They are using Tasers at Dale Farm

Why it is right to be critical of the police.

Our society not only tolerates the sort of people who want to wear uniforms and want to use weapons against civilians, it actually employs them to do so. And today some of these people may well be using Tasers against travellers at Dale Farm.

Of course, having a professional and trained police force is better than the alternative, and in no sensible way can we be described as being in a police state. However, there will be those who read the first paragraph of this post and will be outraged at my apparent disdain. The police do a difficult job, they will say, and one should just be grateful for what they do. One should not be so dismissive, others will remark, especially if you do not know the pressures and stress that the police face routinely. The feature that many of these responses will share is they are non sequiturs: they deal with something which has not been said, and criticise objections which have not been made.

There are many people -- not just police officers -- who do not want to hear any criticism of the police and will immediately seek to close it down. Any adverse comment about the police will mean that one is either a dangerous anarchist wanting a lawless and brutal society, or a naive fool not realising just how lucky they are to be kept safe. It is easy to be brave from a distance. And so on. One must always remember the thin blue line.

Such responses are part of a wider problem. As a society we are actually not very good at holding the police to account, and -- frankly -- the police are not very good at taking criticism. Accordingly, we have a situation where the police are generally left to get on with their work in return for them generally not misusing their rights and privileges. The failure of any efficient mechanisms for scrutinising the police then only become obvious with a suspicious death or some public order failure which cannot be ignored. In the meantime, the police can get away with, say, casually exceeding their powers or taking payments from private investigators as long as our streets are safe and they respond promptly to 999 calls.

One can wonder how long this unofficial social contract can last. It surely is not sustainable, especially with modern communications. The police have been caught out repeatedly lying in the aftermath of fatalities. Their attempts to spin and evade legitimate concerns about misconduct are legion. Individual police officers often threaten those who criticise with libel actions, whilst chief constables employ ever-growing (and often unhelpful) PR departments. And, as for the police complaints commission, one can be surprised that its formal name includes the word "independent". But it may be that an age of deference is passing.

It is right that in a liberal and democratic society the State has a monopoly in the use of coercive force against citizens, but this monopoly has to be balanced with accountability and transparency. Those who rush to rubbish anyone questioning the police, or are quickly dismissive of those complaining of the use of force, are in fact not helping serving officers. They are instead entrenching a needless lack of effective communication. The abuse of libel and the over-use of PR professionals are similarly undesirable features of modern policing. However, policing ultimately requires practical co-operation and implicit consent. Wise police officers know this.

The more openly critical we can be of those who have the power to coerce us, the better. And the more the police can explain their decisions and justify their actions, the better. After all, they can have nothing to hide; even the ones wearing paramilitary uniforms and using weapons at Dale Farm.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and at The Lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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