure a consensus of support before legislation. Royal commissions need not take for ever.
Instead this matter was so chaotically handled that the balance between civil liberty and police power was lost in the shouting. It became partisan. Police chiefs, with their careers on the line, were told to lobby their MPs, many of whom were furious. The Andy Hayman 90-day dossier was treated by Blair with the same biblical reverence that he once showered on Alastair Campbell’s notorious variations on a 45-minute theme.
By Wednesday the prime minister appeared to believe that only 90-day detention stood between Britain and the imminent arrival of Hitler’s storm troops. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, said it would be “obscene” not to go for 90 days in the immediate aftermath of the July 7 memorial service, lending weight to the suspicion that the St Paul’s event had been politically orchestrated. Nor did Clarke rebut The Sun’s absurd allegation that those voting for less than 90 days were “traitors”.
In sum the ministerial over-sell was counterproductive to the measure itself. It was the answer to a terrorist’s prayer and shows how easily civil liberties in Britain can be swept aside by a well aimed bomb. At every turn Blair and Clarke cried: “Just give the police whatever they want.” Would that include capital punishment or a return to torture? It was dumbed-down government at its most inane.
The history of the British police is rooted in two traditions. One is local consent, the other an aversion to a national gendarmerie or “army of the interior”. The first bred the most popular constabulary in the world, a street police, unarmed, recruited from and accountable to its community. Under Elizabeth I helping the police was a civic duty, like jury service. The Puritans took the local election of law-enforcers to America, where it rules still.
Not until the 1964 Police Act and the first moves towards centralisation did this “Dixon of Dock Green” tradition start to crack. In England and Wales, 123 forces came down to 47. The Home Office encouraged the police to get off the beat and into cars. Street crime soared and police aloofness, corruption and unpopularity with it. In the words of one historian, “plods became pigs”.
Two Tory home secretaries, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard, struggled to get force numbers down and end local government involvement in policing. They sought to enforce national policy and targets. The move was balked in the Lords, where one former home secretary after another denounced nationalisation.
Lord Jenkins called it “dogma and hubris”, Lord Callaghan said that it was “only the desire of the home secretary to strengthen his influence”. No opposition was as vehement as that of the Labour spokesman in the Commons. In 1994 he excoriated nationalisation as “driven by an ideology which resents local freedom with an aversion bordering on paranoia”. That man was Tony Blair.
The 1994 reforms centralised police policy and finance but left 43 forces in place. As when David Blunkett tried to sack the head of Humberside, the local dog could still bark occasionally. It is this bark that Clarke wants to eliminate. He already controls police numbers and performance targets yet cannot bear accountability being to anyone but him. In policing big must be beautiful and central must be efficient. There is no shred of evidence for this from home or abroad. Clarke wants just one force for the whole of Wales. Has he ever been to Wales?
After the miners’ strike of 1984-85 the police were worried at being cast as “Maggie’s boot boys”. Despite the reluctance of some forces to fight the strikers, in retrospect the centre/local concordat held. The army was not needed. As in America (and unlike France) a locally accountable police acted as a safety valve against fears of central rule.
Last week the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) misjudged its role. It was ordered into action to save the bacon of ministers, making the police seem lackeys of a partisan government. This was exactly the danger against which parliament warned Sir Robert Peel in denying him a national police force back in 1828. A local constabulary, it felt, would far better protect Britain from revolution or repression. It was right.
Clarke’s new force (which he pretends is 12 forces) will be expected to enforce on citizens an ever lengthening list of controversial laws. They must imprison without charge (for 28 days) anyone from the Muslim community fingered by the security services. They must enforce laws against incitement and “the glorification of terror”. They must stop people hunting with dogs. They must enforce speed limits to raise revenue for government. They must enforce a battery of Asbos. They must soon battle later into the night with binge drinkers. This is quite different from the old system, where most policing was of local bylaws passed by the same councils that were responsible for seeing them enforced.
The home secretary knows what he is about. He has the career prospects of every Acpo member sitting on his desk. Where the Tories failed to nationalise the police, it seems certain that Labour will succeed. The Home Office, which long ran Britain’s least efficient force, the Met, now considers itself best qualified to run them all. Its excuse is terrorism.
>From Downing Street, now looking like London’s own Green Zone, policing Britain is about “the war”. Yet from the bottom up it is still about street safety, burglary, drinking, drugs and driving. It is about neighbourhood order with consent. Policing is a classic public service that should be “accountable at the point of delivery”. There is no state or city in America that would surrender its policing to Washington and the FBI. Whatever national force is used against terrorism (and the Home Office claimed to have formed one last year) local policing should come under local democracy.
Clarke’s regional forces would be the opposite. Regionalism is now code for central government, be it hospitals, economic development, housing targets, planning policy and doubtless soon education. Power taken from democratic institutions and given to appointed ones is power concentrated. Anyone who has been interviewed and box-ticked for quango service will know what this means. Nationalisation is what it says: ownership and regulation by agents of the state.
The prime minister was right last week. Britain is not a police state. It is so because Britons have for 160 years fought against a state police. Parliament has sensed that throughout history the borderline between a state police and a police state is always indistinct. Blair does not understand. He is seized by the same paranoia against which he ranted so well a decade ago.