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

Chris Ball/UNP
Show Hide image

The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496