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29 August 2018

Private police forces threaten to take us back to the bad old days of “thief-takers”

It was to stop what were often essentially protection rackets that Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police.  

By Peter Wilby

As public services decline, private entrepreneurs sniff out new opportunities. Two weeks ago, I reported on how GPs are being privatised by stealth. Now, as the police struggle with cuts, the Sunday Times reports that the rich are turning to My Local Bobby, a company launched last year. For £50-£100 a month, you can have your own uniformed constable, instantly contactable on a mobile phone, and shared with about 250 other households. He or she will patrol the neighbourhood and make citizens’ arrests. The company will investigate crimes and launch prosecutions.

My Local Bobby’s parent company is TM Eye, established in 2007. By stealth, it has taken over some of the work of local authority trading standards departments – also badly hit by cuts – such as investigating and prosecuting the sale of counterfeit and pirate branded goods.

The two companies, I am sure, are run by honest capitalists. But the rise of private policing threatens to take us back to the 18th century, when “thief-takers” were employed by crime victims to do similar work. Some were involved with the criminal underworld: the most famous, Jonathan Wild, known as the Thief-Taker General, was hanged in 1725 for receiving stolen goods. It was to stop what were often essentially protection rackets that Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police a century later.

Crashing ignorance

Commenting on speculation about impeachment, Donald Trump says: “I think the market would crash… everybody would be very poor.” This statement looks so characteristic of Trump’s ignorance, self-delusion and thin-skinned vanity that nobody has stopped to ask two questions. First, would the market crash? Second, if it did crash, would that make “everybody” in America “very poor”?

The answer to the first question is almost certainly not. The markets would be unperturbed. The prospect of the vice-president, Mike Pence, entering the White House may even give them a boost since he would probably end the president’s potentially ruinous trade wars. The second question is trickier. Many Americans are already very poor. But just over half of US families – not “everybody” but probably a comfortable majority of those who vote – have stock market investments either directly or through their retirement accounts. Since the 2008-09 slump following the financial crisis, shareholders have enjoyed the longest bull run in history. The US company share index, the S&P 500, has just reached record highs. Even Trump’s chaotic presidency hasn’t halted its upward surge, caused largely by low interest rates making other forms of investment unattractive.

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Despite the continuing stagnation in real (inflation-discounted) wages – up an average of barely 1 per cent a year since 2009 – many Americans have continued to do nicely since Trump was elected. Never underestimate the extent to which large sections of the US population, like Britons with their tax-free Isas and private pensions, have acquired a financial interest in capitalism’s success, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher intended.

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Open and shut

Another day, another edition of the Guardian, another of those tiresome round-robin letters. This one is about climate change and the 60 signatories include assorted MPs and green worthies such as Jonathon Porritt and George Monbiot. “As campaigners and thinkers”, they announce, they refuse to “assist in creating the impression that climate denial should be taken seriously” and will therefore decline to debate with anyone who says global warming doesn’t exist or humans aren’t to blame for it.

These pompous folk are playing into deniers’ hands, strengthening the view that global warming is the invention of a liberal conspiracy determined to suppress dissent. Remember how the BNP (British National Party) was riding high, having polled nearly 950,000 votes in elections to the European Parliament, before its leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time in 2009. Viewers saw him exposed as an ignorant oaf. The BNP never recovered.

Second bite at the cherry

This summer has seen an abundance of English cherries in supermarkets. They were almost extinct at the turn of the century, with orchards down to 1,000 acres against 18,000 in the 1950s. Though a revival began about a decade ago, 21st-century English cherries weren’t initially like the deep-red, juicy fruits I remembered from my childhood, which stained the fingers as you drew them from a brown paper bag. This summer, however, I could again taste the old flavour and enjoy the juice trickling down my chin. Is this the result of the hot weather? Or is it something to do with Brexit? If the latter, can the Brexiteers also promise a revival of English tomatoes, instead of those tasteless Dutch and Spanish varieties, and, better still, traditional English apples? Having to get visas for Continental holidays might then be tolerable.

Vow of darkness

Some English hotels are not so much bad as just weird. The other day, Mrs W and I stayed at Coombe Abbey hotel in Warwickshire. As the name suggests, a medieval monastery stood on the site. Though little of the original buildings survive, someone clearly spent a fortune festooning the place with oppressive quasi-religious murals and carvings. The extraordinarily low light levels in corridors, bedrooms and bars – I struggled even to read the bar menu – are presumably intended further to evoke the monastic history.

The hotel was recently bought from a small chain by Coventry City Council. I hope the councillors will keep the high standards of service and comfort but brighten it up to save staff and customers from eye strain. Yes, monks once lived there, in gloomy light no doubt, but Henry VIII chucked them out nearly 500 years ago. Get over it.

This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic