This is the full version of my Internation New York Times column on the crisis in British policing, published last month under the title ‘Britain’s Bobbies in the Dock’. I also wrote a subsequent post on the framing of Winston Silcott.
In March, Britain’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced a public inquiry into claims that the Metropolitan Police had spied on a black family even as the force was supposed to be investigating the racist killing of the family’s eldest son. Commenting on a parliamentary report that triggered her announcement, Mrs. May called the revelations ‘profoundly shocking and disturbing’, and said that ‘policing stands damaged today’.
In 1993, Stephen Lawrence, a young student who aspired to be an architect, was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in a suburb of south-east London. Over the two decades since, the murder and the catastrophic failures of the subsequent police investigation, became a cause célèbre in British politics. It led to much soul-searching about Britain’s attitudes to minority communities and about its culture of policing. A 1999 official inquiry into the police investigation had already condemned the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’. Now it has emerged that the police employed an undercover officer to spy on the Lawrences, apparently searching for dirt with which to discredit the dead teenager’s family as it pressed for justice.
This is but the latest in a series of scandals that have shaken the British police in recent months. The spying operation on the Lawrence family was conducted by members of the Special Demonstration Squad, a secret undercover police unit established to infiltrate protest groups. It has now been revealed that several of the unit’s officers lived for years posing as activists in environmental groups, took part in illegal activities and had relationships and even children with women members.
Then, last year, police officers were exposed as having lied about the actions of a government minister. Andrew Mitchell, the government’s chief whip in the House of Commons, was accused of verbally abusing police officers at the entrance to Downing Street. He admitted swearing, but denied that he had called them ‘plebs’; even so, he was forced to resign. Subsequently, it emerged that a passing ‘tourist’ who had claimed to witness the altercation was, in fact, a police officer who was not even present in the area. Two officers have been sacked (and one of them jailed) for their part in the affair, which the media dubbed ‘pleb gate’.
The police had been involved in a high-profile confrontation with the government over cuts in funding, and the unfounded accusations against Mitchell seemed a form of revenge. If the police could frame a powerful politician, people asked, what might they be doing daily to ordinary members of the public?
The result of all this has been a sense of crisis enveloping the police, which many now regard as an institution with no moral grounding. What has happened to the British police? When did the famous British bobby — so trusted in authority that he did not need to be armed — disappear?
Part of the answer, of course, is that the old-fashioned British bobby was always a myth. Corruption, racism and malpractice have always infected Britain’s police force. Indeed, the latest revelations could be regarded as relatively minor indiscretions compared to the scandals of the past. Through the 1970s and 1980s, a series of high-profile cases of miscarriages of justice, involving mainly Irish and black suspects, exposed a darkness at the heart of the police force.
Irish terrorist suspects were routinely fitted up. The ‘Guildford Four’ were four Irish men and women convicted in 1975 of a bombing by Irish Republicans of two pubs in a town near London. They spent 14 years in jail before forensic tests revealed the police interview notes to have been fabrications. The Guildford Four were released in 1989. Two years later, the ‘Birmingham Six’, jailed for the 1974 bombings of two Birmingham pubs in which 21 people were killed, were set free. Again, forensic tests showed that the evidence against them had been concocted.
Black people were equally likely to be victims of miscarriages of justice based on manufactured evidence. In one notorious case, Winston Silcott was convicted in 1987 of the murder of a police officer, Keith Blakelock, hacked to death in 1985 during a ferocious riot in the north London estate of Broadwater Farm. The only evidence against Mr. Silcott was a supposed confession — later shown to be a fabrication. His conviction, too, was quashed.
There was deep resentment of the police within working class communities too. In an age of bitter strikes and class confrontations, the role of the police in safeguarding the interests of employers and the authorities led to vicious confrontations, most notably during the epic year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85.
Yet, however deep the corruption, however rabid the racism, however unspeakable the injustice, the police never faced a crisis as they do today. Certainly,sections of the population, particularly minority communities, have at times been more alienated from the police than they are today. But the very fact that society was torn by such conflict, rent by divisions of race, class and ideology, led many within the establishment to support the police, come what may.
In 1980, Lord Denning, then the most important judge in Britain, dismissed allegations of police brutality by the Birmingham Six because, in his words, ‘If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury… and that the convictions were erroneous.’ That ‘was such an appalling vista’ that the case should not be allowed to ‘go any further’. Such unquestioning, automatic support provided a shield for the police, protecting them against the consequences of their own wrongdoing.
Britain today is a very different place.The old social conflicts have largely ebbed away. Policing has become less openly political. But, paradoxically, the police have become less trusted. Most striking has been the growing rift between the police and what traditionally have been their most steadfast supporters, a rift symbolized by the ruptured relationship with the Conservative party, historically the party of law order, and the attempt to frame Andrew Mitchell. In a less ideological age, the kind of ‘Us and Them’ attitude expressed by Lord Denning no longer binds together the political class and the police force.
In the past, the political and moral lines that defined British society were more sharply defined. Those lines gave the police a sense of their mission in protecting the stability of British society and its institutions. They also gave the police license to crack down on those seen as challenging that stability — whether they were Irish, black or striking workers. And they shaped the support the police received from both the political classes and the public.
Today, as those political and moral lines have become far less black and white, the role of the police is far less clear. Its relationship with both the political class and the public has frayed. As a result every case of corruption, malpractice or racism that in the past might have been ignored now adds to a sense of crisis. The irony is that as policing has become less openly political, so the British police finds itself facing a crisis of identity and authority.