Between police and politics

John Stevens was regarded in his force as the copper's copper. His successor, Ian Blair, is being dubbed the politician's copper. The tag is true and unjust in equal parts. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner is no naIf; indeed, he is well versed in the modern art of communication. His decision, therefore, to brief Labour MPs about the merits of 90-day detention without charge, on behalf of his namesake the Prime Minister, was all the more baffling.

Even if Blair (Tony) had not lost the vote on 9 November, Blair (Ian) had made a serious mistake. The most important law-enforcement official in the land has struggled to regain the public's confidence since the gunning down of the young Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in the fraught month of July. The report of the Independent Police Complaints Commission is due shortly and the Director of Public Prosecutions will come under considerable pressure to act.

Still, for all the problems of the past few months, the views of Sir Ian deserve to be listened to carefully. Giving the BBC's Richard Dimbleby Lecture on 16 November, under the obvious but appropriate title "What kind of police service do we want?", Blair cogently set out the dilemmas facing Britain. He was correct to argue that - for all the heated argument around the issues of anti-terrorism and civil liberties, around asylum and immigration and antisocial behaviour - the debate has been short on detail and vision. "There is no agreement whether we are doing well or badly because an extraordinarily wide divergence of views remains as to what the police are for," he said.

To what extent has 7 July changed the parameters of policing? For a few weeks after those terrible events, London in particular was awash with uniformed and plain-clothed officers patrolling stations, buses and streets. Few people seemed to bat an eyelid at paramilitary-style, shaven-headed men sporting automatic weapons. The initial reaction appeared to be: if this is the price to pay, then so be it.

The shooting at Stockwell and the absence of further terrorist attacks in the past four months have complicated what some politicians and perhaps some police chiefs assumed would be a linear progression towards greater state power. And yet, despite the talk of a serious setback for the government, the defeat on the "90 days" clause marked only a brief deceleration in the push towards authoritarianism. From CCTV cameras and other forms of information gathering, through dawn raids and helicopter overflights, to spot checks on roads, stop-and-search and the routine arming of officers, policing has been transformed. The changes are unlikely to be reversed, but they have yet to be properly discussed or agreed.

Sir Ian is again correct to point out the dangers of these changes taking place in a "totally private" environment. He knows better than anyone that many members of the British public no longer turn to the conventional forces of law and order for their protection, for fear of discrimination.

Others have given up on the police, having been victims of crime and received shoddy treatment from their local force. How many people do not have stories of dealing with automated telephone messages at the police station and officers not bothering to come to the scene, offering instead only a crime reference number for the insurance claim?

Human rights versus public order. National norms versus local knowledge: it is more important than ever for the public to identify where the balance should be struck. Weaponry and technology can achieve only so much. Confidence and co-operation provide the vital link in the chain. It seems highly likely that the two attacks in July - the one successful, the other not - will not be the last. On each occasion the visceral reaction is to hand the authorities more powers. But fear, the weapon of the indiscriminate bomber, demands a sophisticated and proportionate response.

An over-repressive set of laws will create a spiral of fear, resentment and violence. By the same token, an over-politicised set of chief constables will undermine confidence in the role of our police.

Ian Blair should be lauded for asking the right questions: a public debate should now ensue, prompting him and his political masters to find the right answers.

Our man in the doghouse

Good on yer, red socks. Or are they yellow? Christopher Meyer first came to prominence, in John Major's time, for his loud attire. No matter what the travails of the hapless former prime minister, Meyer would rise blithely above them. Tony Blair was so impressed by Meyer's social skills that he upgraded him from Bonn to Washington with the strict instruction to ingratiate himself with whoever was in power at the White House.

What thanks did they get from their envoy? A kiss-and-tell that provides the final word on the botched road to war in Iraq. Meyer has done nothing a self-respecting cabinet minister or political adviser would not do - dump on his erstwhile colleagues. His victims are fuming at the audacity of it all. As if Jack Straw would ever do a thing like that, or Tony Blair, or Alastair Campbell. Diaries? Serialisation rights? Moi?

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Guantanamo