Interview - Sir Ian Blair

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair on terror threats, cash-for-honours, and why he expec

Sofa government is not for Sir Ian Blair. The chocolate Dralon seating nook favoured by his predecessor, Lord Stevens, has been banished from the office of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. In its place is an austere table and some hard chairs. It looks more businesslike, I say, and Blair appears to take this as a compliment. Round here, any plaudits must seem scarce. The 24th commissioner is in the third year of a tenure that has, more than once, been portrayed as so shaky that he risks following the brown settee into exile.

The killing of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, prompted calls for his resignation, as did the terror raid in Forest Gate which resulted in one shooting, no charges, community unrest and a bullish defence from Blair, who says that the intelligence was such that, had he not gone in, "I wouldn't be in this office and I wouldn't deserve to be." The ongoing cash-for-honours investigation has provoked fury against Scotland Yard. If some media have been harsh judges of Ian Blair, so have internal critics (not least, I imagine, his old boss Lord Stevens) who saw him as over-intellectual and unclubbable. He must have had a rough time.

"Yes, I think that's right, but you do start to get used to it and put it to one side. I've watched all the commissioners I've known go through tough stages. I don't think I'm any different, but we are in a more angry world than ever before, so one gets caught up in the general political discourse." His baptism into 21st-century realpolitik came in the radio interview when he declared the Met "the envy of the policing world in relation to counter-terrorism". Shortly afterwards, the 7/7 bombs exploded.

The July killings have, inevitably, overshadowed his incumbency. Earlier this week, a "secret" government dossier was reported as claiming the terror threat now facing the UK from al-Qaeda is the worst since 9/11. Would he agree? "Yes, I would. There is no doubt that the volume of what appear to be terrorist conspiracies and the scale of the ambition of those involved has been rising. It certainly is difficult at the moment.

"It is absolutely inevitable that people will continue to [try to] cause mass atrocity in the UK. The question is whether or not we can stop them. We are having some tremendous successes, together with . . . the security services. But that doesn't mean we'll always be successful."

It seems to him "blazingly obvious" that the forthcoming Olympics will be a potential target for Britain's homegrown al-Qaeda operatives. Transport systems and the City are also, in his view, at particular risk. "One of al-Qaeda's ambitions is to 'bleed the west dry', and I don't think that's a blood image. Some of the things going on here are about attacking our economic viability."

Can he confirm a claim, apparently disclosed by his predecessor in a new documentary, that al-Qaeda planned to assassinate Tony Blair in front of the Queen at her Golden Jubilee? "I think what I would rather do, as the serving commissioner, is just to say that I never talk about specific threats," he says. As well as offering dark hints about plots foiled, he has been eager for changes in law and practice.

His biggest worry is the delay in getting alleged terrorists before a court and the "extraordinary" length of trials. He cites a shortage of suitable interview rooms at Belmarsh high security prison, and a lack of purpose-built courts, such as Woolwich, where the 21/7 trial is currently being conducted. Is he hopeful that parliament will eventually grant his wish to hold people for 90 days without charge? "My sense is that it [90 days] is deliverable only if there is political consensus, which there certainly isn't at the moment." Even so, he casts a seemingly envious glance at Germany, "where prosecutors have the right to preventative detention of a year".

Blair on Blair

Part rigorous enforcer, part social liberal, Blair possesses, at 53, the grandeur of hard-won status, or too much adversity. I address him as "Sir Ian", and he does not tell me to drop the "Sir". Once cavalier about the media, whom he described as "institutionally racist" and accused of over-blowing the Soham murders, he has grown wary. After a while he relaxes and shows me his picture of his icon, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain - a Maine professor who found glory at the Battle of Gettysburg. "If you charge downhill with a bayonet, there's no going back," Blair says.

The cash-for-honours probe might fit that metaphor. Long after suggestions of a preliminary report last September, the investigation grinds on. The initial focus, the 1925 Honours Act, has been widened to include possible conspiracy. Tony Blair, twice questioned, is the first serving prime minister to be embroiled in such an inquiry, and the Met's critics, denouncing the leakers and briefers of the police, say the affair is fuelling political distrust.

