Cop killers and the law

Arguably a crowd comprising 59 men (and, perhaps, the odd - very odd - woman), between them carrying 109 guns, is about as mad as it gets, especially when they're all milling about the elegant terraced houses of Chelsea. I'm not too interested in dissecting the minutiae of the five-hour "siege" that ended up with the 32-year-old barrister Mark Saunders receiving five fatal shots from four police marksmen - but what must be countered is the ludicrous ruling of the jury at the coroner's inquest, held on 7 October this year. Ludicrous, because there is no way that 59 armed officers could be construed as acting in "reasonable self-defence" under such circumstances. Saunders was an alcoholic. The shotgun he was waving around has an effective lethal range of 50 yards at most, and he was up in his flat - the marksmen were down on the ground. Besides being able to take cover, they were all wearing body armour.

Vocal snobbery

As in other, similar cases, the coroner had already debarred members of the jury from delivering a verdict of "unlawful killing", so we cannot blame them for not checking the madness of this particular crowd. But they did criticise the way senior officers had handled the "siege" and, with due contrition, the Metropolitan Police subsequently conceded that there were "lessons" to be learned. But it seems the one lesson which cannot be learned is that it's unacceptable in a democratic and open society to have any group of people, let alone armed police officers, who are in effect above the law.

Saunders was gunned down in 2008 and this year we had the revolting snuff newscast of Raoul Moat but, overall, the British police are fairly parsimonious when it comes to wasting citizenry: there have been 29 fatal shootings by police since 2000, of which 13 were by the Met.Nevertheless, no officer has ever been prosecuted for unlawful killing and I have had it from sources close to the apex at the Met that no officer can ever be. On one occasion - when there was a flagrant failure to give due warning before a man wielding a chair leg was gunned down - spokespersons for the firearms officers made it abundantly clear that they would down tools if any of their colleagues was charged. What a peculiar Mexican stand-off! The very police officers charged with the greatest responsibility on our streets, acting like a juvenile gang - it doesn't exactly instil confidence.

Ah, say the lovers of Laura Norder, but what would you have done? Well, I don't know exactly what operational errors the senior officers at the Met are conceding, but the very presence of the armed mob would seem to be one, as was how Saunders was killed while a "trained negotiator" was talking to him. Such is the modern way that this horror show was broadcast for all to witness: the poor, disturbed man waving his shotgun about while we hear a woman saying: "You need to pick up the phone, Mark. You need to pick up the phone." Seconds later, the fatal shots were fired.
Trained negotiator she may have been, but she sounded as sympathetic as a raddled barmaid calling last orders. Is this snobbery?

I rather suspect it is: vocal snobbery. If I'm ever in a dangerous stand-off, I want someone plummy and faintly amusing to talk me down - think Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, or the chap who used to do the voice-overs for Mr Kipling. Perhaps if any of these exceedingly calming voices had been deployed, Saunders might still be alive.

Hard for the Yard

In the wake of the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, the Met went through the hoops backwards in an effort to exonerate not only the actual shooters, but the entire chain of command involved in this colossal and tragic cock-up. After writing certain trenchant remarks in the press, having been given an off-the-record briefing by the late, lamented Liberal mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, I was summoned to Scotland Yard for a chat with the then headmaster, Ian Blair.

There was tea and biscuits and he came on soft, for all the world like a sociology lecturer at a former polytechnic. I got the message: it's fantastically bloody hard, policing this city, and we'd be grateful if you weren't so mean to us.

Wassums. Still, should the current commissioner wish to have a chat with me about Saunders's killing, my door is open. Just don't rush round

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 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.