So why has middle England fallen out of love with the police?

For those of us whose political awareness goes back to the 1980s, one of the major changes in the political and social landscape has been the changing perception of the police among the middle-market tabloids and what passes for middle-class opinion.  Take a trip back twenty or even twenty-five years; Margaret Thatcher in No 10, the fight for local control of policing portrayed as the politicisation of the police by left-wing local authorities, the police portrayed by the media as the heroes of the miners’ strike.  A few years earlier, the apparent murder of Blair Peach by unknown members of the Special Patrol Group, who had gone tooled up to an Anti-Nazi League demonstration, was a cause celebre on both right and left.  Peach’s murderers enjoyed the wholehearted support of the tabloid press.

Look, then, at the headlines now.

Take, for example, the Daily Mail’s long-running campaign against Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair (examples here and here); or, at a more basic level, a continuing campaign of press stories about police failures, insensitivities and general oppressive behaviour towards the decent tax-paying public of middle England – again, examples here and here.  Not so long ago, such stories were unthinkable in the Mail.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone had few doubts about why Blair was in the firing-line.  Livingstone argues that he has been a successful Commissioner and the falling crime-rate in London (and, despite the high-profile coverage of knife crime, it continues to fall) pulls the rug out from under the Tory party’s rhetoric.  Well, fair enough.  (And there is much in common between the Mail’s campaign against Blair and the Evening Standard’s long campaign of vilification against Ken Livingstone).

And much of the rhetoric is about that old hoariest of old chestnuts, political correctness, deemed by a certain body of opinion to be rife in our society.  I’ll come back to that one in a moment.

But it goes a lot deeper than that.  So, what has changed?  Here are some thoughts.

The paradox of more power

There’s no doubt that the police – as part of the generality of the apparatus of state – have gained considerably more power over the years.  Much of that, of course, is generated by the response to terrorism, but it’s also about more than ten years of a Labour government that is clearly running scared of being thought “soft on crime” and has therefore adopted a tabloid agenda, and quite a lot of tabloid rhetoric.  The paradox is that that crime has been falling, and, moreover, that even in the face of all this the tabloids still need crime scare stories – it’s a vital part of their pitch that there’s a rapist, a mugger, a paedophile on every street corner waiting to get you and your loved ones.  There’s another paradox; at the same time that the media bay for more state intervention, they are also determined to avoid their own readers – the forces of reason and enlightenment – from being targetted by the intrusive state.  So more police power is both a good and a bad thing – a good thing when it is used against other people, a bad thing when it stops the middle classes from getting away with driving too fast.  Accountability is for other people.

Mr Toad and Badger

Traffic policing is a good example of this.

In the old days, policemen were undoubtedly more deferential, and in particular the use of mechanical devices to police the road – and, in the unfailing rhetoric of the right-wing tabloids, to raise money for the police – has led to a degree of equality in enforcement that never existed before.  Put simply, speed cameras don’t recognise their social betters; automated enforcement means that the middle-classes are just as likely to get caught.  Now of course, the freedom of every free-born suburban Englishman to exceed the speed limit and park where he likes is one of the wearily familiar tropes of middle-class victimhood, but the sense that authority is doing to them what Middle England has been quite pleased to see it doing to others is surely behind the changes in attitudes

Police join the pampered public sector

Another trope of Daily Mail rhetoric; the pampered public-sector worker, sitting on his or her backside all day dreaming up pettifogging rules and being paid handsomely for the privilege, before sloping off to a retirement of index-linked luxury.  It’s all nonsense of course, but the police – who have not only been paid far better than most public servants but have traditionally enjoyed privileges that most would boggle at – the police house, retirement at 48, free travel – have until now avoided the odium.  Police officers were heroes who daily put their lives on the line.  Part of the reason for the change of heart is of course high-profile cases of police officers getting away with the sort of behaviour that would earn most other workers at least the sack and in some cases criminal prosecution; a nifty retirement on health grounds is usually the case (as in the case of some of the officers who failed to investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence).  But part of this is pure consumerism; the police are no longer delivering what middle England really wants.

Middle-class victimhood

All of this allows middle England to have its cake and eat it: to call for a tougher society, and yet to resent that toughness when it is applied against them as well; and to allow the luxury of middle-class victimhood, in which the affluent and powerful can acquire a sort of illusion of worthiness; in the same way that people who don’t want to acknowledge their privileged position in society can bleat about “political correctness gone mad”.  And, for the Conservative Party, the London elections – with the big Tory swings in the suburbs – suggest that this is a tiger they can ride into office.

There’s obviously a debate to be had about the role of the police – indeed of the coercive state as a whole – in our society.  But what is happening now seems to me to be an exercise in maudlin self-righteousness, the moaning of the comfortably-off as a substitute for thought.

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4 thoughts on “So why has middle England fallen out of love with the police?

  1. I think the real reason people are falling out of love with the police is their refusal to investigate any crime that may seem a little difficult, unless of course it is high profile. I do not believe it has anything to do with class.

    I can for example provide personal examples of the police deciding which crimes they will pursue and those that will not. I had a credit card fraud committed against me, I managed to find the address of the fraudster and had their picture, but the police said they must prirotise each and every case. The industrial unit where my wife works was surrounded by hoodlums who intimidated staff and were guilty of regular vandalism. The police promised to send more Community Safety Officer Patrols, but that was it. In this case, the problem was dealt with by direct action. I could go on, but you get the picture.

