Saturday, 29 November 2008

The Police and the State

It comes to something when David Blunkett starts saying that the police have gone over the top. But it must be true - it says so in the Guardian:


Drawing a parallel with police behaviour in the cash-for-honours affair, in which a former Downing Street aide was arrested in a dawn raid, he spoke of "the danger of overkill, of treating every case as though we are dealing with a suspicious character".


Some somersaulting here, methinks. Here's part of an article Bruce Anderson wrote for the Independent more than four years ago when Blunkett was Home Secretary:

The other day, in a much publicised case, a respectable citizen was stopped on the Embankment in London and threatened with imprisonment for possessing a pen-knife and a collapsible baton. He had the baton - legally - because he lives in a rural area which, like much of the British countryside, is a police-free zone.

The operation which led to his arrest was an anti-terrorist exercise. So he inquired whether the police might be wiser to concentrate on those of Arab appearance. He was informed that he was making a racist comment. Thus is common sense stigmatised as racism. Shortly afterwards, he was being told: "You're f***ing nicked, you a*******".

Later on, he was assaulted in a police station. In this disgraceful incident, the worst elements of politically correct policing were reinforcing the worst elements of the old-fashioned canteen culture. The result was slovenly, offensive, idle and malevolent policing, which is why public confidence in the police has never been lower. I am sure that the vast majority of policemen are still admirable human beings, who put on their uniforms to serve the public and who relish the opportunity to do so. But this cannot happen as long as they are not well led.

So how does David Blunkett respond? By passing more laws which will require more paperwork, more form filling; more senior officers on the phone to the Home Office, trying to find out what they ought to be doing: more senior officers away at conferences: more ambitious young officers deciding that the route to promotion does not lie in catching criminals but in becoming a jobsworth, a pen pusher and a jargon peddler.

David Blunkett's measures would also make it much easier for the police to harass law-abiding citizens. Adultery apart, Mr Blunkett has never been a friend of the liberty of the subject. He does not seem to understand that the purpose of a police force is to catch and deter criminals, in order to enlarge the freedom of the rest of us - not to poke their nose into our behaviour, while the criminals are unimpeded. As the Tory spokesman David Cameron said recently, if Mr Blunkett has his way "Britain will be a police state, without the police".


So what has changed for Blunkett to produce such indignation now? It's because it's Parliament, stupid. Damian Green may belong to the opposition, but when the supercharged police come after someone doing no more or no less than any half-way decent opposition politician does, even someone of Blunkett's denuded sensibilities starts getting worried. After all, it was him once - and Gordon Brown, not forgetting Winston Churchill. Perhaps I'm being slightly unfair. In his day David Blunkett seemed like the ultimate New Labour hard man, but despite all the laws Anderson was complaining about in retrospect he was probably the least objectionable of this government's five home secretaries. Which is, of course, not saying much. Gosh, he even had a sensible policy about cannabis. Needless to say, that couldn't last.

It's about the police, really, this Damian Green story, isn't it? Awful though this government's record is on civil liberties, I doubt even Gordon Brown at his misanthropic worst ever really imagined that an elected MP, a front-bench spokesman and a notably mild-mannered one at that, could be arrested and held for nine hours, see his office ransacked and a lifetime of intimate correspondence with his wife combed through by a crack team of the Yard's finest. And for eight of those nine hours Green was apparently sitting in a cell waiting for the police to get round to interviewing him. That's standard police psychology, you see. Keep them waiting, let them sweat, show the low-life criminal scum who's boss. A cynic might even imagine that they enjoy it.

As politics, even as the actions of a government eeking out its last dregs of decadence and unelectability (the short-lived "Brown Bounce" notwithstanding) this makes no sense. As Matthew Parris, among others, points out, this current row has the look of a PR disaster for Labour. It plays into concerns about the politicisation of the police and the bully-boy tactics of New Labour. It looks, plausibly, like the sort of thing that Gordon "Stalin" Brown would do. Even if he didn't.

Certainly, the home secretary at least should have been informed that the arrest was imminent: and if she had been, it's quite likely that she would have prevented it. I doubt even Jackboots is stupid enough not to have realised how badly it would play, what an open goal it has provided for the Tories. If government ministers weren't informed, though, it was presumably because they didn't want to be. I would guess that when the police were called in, Smith made clear that, for reasons of preserving appearances, the operation be kept at arms length from ministers. This, of course, has now blown up in their faces.

