Belgian police using type of water cannon purchased by Metropolitan Police, during a demonstration in Brussels in March 2011 (S
News that the Home Secretary has apparently blocked the use of water cannon already purchased by Boris Johnson was described as a humiliation and a waste of public money. So is it all the fault of London's Mayor and how exactly did the Metropolitan Police end up in the position of owning three riot control vehicles that are apparently unusable?
After the London riots in 2011, senior commanders at the Met, a force whose public order reputation had been severely damaged by the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson and the violence towards anti-G20 protesters in 2009, suddenly found themselves in a position to ask for almost anything from populist politicians: and they knew it. It is little wonder, then, that the Met's 2012 strategic review of the riots, entitled Four Days in August, insisted that “events have prompted the need... to explore new ways of responding to fast-moving disorder” and, among other 'robust' tactics, concluded that “water cannons would be valuable in a few rare situations”. Examples it offered “in recent history” included “the Countryside Alliance demonstrations in Parliament Square (2004), the Gaza demonstrations against The Israeli Embassy (2008/9) and potentially the student protests of 2010 where specific locations were targeted”.
The main obstacle then, as now, was Home Secretary Theresa May, who while rioting was still taking place in 2011 had categorically rejected the use of water cannon as alien to the notional concept of 'policing by consent'. In London, however, there were politicians who were more sympathetic: former Mayor Ken Livingstone, for instance, had said “the issue of water cannon would be very useful given the level of arson we are seeing here.”
Fast forward to September 2013 and the Metropolitan Police, which had tried again to lobby the government earlier in the year, had switched its focus to Livingstone's successor, in order to find a way to bankroll replacing six mothballed water cannon vehicles purchased back in 2002. By January 2014, Boris Johnston had been convinced by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to bring pressure on the government and the following month, the head of London's police had added his public support for water cannons. There followed a brief 'consultation' that included further strong lobbying by the Met (see this presentation, for instance) but that failed to convince even the Mayor's Tory allies on the London Assembly. Nevertheless, in June 2014 Johnston felt confident enough to press ahead and purchase three second hand water cannon vehicles from the German federal police and famously promised that, if the Home Office approved their use, he would face a blast from the water jets himself.
Since last summer, the repeated delay in finally deciding on the licensing of water cannons has meant we have sadly been denied the sight of a dramatic hosing-down of Boris Johnson. This has always appeared to also reflect Theresa May's lack of enthusiasm for the campaign driven by the Met, one that has relied more on sensationalism – like Johnson talking about 'getting medieval' with rioters – than on any convincing evidence that water cannons are either effective or safe. What evidence that does exist is genuinely alarming: the risk posed of serious injuries demonstrated by shocking images of a German protester with blood pouring from his eyes, the result of the same water cannon that Johnson had purchased. Even New York commissioner Bill Bratton, visiting London last month, said they were “horrific” and an “anathema”.
The impending general election means that the time for further delay has now run out, but today's announcement seems far more like part of the winding down of government rather than, as some have claimed, a part of the tussle for the future leadership of the Tory Party.
For the reality is that the use of water cannons has not been blocked: a reluctant politician who seems unlikely to remain as Home Secretary in a few weeks time has simply pushed the decision on to a potential successor. If Labour form the next government, there are few guarantees that it will not cave in to renewed pressure from Hogan-Howe: despite the claims of some Labour Assembly Members, the party's consistently authoritarian record on civil liberties, largely at the prompting of friendly senior police chiefs, tends instead to suggest the opposite.
This means that in all likelihood, politicians will still sanction the use of water cannons, at least as a tactical option and particularly now that the purchase of them has been made. This week was undoubtedly a setback for the Metropolitan Police as much as it was for Boris Johnson, who as a consummate populist seems to have attached himself to the call for water cannons because of positive opinion poll data and the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Commissioner. Nevertheless, the steps that allowed for the spending of public money on water cannons long before any final approval for their use tells us something else too.
They remind us of just how far senior police officers, especially in London, have become powerful political players in their own right, capable of adeptly using events and applying pressure to secure more militarised policing and more intrusive police powers.
If anything should alarm liberal politicians who still believe in the myth of 'policing by consent', it is this.