Shine A Light

Water cannon will end an era of consent

The London police want water cannon. If public opposition is over-ruled a new period of British government begins, for sure.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
25 February 2014

Blinded by water cannon. Dietrich Wagner, Stuttgart 2010 (reallyopenuniversity)

A consultation on the proposed introduction of water cannon by the London police is about to close, having generated a lot of opposition and a Change petition from Jo Darrant.

London! The celebrated and glorified city of wealth, the dynamo of Britain’s growth, the great success story of the otherwise impoverished United Kingdom and what does it need? Apparently it needs instruments of mass suppression.

If the Home Secretary goes ahead and permits their introduction into mainland Britain, water cannon will mark the official end of the post-war political order. It was a regime of consent, however contested, and its replacement with an order of discontent and the quasi-militarisation of the police will be the, well, final water-shed from one social order to another.

Way back in the early eighties when there was a national organisation called the Socialist Society (founded among others by Raymond Williams and Hilary Wainwright), I was invited to speak at a local London meeting. I was sharing the platform with Robin Cook, then an up-and-coming Labour MP, and the discussion was about how to respond to the rise of Thatcherism. Robin reported that he had been at a private meeting in Germany along with Nigel Lawson, then a junior member of the Treasury team. Both, of course, were to rise to high office (Robin become Blair’s Foreign Secretary and Lawson Thatcher’s Chancellor) before turning against their respective Premiers. At the meeting in Germany the talk was about 'Monetarism', the term used at the time for what is now called neo-liberalism or market fundamentalism. Nigel Lawson, Robin Cook told us, had announced that Britain did not have the suitable conditions for the introduction of Monetarism. Cook asked him what these were. Lawson answered: “Water cannon”.

As Lawson’s influence grew, the Thatcher administration prepared for battle with the miners. But the aim was always to divide them, to separate them from other trade unionists as well as the public, a strategy consummated by Arthur Scargill’s stupidity as he split the miners and then led them to a crushing defeat. So while the long period of Thatcherism saw the end of traditional consensus politics, there was also a continuation of a regime where hegemony, including 'policing the crisis', rested on a form of contested and manipulated consent. Something so well revealed and interrogated by Stuart Hall, who died last week — one can hear his laugh at the prospect of cannon.

The herald of the new era is the professional and chilling report of the Association of Chief Police Officers (opens as pdf). In its Section 4, headed "Strategic risk of disorder", it states:

4.1 There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest. Experiences in Millbank in 2010 demonstrate how quickly protest can turn to serious violent disorder. In addition, the social and economic factors that are currently being experienced have the potential when combined with a significant (and often spontaneous) “trigger” event, to lead to the outbreak of significant disturbances.

"Intelligence" here means actual reports from bugged phone lines or penetrated organisations. What they are clearly saying is that even in the absence of such reports, in their judgement “the conditions needed”, as Lawson would once have said, for the continuation of the policy of austerity include machines of general repression. Up against multi-racial riots and looting, for example. As section 4 continues, “the disorder within the Metropolitan Police area in 2011 provided the catalyst for the debate around the requirement for water cannon”. There are also more specific forms of protest that could have done with a dash of power cleansing. Looking back, they draw on a Metropolitan Police report, Four Days in August, which commented that,

Examples in recent history where the use of this tactic [water cannon] might have been a consideration for commanders had it been available include 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.

For a long time there have been water cannon in Northern Ireland where their use is sanctioned. The distinction between there and the mainland is evident enough. The proposed introduction of these machines of repressive policing signals a homecoming of imperial methods to the mainland. The fact that there is public support as registered in opinion polls may have silenced the Labour Party (whose Shadow Home Secretary would perhaps feel righteousness if she could hose down her opponents). This should not be mistaken for the historic form of consent in Britain. As police once celebrated as the unarmed bobby argue for the need to inject physical distance between themselves and the public, a political system that stretches back to the 1840s draws to a close. 

Response to critics (27 February 2014)

In the comments below to the article above, Neil accuses me and even openDemocracy of failing to grasp "the depth of the anti-democratic and anti-humanist political transformation that has been surreptitiously going on" and for suggesting that while the inroduction of water cannon may be the expression of this, the suggestion that they might be prevented displays a "liberal" misconception that this would stop the onset of something that has already happened. Neil writes in an elegant and democratic fashion and I can see why he might have mis-read me. I could not resist the lure of calling water cannon a water-shed and this could be taken to imply that they are the instruments of the new order, whereas I am arguing that they are a significant symbol. In any social order that depends on consent (not democracy) for its legitimacy, as Britain's long has, symbols can be materially influential. A key part of the mythology across all classes was, and perhaps still is, that we are not like other benighted countries. The Germans have water cannon, they can't trust themselves. The Turks - well, they would have German water-cannon wouldn't they! The Irish - no more needs to be said! There, they have to crush their protests, here in Britain we tolerate protest (while giving those arrested exemplary long sentences). Thus the proposal to introduce water cannon says: "We are just like other countries". If myths can have pillars, this strikes a blow at a central pillar of British mythology - after all the justification for our not having a codified constitution is that we alone do not need one, being different from the rest.

What surprised me was the absence of official liberal expressions of concern to preserve the old order (perhaps connected to so many official liberals being in the government). Instead there is support for a growing industry of "less leathal weapon systems" as Anna Feigenbaum describes in her extraordinary overview, including the development of 'smart water' designed for water cannons to mark out protestors for later punishment. Neil is right that we need a new "discourse", as he puts it, to resist and replace what is happening. But this must not stop us from observing what is actually happening in its particularity, and then assessing this. As another comment from 'brit_expat_in_D' says in response to Neil, "the introduction of cannon could be an indication of a loss of confidence and of increased nervousness on the part of the 'establishment'." Perhaps for this, non-liberal, reason the police chiefs of five of the six largest English police regions vigorously opposed the London Met and ACPO's call for their introduction, preferring the still existing order. Thus this dispute touches a deep if now exposed, possibly threadbare nerve of British rule.

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