This is not to say, necessarily, that the arrest is bad news for Labour. A few days of bad publicity - terrible publicity, even - but unless there's proof out there that Jacqui Smith is lying it will go away. What may not go away is the "chill factor" within government departments at the over-the-top way in which this particular whistle-blower/Tory plant has been treated. If the next civil servant with a potentially embarrassing dossier thinks better of leaking it to the press or an MP then the ability of Parliament and journalists to hold the government to account - not great at the best of times - will be further damaged. Which is good news for a government whose competence is likely to be one of the main issues of the next election (assuming there is one).

But this will be an unintended consequence of the original decision to get tough on this one civil servant, and may have happened even if Green had not been arrested. Will other MPs - backbenchers, perhaps, including independent-minded Labour mavericks - also feel the chill? Our Jacqui has always been a prominent exponent of the politics of "sending a message". The police raid on an Opposition spokesman may prove to have been a singularly effective message. Possibly, just possibly, it will be the opposite. We can but hope.

In retrospect, Conservatives were rather too caught up in the partisan mood at the time of the cash-for-honours enquiry to see it for what it was. Of course, any wrongdoing had to be investigated, and it was right for the police, under the indefatigable John Yates, to pursue the matter with diligence. And there is a huge difference between the police investigating the government and the police investigating the opposition: the first serves as a demonstration that no-one is above the law; the second looks like the tactics of a police state.

Nevertheless, there were several disquieting features of that enquiry. There was, most notoriously, the dawn swoop on Ruth Turner, who was at best a minor player doing others' bidding. She was subjected to severe indignities - though nothing like so bad as those visited upon the Milton Keynes journalist Sally Murrer, the case against whom was coincidentally thrown out yesterday. So too, in a lesser degree, was Lord Levy, whose status as Tony Blair's tennis partner made his predicament seem so delicious at the time. In both cases, the police resorted to stunt arrests and strong-arm tactics where a courteous interview - as was accorded to Blair himself - would have sufficed. It was a sign that an out-of-control police, drunk on their frightening new powers, no longer saw the difference between dangerous criminality and political sharp-practice. Or if they did see the difference, deliberately decided to ignore it.

One of the most controversial aspects of the raid has been that it was "counter-terrorist" officers who raided Green's home and office. "Counter-terrorist" officers, that is, who - you'd think - were supposed to be countering terrorism. Well, there's an explanation, of sorts. It turns out that the Met's counter-terrorism squad included officers from what used to be called the Special Branch. It was decided, when units were merged and reorganised some time ago, that the most appropriate name for the department specialising in organised crime, terrorism, security issues and anything of a "sensitive" nature was "counter-terrorism". That, at least, was what they were saying on Radio 4 last night. So it was a purely procedural thing, nothing to see here, stop worrying.

Well, er... I personally find it very worrying that functions previously performed by Special Branch have been swept up into a shiny new counter-terrorism department. Because language matters. If the police investigating a "crime" are styled counter-terrorist police, if - just as importantly - the powers they are exercising were sold to Parliament (and the public) as necessary for dealing with the "unprecedented terrorist threat", then it follows that whatever the counter-terrorist police investigate is terrorism. Or at least that it comes to be looked at in the same way as terrorism. Anyone who has been paying attention this past decade can point to well-known abuses of terror-laws: Walter Wolfgang, the "bollocks to Blair" T-shirts, the woman arrested for reading out a list of war-dead, environmental protesters, the councils snooping on ordinary families. Are these things "terrorism"? Well, they are things that anti-terror police investigate and anti-terror laws are used to suppress, so I suppose they must be. We are all terrorists now.

How this came to be is a long story, and it doesn't start with New Labour - though under this government the trends towards the lavish extension of state powers has proceeded more rapidly than almost anyone could have predicted. And New Labour have added elements all their own - the diversion of police resources onto essentially political matters such as "community cohesion", the love of "eye-catching initiatives", the culture of spins and leaks which ensures that when officers stage a pre-dawn raid press photographers just happen to be in the area, the asinine pursuit of targets and so on. Above all, New Labour have brought a certain mood - one that places appearance above reality, careerism above public service - that has ineluctibly rubbed off onto the police. It is not that Britain has become a police state; rather, the police have begun to act as though it is. A subtle difference, and one perhaps lost on those who have been at the receiving end of police presumption.