    I am not alone in this; in fact some police officers make clear that they get the same number of points for charging someone for littering as they do for burglary. They have gone target mad, everything is in the pursuit of targets, it is simply not a service, at least not to the public.

    Then there are the health and safety rules. Police officers have traditionally thought of as special individuals who will put their own safety in jeopardy to protect the public. It certainly used to be that way. But now look at them, they are running scared. There are strict rules before a police officer can jump into the water to save a drowning child; there are strict rules on when a police officer is permitted to challenge an armed (knife or gun) assailant. Some police officers are will still do their jobs or what they believe is right, but many will use health and safety rules to hide their cowardice or adversity to risk.

    Soldiers are trained to fight in case, one day, they are needed to protect their country and they may die doing so. Similarly, police officers are paid to protect the public, as well as investigate crime and secure convictions. But they don’t! They only investigate the crime they want to not necessarily the ones that the public fear or dislike the most and they will know the health and safety rules better that the law.

    The attack on the motorist doesn’t help. There is nothing worse than having police spend time stopping cars for relatively minor offences, whilst fraudsters carry on with impunity, hoodlums intimidate and vandalise. Any interaction the majority of people have with the police is when they are told it is too difficult to investigate, they are too busy or they have prioritised certain crimes in your area and this crime doesn’t count (yes it happens), or of course, if they are stopped for a motoring offence. They are paid to do a job, they are well rewarded, they just need to get on with it and stop whining.

    Forget class, the police have brought this upon themselves. Thirty years ago if a police officer was in trouble the vast majority of people indicated they would intervene, you wouldn’t want to do that poll again today. Most of us are sick and tired of them determining which crimes will be investigated based on targets and how easy they are to detect, rather on those that concern the public, (the people the police claim to serve). They have brought this upon themselves and unless something is done soon to reverse

  2. Thanks for this comment. I think you are right that in some areas the police service has become lazy and complacent. There are a couple of points here I’d like to think about a bit further.

    First, health and safety. The comparison with the armed forces is an interesting one. People join the armed forces in the knowledge that they could one day find themselves in battle. Whatever the rights and wrongs, soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do police have similar expectations? What is certainly true is that in most cases they are very much better paid than soldiers. I’m not going to knock health and safety – it is still the case that there are rogue employers who take a cavalier attitude to the safety of their employees, and get away with it pretty lightly. But I do wonder what the reasonable return is that society can expect from those it pays handsomely to join the police.

    Second, motoring offences. Many more people are killed and injured on the roads than by crime. And it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of those casualties are avoidable; caused by speed or inattention. You don’t have to spend long on Britain’s roads to realise that there are a good few dangerous idiots on them. The police have to do something, but I think there is a real cultural problem in this country that sees driving dangerously as a trivial matter; but statistically speaking you are much more likely to be a victim of a road accident than of crime. I think we will only get traffic policing in perspective when, as a society, we have got our heads round that fact.

  3. Your points are well made, but I think I should clarify my position on the two you have highlighted.

    When the police slip on their uniform, to utilise a well worn American expression, their job is to protect and serve the public. This means that at certain times during their career, they will be expected to put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us, hence they are given the tools of the trade such as a truncheor, handcuffs and kevlar vests. Therefore, I believe the police in general know what is expected of them, however, health and safety rules are such that police officers can actually be dismissed or disciplined for not following the guidelines. Typically the police will tell the public not to get involved if there is a violent offender at large, therefore, by implication they know that it is their job to tackle such offenders. I don’t think we are that far apart on this particular argument.

    In terms of the roads, my point is in relation to quality of life, I will try and clarify this. If you were to ask the average person what concerns them, apart from the usual health education etc., it will be crime. This is the fear of crime, by comparison, they will not say that they fear driving to work, even though, as you rightly say, more people are killed on the roads, thatn through crime. Although it could be argued that many of these deaths, on the road, are also as a result of crime.

    Speed does kill,but not in isolation. Speed cameras may catch people driving over the speed limit, but it will not catch those that are guilty of careless or dangerous driving, it will not catch those who are tired at the wheel or those guilty of driving over the limit. And yet, these are bigger killers than speeding, but often go unpunished. A speed camera does not have the experienced eye of a police officer.

    I have spent years driving throughout the country and whilst I have had isolated incidents of foolish speeding drivers I have had far, far more incidents of boy racers on country roads, lorry drivers falling asleep at the wheel in the early hours of the morning (this was almost a daily occurrence) and tail gating. I do not advocate speeding and I have a clean licence, therefore I am not a closet boy racer. If we were to invest more of the money collected from the motorist, into the roads, then they would be a safer place.

    Another concern of mine is that there are estimated to be 1m plus uninsured motorists out there. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many will not register their vehicles, meaning that they are unlikely to get charged for speeding offences caught by camera. On the other hand, the law abiding motorist that has inadvertantly driven at 34mph through a 30mph limit, will get charged, because he or she can be traced. As is often the case, it is those, who for the most part are law abiding, that are successfully prosecuted rather than those that do not care about such matters.

    We are all being constantly told how speed kills, by politicians, the police and the media. It does, but cameras are not the answer, effect road policing is, together with an investment in infrastructure, better training and education.

  4. Pingback: Cameron and the thin blue line « Notes from a Broken Society

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