My zero tolerance for these politicised police chiefs

They have forgotten their most important directive: they police with our consent.

It's always ironic to misuse the word "ironic", and I may be about to do so. But isn't there something ironic in the sight of police "leaders" decrying the Tory insight (that what we partly need is some citizen-directed political control over policing priorities, via elected commissioners), by taking to the airwaves and the blogosphere to indulge in, ah, politics? The officers' officer corp has been anything but apolitical since last Monday.

The inverted commas around "leaders" is at least partially deserved, I think. Last Monday, the police held back and didn't use force to quell the rioters. On Tuesday, they behaved like a police force again, and within 36 hours the riots were extinguished. When the PM made this point -- I don't claim its undeniable truth, but he spoke for many of us in the boroughs affected -- he didn't receive an apology or explanation from the acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin; instead, he received political abuse.

Supporting the use of sufficient force in the face of violent looting, as an aside, does not equate to a requirement to turn a blind eye to outrages such as the assault on Ian Tomlinson, as the Mayor of London appeared to hint in his Telegraph article on Monday.

It's not hard, in my mind at least, to differentiate between the two, and I was disappointed at the normally eloquent Boris' apparent conflation of them.

It shouldn't require saying that criticism of police leaders does not imply criticism of rank-and-file officers (my brother-in-law is a serving officer), but equally, honest appreciation of the calibre of men such as he does not translate into a blank Tory cheque for whatever words issue from Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who also saw fit to attack the Prime Minister, as well as taking the opportunity to insert a stiletto into the candidacy of the American Bill Bratton, putative applicant for Met Commissioner. What is ACPO for? What use is it? Sir Hugh had a distinguished career. It's a shame to tarnish it through association with this top cops' trade union.

The PM touched on an important point in his impressive speech yesterday, about the need for cultural, as well as legislative and operational, changes. The Lib Dems may be substantively irrelevant to any discussion about, well, certainly this topic. ("Oh let's not be knee-jerk," wails Simon Hughes. Sometimes, Simon, a jerk of the knee is exactly the right response to a threat). Unfortunately we require them for our anti-Labour majority in parliament. The question I suspect I'm not the only Tory to ponder, however, is: even if we weren't bound up with the Liberals, and could remove the Human Rights Act from the statute book, would much change?

Or have both the attitudes, and the litigious culture it has engendered, made concrete the cultural reflexes of the leaders of our institutions, those reflexes which Tories abhor?

I worry about the answer to that when the police have spokesmen like this superintendent, who spoke thus over Twitter:

Political talk of 'Zero tolerance policing' is a bit like wearing flares, comes in to fashion once every 20 years, then gets forgotten about.

If my Tory fear is right, then it underlines the need to reconnect police leaders with the public they serve, via elected Commissioners. I doubt the superintendent I quoted would forget about zero-tolerance, were his boss directly elected by people who demanded it. (He's probably an excellent officer, and it's unfair to lift one tweet from his timeline without also recording that the many others suggest a dedicated man. But he should not be twittering such political opposition to the will of the Prime Minister).

In London the situation is murkier than elsewhere, since both the Mayor (for whom we vote) and the Home Secretary (for whom we do not) have some weird joint accountability for the leader of the Met. Accountability, like a problem, is halved when it is shared. Take the counter-terrorism duty from the Met and place it directly under the aegis of the Home Office, and thus parliament. Give the Mayor clear accountability to Londoners for what happens on our streets.

And what of Sir Hugh, with his elegant put-down of an American? Is it impossible to imagine the Met having any better leadership than that which it's enjoyed the last ten years or so?

We've had Brian Paddick declare his fondness for anarchy, preside over a disastrous experiment with drugs policing in Lambeth, then give up on his police career in order to cavort in a jungle and run as a joke candidate for mayor. We've watched several of the recent top officers being humiliated in the Commons over their approach to phone-hacking.

We had a Commissioner who was in place for a ridiculously short space of time, before (needlessly, in my opinion) resigning over some trivia about post-operative recuperation. The woman who was in direct command the day that Jean Charles de Menezes was executed (sorry: not an execution; the Met were eventually prosecuted under Health and Safety laws) has been rewarded with control of the specialist crime division.

And who could forget Ian Blair, Tony's special little enforcer -- the trail-blazer, in many ways, of this politicised pack -- ever eager to make the dubious case that what the Met really needed was the ability to lock us all up, without charge, for months. These are recent Met leaders who spring to mind. Is Sir Hugh so sure that no outsider could improve upon them? Or that, by extension, we shouldn't be directly involved in setting their priorities?

Whether Mr Bratton is the answer or not isn't quite my point (though I think he may well be a good answer). The leadership of the police may have forgotten their most important directive: that they police with our consent. Our consent: not that of the barristers at the Matrix chambers. Consent, in the UK, is best expressed through the medium of election; however unsatisfactory that may seem to ACPO.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser