Five Met police officers restraining and pepper spraying a black man in London this month. Image, Twitter, fair use.
Back in July, I rang the Met. Britain’s elections watchdog had just referred another major Leave campaign to the cops, for suspected crimes committed during the knife-edge Brexit campaign. This was the second referral in three months (the first related to Arron Banks's controversial pro-Brexit outfit, Leave.EU). I assumed the Metropolitan Police had done nothing about either case. After all, if Britain’s police forces took the crimes of rich white people seriously, London wouldn’t be the world centre for money laundering. But it’s always important to check your assumptions.
When the police finally got back to me, they confirmed my suspicions. They hadn’t opened an investigation into any of the cases referred to them by the Electoral Commission. I mentioned this in a broader story about regulators (noting “you can be fined more for touting football tickets than you can for subverting Britain's democratic process”). And then I popped a reminder in my diary for a fairly random date a few months thence, saying “check whether Met still haven’t opened investigation”.
Last week, we published the result of that diary entry. No, the Met still hadn’t opened an official investigation, citing “political sensitivities”. When I tweeted the piece, it was carried across the internet on a wave of FBPE fury. Some said they were angry, but not surprised. But the reaction from most seemed to be shock. Shock that politics might interfere with policing; astonishment that London’s police force might not be policing the laws of our democracy as vigorously as they do many other rules of our society.
And for me, that reaction is an example of something fascinating.
Welcome to reality
If you speak to any black person in London, they will tell you their stories of living in a metropolis with an institutionally racist police force. If you look at money laundering in the UK – so common that the world’s leading mafia expert has called it “the most corrupt country on earth” – or if you consider the failure to arrest any major player in the financial crisis of 2008, then it should be obvious how the British police internalise, reproduce and reinforce the larger power structures in the country.
Read, for example, the detailed coverage of the death of Rashan Charles as reported by my colleagues Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Clare Sambrook. It should come as no surprise that the institution at whose hands this young man died has been somewhat lax in investigating powerful, well-funded, predominantly white and right-wing groups led by people like Arron Banks.
Why would we imagine that a law enforcement system which is nine times more likely to jail young black men than young white men would want to pour resources into investigating the leaders of campaigns that smeared the internet with racist messages?
But here’s the thing. Many people in the country haven’t had the misfortune of examining our national institutions up close in recent years. If you’re urban, white and doing all right, the Met aren’t hassling your son for being black and in possession of a pair of shoes. What’s more, you aren’t brutalised every week by the reality of universal credit. And – normally – neither you nor your near relatives spent your late teens in the deserts of Iraq realising you’d been sent off to kill and die for a lie.
For much of this urban middle-class demographic, Brexit has revealed what many – including many who voted for it – already knew. The institutions of the British state are broken. As our investigations (along with those of many others) have shown, the Electoral Commission is practically powerless, the Charity Commission is is hugely under-resourced, the Information Commission can’t keep up and our parliamentary watchdog is in need of serious veterinary attention.
More and more, Remain voters are chastising the BBC, until recently the sacred temple of the British bourgeoisie. More and more are starting to understand that the civil service has been hollowed out by years of outsourcing, revolving doors and austerity, and is struggling to deliver something as vast as Brexit. Tens of thousands of people in Britain have thought about Northern Ireland for the first time since Good Friday 1998, and realised why it matters.
For many of my friends on the left, watching this process can be frustrating. Passionate Remainers describing the crimes of the Brexit campaign as “the biggest scandal in British history” should probably be taught about the Tasmanian genocide or the plunder of India or the castration and rape of the Mau Mau. Regular claims that Brexit is the biggest crisis we face should be met with calm explanations of the implications of climate science and soil erosion and the Yemen famine. But these people should also be treated gently.
Ever since Cromwell, the success of the British ruling class has been that it has managed to placate and buy off much of the bourgeoisie with the plunder of empire. With violence externally, they were able to produce calm internally. For the last few decades, they have swapped this loot for lending as they allowed middle class lifestyles to continue on credit. But in the decade after the financial crisis, this relationship has started to strain. And it increasingly looks like Brexit is encouraging large chunks of middle class Anglo-Britain to look once more at the whole arrangement and realise that their country isn’t as rosy as they thought.