Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Lesson of This Fiasco Is That We Need Elected Police Chiefs

Magazine article The Spectator

The Real Lesson of This Fiasco Is That We Need Elected Police Chiefs

Article excerpt

Perhaps now you'll understand what we've been banging on about, we localists. For the better part of a decade, we've campaigned to place the police under elected sheriffs. Some of our chief constables, we contended, had cast off the cables that once attached them to public opinion.

They were concentrating on speed cameras and hate crimes and community relations when the rest of us wanted them to concentrate on being unpleasant to scoundrels. The best way to align the police's priorities with everyone else's, we argued, was to place our constabularies under locally elected representatives.

You disagreed -- you, Spectator readers in particular. Our ideas, you felt, were downright un-British. They might do for people in hot countries whose leaders wore sunglasses, but one of the glories of Britain's constitution was the independence of its public servants. We heard the same objections over and over again, voiced by stiff-backed former army officers and stout-hearted Tory matrons. The last thing the country needed, you told us, was a politicised police force.

Well -- with respect, Colonel, Madam -- what the devil do you imagine we've got now? Even in hot countries where the leaders wear sunglasses, it would be considered disproportionate to send 20 anti-terrorist police against a middle-aged opposition politician, his wife and one of their teenage daughters.

What we've seen is a political arrest -- a political arrest, for heaven's sake. It may well be that, as ministers claim, they didn't authorise the action -- though their denials have been carefully phrased and lawyerly. But that isn't really the point. The Home Office official in charge of the investigation, Sir David Normington, is also in charge of appointing the next Met Commissioner.

Three of the senior officers involved in authorising the raid are in the running for that job. Even the most authoritarian states rarely involve direct operational commands to the police by interior ministers: senior policemen can usually be relied on to anticipate the regime's wishes.

After all, l'affaire Green was hardly a one-off. It came after the overt lobbying by police chiefs of MPs over ID cards and 42-day detention. The respectable classes, brought up to believe that the police were broadly on their side, have felt increasingly alienated. Every time they read of a blackguard going unmolested while a law-abiding citizen is arrested for being in possession of a penknife, or of street crime spiralling while money is channelled into hiring more diversity advisers, they feel less inclined reflexively to support the rozzers.

This is not the fault of police officers themselves who, for the most part, do their jobs bravely and professionally. The trouble is that certain of their chiefs judged, correctly, that they would be promoted if they appeared to be more interested in condemning racism than in biffing malefactors.

Sir Ian Blair, in particular, drained the reservoir of public goodwill towards the boys in blue. It became obvious some time ago that the Met Commissioner had lost the support of Londoners. Yet it became equally obvious that he didn't mind in the slightest, provided he retained the support of the government. When the London Assembly passed a motion of no confidence in him in July, he taunted members with their weakness: 'I have stated my position. If you have the power to remove me, go on.' A classical artist, wishing to symbolise the way in which power in modern Britain had shifted from elected representatives to the permanent apparat, could have done no better than to depict that tableau.

Some senior policemen, accustomed to the public's automatic support, believe that they can drown out any such criticism by banging the old drum of 'police independence'. But fewer and fewer people are disposed to answer the call. In the aftermath of the raid on Parliament Andy Hayman, who was until recently the senior anti-terrorist officer at the Met, wrote a furious article in the Times. …

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