Blair, who has renounced any direct link with the investigation because of his official links to his namesake, begins by brick-walling. "This is a live inquiry, and it's just not something I am going to comment on." Can he say how long it will be live for? "I cannot." Does he have a mole in Downing Street? "I'm just not going to talk about it," he says, but he cannot resist the temptation. "There are an awful lot of allegations that the Metropolitan Police is leaking around this inquiry, but if you look at the journalists who are writing about it, they are not the traditional police contacts. I don't think we're leaking at all, [but] somebody's speculating."

Does he mean Downing Street? "I'm just not going to go there . . . Everyone has to wait until the end of this." If it's inappropriate for him to comment further, then it must be wrong that close allies of the Prime Minister have criticised police tactics? "People will do what they want. I am responsible for what the Met does, and the Met isn't doing it."

Still, the question hangs as to whether the Prime Minister could conceivably face charges. Does Blair see any taboos in an inquiry in which his namesake has, thus far at least, simply been interviewed as a witness and without caution? Is anyone perceived as above the law? "If we take this as a general principle, then no. No one is above the law." So Tony Blair would not be seen as untouchable? "I'm not saying any more. The principle remains the same."

The Commissioner himself does seem more leaked against than leaking. The long-awaited, and imminent, report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes is believed to clear Blair over charges that he lied about when he knew that the wrong man had been killed. This comes as no surprise to him.

"What on earth would have been my motivation for lying? I believe I will be entirely exonerated of misleading the public. I've known that ever since it happened." He is clearly furious at the time the inquiry has taken.

"When it's over, we will have to sit down with the Home Office and the IPCC and work out why it took so long. It's ironic," he adds bitterly, "that you're asking me why cash-for-honours is taking so long . . . Still, I don't think it's very clever of me to criticise the people writing the report, and I think I'm probably in that place now."

Gun crime and punishment

But even assuming he is fully cleared, won't he be caught either way? For him not to be told of such a catastrophic error for 24 hours, when other officers clearly did know, seems damning of his management skills."The word I would disagree with is 'know'," he says. He also takes issue with the report's supposed finding, that the delay in telling Blair was "incomprehensible". That is "completely wrong," he says. "When all this emerges, a lot of people will be giving testimony that it wasn't incomprehensible."

He means, I would guess, that the traumatic circumstances of an alleged terror plot somehow blurred normal priorities and lines of commun ication. "That day, and the day before, presented us with the most difficult problem that my service has ever seen in peacetime," he says. The other version is that Blair wasn't told because, according to one unnamed officer, he "takes bad news very badly".

"My response is that there have been an awful lot of brave people around me in the last two years. I am certainly not a person who receives bad news with difficulty." In fairness, he has also had some good news. Crime in the metropolis is dropping overall, he has done genuinely good work in engaging with minority communities, and domestic violence murders are down to 12 so far in 2006/7, which he sees as a triumph. Drugs remain a major problem, but he hints, with some reservations, that he may be considering calling for heroin to be prescribed on the NHS.

"We have to have a proper discourse . . . Two thirds of people coming into custody test positive for opiates . . . There is no doubt that drugs lie at the heart of much gun crime, though not all. I would be interested to see how it [prescription heroin] would work. Let's put it that way."

Naturally, he is worried at the fatal shootings of three teenage Londoners within 11 days. "We are seeing a gradual fall in the age group involved. Somehow, as a society, we have to sort things out." His prescription is minimum five-year jail terms for 18 to 21-year-olds, with very young gun-carriers treated as children at risk rather than criminals. "If they [gangs] are giving guns to five-year-olds, the community should rise up in horror."

In all his career, he is "most proud" of revolutionising treatment for rape victims. His interest began when, as a chief inspector of 25, he failed to secure a conviction at the Old Bailey for the young victim of an alleged rape. "There was no victim support for her; nothing. I did the only thing which I could think of, for which I'm sure I should have been disciplined, which was to take her home and let her sleep in my spare room. I was just married, so my wife was somewhat surprised."

That human side of policing is how Blair would most like to be remembered. "On my first day, I was asked what I hoped my legacy would be. I said I hoped the people of London would take the Met to their hearts a little bit more." With the de Menezes report out soon, and cash for honours dragging on, the calls for Sir Ian Blair to leave his spartan office seem far from over.

His future may hang on whether those outside, and inside, his police force have taken the 24th Commissioner sufficiently to their hearts.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”

***

Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.

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In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.

***


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge