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The Conservative Party position themselves as tough on crime and the party of law and order, and historically they have had a natural alliance with the police. Certainly their track record of implementing contentious policies has meant they have needed the police firmly on their side.
The announcement of cuts to police budgets by the last Coalition government may therefore have come as something of a shock to the police, and their representative body, the Police Federation. In spite of the fact that the police suffered far less severe cuts than other services, there was strong and sustained reaction to any notion of a decline in numbers or pay. The Police Federation marched in numbers, booed Theresa May at their conference and generally attacked anyone who opposed them. But they employed less obvious and more Machiavellian tactics as well.
The Police Federation is different to other unions. It can’t strike, but that does not mean it is without political power. They, like the police, project a sense that if you mess with them there will be consequences. Part of the role the Police Federation plays is to take the side of the police when they mess up. And like much policing on the streets, they aren’t too worried about the law or their duties when they do this.
As the political row over cuts to policing intensified, students also took to the streets to oppose the cuts. In 2010 student demonstrators were able to occupy and damage Conservative Party HQ in Millbank, destroy a police van in Whitehall, and break the windows of the Treasury. These protests told a story of the anger of young people – but they perhaps also tell a story of a police force that may have been more committed to increasing its leverage at the negotiating table than its duty to keep the peace.
I have a friend who was legal observing in 2010 when the students got into the Conservative headquarters in Milbank. As usual my friend sniffed around and located where the police were keeping their reserve - lots of riot police sat in vans just round the corner - and stayed there for quite some time after the students first got into Milbank. Don’t more than whisper it, but given that they had such a large reserve nearby, isn't it rather odd that they took so long to react? The police claim incompetence rather than conspiracy, but if you wanted to prove to a political party that the police, especially riot police, were important there could be no better way than allowing that party’s headquarters to be trashed on a protest.
And if it happened once then I would probably dismiss it. However, a fortnight later the police happened to leave an old police van, unmanned, in the middle of a kettle right outside Downing Street, in which thousands of students were contained for several hours (not a new tactic). Unsurprisingly, the van became a focus of the kettled student’s anger and was attacked . Less than a month after that the police kettled a crowd outside the treasury, and according to people in that protest, had officers on all sides but that of the treasury, leading to the windows getting smashed.
Clearly these incidents may be a result of a variety of factors, and there was a great deal of anger and determination from the students. But the Metropolitan Police has more public order experience than any other in the UK, and their expertise is shared around the world. Is this force really trying to claim that they cannot protect Conservative headquarters, a van outside Downing Street and the Treasury during a planned protest?
And then there is ‘Plebgate’ - you all know the story. Senior Tories took the saga as a declaration of war. Throughout the Conservative Party, scales began to fall from eyes.
It seems you can cover up the deaths of 96 football fans, take bungs from and fail to investigate journalists whilst they invade the privacy of hundreds of people in the public eye, baton and push a man to death on film and then try and cover that up, systematically profile and harass black and ethnic minorities over decades (I stopped making a list at this point but could have gone on a very long time); and you will only hear murmurs and encouragement from the Conservative party. But lie (or worse tell the truth) about one minister calling you a pleb, and the “a few bad apples” excuse seems to wear thin. Suddenly all the stories from minorities about police repression became credible in the eyes of the privileged Tory elite.
Investigating MPs expenses vaguely effectively won’t have helped things either.
I am not the first to point out that the police have a somewhat closed culture. A big part of this is that all posts above constable are filled only by internal promotion. All senior police officers used to be junior police officers. This means that for the police the respect of fellow police is vital to career progression. Even if a police officer is not ambitious, they all want to stay in the police for 30/35 years to get their wonderful pension. Stepping out of line is very tricky in such a closed culture.
The power of the culture that exists in the police motivates police officers to stick together and close ranks, and is at the core of why the Police Federation is so strong. It means the police can pull off miscarriages of justice so big they are impressive in purely logistical terms. It means that the police and ex-police will never be effective at investigating the police. As an aside, it is also a big factor in the police's phenomenally inbred and counter-productive internal politics, and treatment of outside influences - from the public to politicians - as a threat.
If the top police jobs are not reserved for police then that completely changes and disrupts the careerism and blue code of silence or ‘Omerta’ culture that is such a part of modern policing. This made it the perfect target for the Tories, and gave them an opportunity to attack what the Police Federation cares about the most.
Cameron’s idea that an American should head the Met, then Britain’s most senior police role, did not go down well. But was nowhere nearly as offensive as Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to recruit senior police from outside of the force. It did not help that the Conservatives had already imposed Police & Crime Commissioners, creating new ‘top dog’ posts which are universally hated by the police (although ignored by the public).
But that is not all the Tories have done to undermine the police’s culture. They dismantled the navel gazing National Police Improvement Agency, and created the College of Policing - encouraging police to research and study with other members of the public, not just on campuses filled entirely with police. Theresa May has also made some effort to strengthen the “overwhelmed, woefully under-equipped and failing” ‘Independent’ Police Complaints Commission. For the first time ever someone who has not been a police officer (and therefore might be effective) was appointed as head of the main body charged with scrutinizing the police - a move that was desperately unpopular. Finally, in case anyone doubted that this was war, Theresa May cut all funding to the Police Federation.
So the Police Federation has fought back the only way they know how - viciously. However, unlike with previous governments, the state was not relying on the police to control massive protests to quite the same degree, and were able largely to implement their reforms. For me this reveals why the police would have a motivation to synthesize a narrative where they were needed to defend the bastions of a Conservative government from protest - by making sure disorder occurred as close as possible to key government structures.
It seems that the government weren’t buying, but don't hold your breath about the effectiveness of reforms designed to transform the police. Police culture is a supertanker on 30/35 years services, still with no outsiders coming into senior posts, and it will take a very long time to shift at all. If a future government needs to rely on the police to crush dissent again, they may have to do what Thatcher and new Labour did - buy off the police with a 45% pay rise or perhaps a 13 year golden ticket to any powers they want.
Ultimately, the end of the affair between two of the most reactionary and repressive groups in Britain can only be a good thing for anyone who wants a progressive society. But with 5 more years with the hated Theresa May reappointed as Home Secretary and more police cuts likely we are already seeing more shenanigans from both sides. Perhaps it is justice that this Conservative government could well savage the police the same way Thatcher’s savaged the miners.
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