This investigation is about more than Mark Duggan

It is time for the police to prioritise the issue of community engagement.

 

 

Few people realise that the first riot in Tottenham didn’t happen in August 2011. It happened in the April of that year, in Northumberland Park, when a few police officers were attacked by a group of thirty or so men, after they saw a man being stopped by them. It got a couple of lines in the local press: it just wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. The relationship between the community and the police in this area has always been strained – right back to the Broadwater Farm riots, largely instigated by frustration over Sus laws – the Stop and Search of their day, and the death of another local.

Many find the strength of feeling in Tottenham over Mark Duggan incomprehensible. If you say that swathes of people there think he was executed, they won’t believe you – but it's true. There’ll be plenty of comments below this asking why we should care about transparency issues over the death of an alleged gangster. The first reason is that it’s a golden opportunity for the Met to prove, in a time of almost unparalleled media pressure, that it doesn’t act with indiscriminate violence.

But there’s a much bigger reason. It's becoming clear that the Duggan case is about a great deal more than the death of one man. There are now issues surrounding it which go to the core of our civil liberties. 

This week millions of TV viewers saw television footage of police officers in the moments after Mark Duggan was killed. The broadcasting of this footage was condemned by the IPCC, who are investigating the incident: the same day, we learned that the man who fired the fatal shot – along with 30 other officers - is refusing to be interviewed by the watchdog.

The watchdog seems toothless and the situation absolutely ridiculous, but terrible headlines are becoming the norm. The IPCC has had a torrid time from the moment a press officer inadvertently told the press that Duggan had been killed in an ‘exchange of fire’, to the day two members of the community reference group it had set up resigned in protest over the removal of evidence from the shooting scene.

One has to feel for Rachel Cerfontyne, the unfortunate commissioner who has twice had to sit before the locals at the Haringey Police and Community Consultative Group. The first time round, she was called an idiot and a whitewasher. This was before the second visit, when she had to break it to them that the IPCC might have information that couldn’t be disclosed to the coroner or the family; this could mean an inquest doesn’t happen.

Neither of the issues at stake – the police’s refusal to be interviewed, the information that can’t be made public – are the IPCC’s fault. On the first issue, a fault line is clearly opening up between the watchdog and the force – one which is starting to undermine the constant complaints that it isn’t ‘independent’ at all. The IPCC claims that the officers' lawyers are advising them not to speak to it for fear of incriminating themselves. Other lawyers claim that there’s nothing stopping them being hauled in other than the watchdog’s cowardice. Whichever way one looks at it, it's an almighty failure of the legal system to provide transparency, and one which might be best solved with diplomacy.

But more troubling is the latter issue. It seems a safe bet the law which is preventing the IPCC from revealing the information is Section 17 of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act, which prohibits the use of intercept product as evidence – we don’t know for sure, because as poor Cerfontyne had to tell the incredulous locals, to tell them which law is blocking them would in itself break it.

The condemnation has been almost universal. The only bodies that seem to want to keep this law in place are the security services, who say it could compromise their sources or make suspects less likely to talk on the phone. These criticisms don’t apply to the Duggan case. Deborah Glass, the IPCC’s Deputy Chair, has said the law simply stops her from doing her job. As David Lammy told Radio 4 last night, the Home Secretary doesn’t like it, the police don’t like it, but nothing’s being done. There is a review of the law (the eighth, in fact), which will report back “in due course”.

In the meantime, the tension and mistrust in Tottenham continues to simmer and ferment. In the absence of concrete proof that there was no malpractise in the Duggan case, the police can just try their best: working with Neighbourhood Watch groups and voluntary sector bodies, holding more public meetings, stronger involvement with schools – in short, committing to community engagement in the long term. It should have been prioritised long ago. Thanks to our ludicrous legal system, it has to be prioritised now.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Source: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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