Cameron and the thin blue line

On Maggie’s farm, it was said, they only fed the pigs.  In this respect at least her successors differ from her example, as the Coalition announces the Winsor review of police pay.  Pay cuts of £4000 per year or more will hit some police officers, and 28000 police jobs will go.

It’s a strange strategy for a Government in office at a time when politics is spilling on to the streets.  First the students, now the various campaigns against tax-dodging businesses, and before long the backlash against public expenditure cuts, with the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers being separated from their livelihoods in the vanguard.

In these circumstances you might have expected that the one thing that the Tories needed was a loyal police force.  Numerous commentators have reflected how Thatcher’s battle against Scargill’s miners was won with police overtime – folk memories of police officers at Orgreave waving their overtime slips in the faces of miners who had foregone pay for months on end.

So why the difference?

I think there are a number of reasons why Cameron thinks he can get away with this. First, popular attitudes towards the police have changed. There’s a lot more public scepticism, and you hear far more criticism of the police service than you did in Thatcher’s day. I blogged about changing attitudes towards the police a couple of years ago, and identified four main factors in changing attitudes:

  • 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 ran scared of being thought “soft on crime” and happily followed a tabloid agenda, using much of the same 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 – in the old days, policemen were undoubtedly more deferential.  But that’s no longer the case, nowhere more so in the vexed world of traffic policing where the use of  speed cameras has led to a degree of equality in enforcement that never existed before.  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, and Tories have delivered a lot of pointless rhetoric about the war on the motorist. The sense that authority is doing to them what Middle England has been quite pleased to see it doing to others is surely one factor 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 while plotting the downfall of enterprise.  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.  Now they’re just past of the health and safety culture (Incidentally, I can’t be alone in finding abhorrent the apparent belief of the tabloid press and the speak-your-branes commentariat on their websites that it’s the job of public servants to put their lives on the line regardless).
  • 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”.  It’s a factor that stalks much Tory rhetoric.

Faced with all this, it’s much easier politically for a Tory government to go after the police. It’s pretty much open season on all public servants these days.  And there’s a class difference too – Margaret Thatcher’s bourgeois supporters related much more directly to the police than the clique of old Etonians in Cameron’s cabinet, with their Woosterish dodging of the constabulary after a night of Bullingdon Club larks.

But none of this means that the Tories don’t need the police.  The scale of what this government is doing to public services, and the contrast with the treatment of the financial sector that caused the economic crisis being used to justify the cuts, is unprecedented and the outcome likely to be explosive.

What will happen now?

The police service – up till now protected from the pressures faced by almost every other part of the public sector – is reacting with bewilderment and fury.  The rhetoric is about protests and even seeking the right to strike.

And the police are obviously in a curious position.  It was always going to happen – the people who have been laying into students and other protesters with such gusto are now on the receiving end.  As opposition moves on to the streets, the very people on whom the establishment relies to deal with it have what are fundamentally the same grievances.  A police officer who suddenly finds himself forced to retire after thirty years’ service just as his children are about to go to University at £9000 a year each may have a very different view of student protests.

The genius of Margaret Thatcher, it has long seemed to me, lay in her supreme judgement about who she picked a fight with.  She knew that her brand of Toryism needed a loyal and well-rewarded police force.  Cameron appears to believe otherwise; and the destruction-testing of that belief could be among the most interesting outcomes of Cameron’s shock doctrine.

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