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.
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.