The political cosiness between the ousted commissioner Sir Ian Blair and New Labour has been one of the great scandals of our age, and so blatant that some immediately suspected that he was behind the arrest of Damian Green - which took place on his last day in office - perhaps as a final thank-you present to his patrons. One that turned out to be anything but, of course - but Blair, though intensely political, has never been an astute politician. I don't believe it; but it is telling that anyone could.

They never apologise, these bureaucratic coppers. Just yesterday we were reminded of the horrific ordeal suffered by Ms Murrer, a fifty-year old ordinary mother with a disabled son, at the hands of the friendly, well-intentioned public servants of Thames Valley police. Her private conversations were bugged. She was arrested three times, held for 30 hours in an unsanitary cell and strip-searched. The police "told her that she had committed a very serious offence and that she could go to prison for the rest of her life", reports the Press Gazette. She was treated in a manner reminscent of a third world dictatorship for revealing confidential information about, among other things, the police's case against a brawling footballer. Her police informant suffered a stroke.

After 18 months of hell, the case finally reached court. The judge - reluctantly, it would seem - threw it out on the grounds that the police had breached her human rights, and that the European convention protected journalistic confidentiality. Fairly damning - surely heads should roll. But not a bit of it. In a statement, Thames Valley defended their investigation as "proportionate", claiming that they had behaved "entirely properly". They were "disappointed" by the outcome of the case.

At least Murrer is still alive, I suppose. Unlike Jean Charles de Menezes, the inquest into whose brutal execution-style killing will soon reach its conclusion. The inquest has produced scores of revelations, many deeply troubling. Not just the expected incompetence, but contradictory and misleading testimony, and, most troubling of all for me, the news that as a matter of procedure under "Operation Kratos", the legally required pre-shot warning was only to be given after the decision had been taken to kill the suspect. This from the officer who shot Mr De Menezes seven times in the head, while he was restrained and entirely unthreatening, and given in his own defence. Was Operation Kratos ever debated in Parliament? Does it have any legal justification? In the age of Robocop, does it need any?

It's tragic this, truly gut-wrenchingly tragic. For me - predisposed to support the police, to believe in the myth of the friendly bobby and the long-standing reality (and it was a reality) of a public service which, for all its faults, saw its primary duty pursuing criminals - it's scarcely credible. But it's not just me, of course: ordinary, law-abiding people throughout the country no longer believe that the police are on their side. The trust between police and public which was built up over almost two hundred years has been practically destroyed in a decade. And now even some of those responsible for this parlous state of affairs, like David Blunkett, have seen where it can lead. So no, the police aren't the armed wing of New Labour. It's just that their interests so often coincide, it can be hard to tell them apart.

3 comments:

Waltz said...

It's hard to believe that Alas Smith and Brown didn't know about this in advance. Are we really to believe that the police informed Boris Johnson and David Cameron but not the Home Secretary? Or that the Speaker, who also knew in advance, didn't inform both her and Brown? Brown is certainly tin-eared enough not to have foreseen how this would reflect on him. In fact, he's so tin-eared he might well have imagined marvellous headlines attacking the Tories instead of outrage.

Even Diane Abbott agreed on This Week that Green's arrest was politically motivated. Proving it is another matter, of course, but so far much of the public seems in little doubt.

The Heresiarch said...

I think the key is the constant repetition by ministers of the phrase "this is a police matter; the police are independent; the investigation must take its course without political interference". As I said, I believe that, knowing what might happen would be controversial (though not, perhaps anticipating the arrest of an MP) they wanted to insulate themselves from any fallout by adopting an arms-length approach.

Thus they made it clear - to the senior civil servant, who must have had authorisation before bringing in the police - that any direct communication with the cops would be through him and NOT involve politicians. In other words, their non-involvement was just as politically motivated as their involvement would have been - perhaps more so.

That's my theory, anyway. Nothing else makes any sense to me.

Waltz said...

Yes, I think you are right.

Further interesting revelations in The Indy today about MPs' offices being bugged.

I think and hope this now escalating story will bring down this government.