Perhaps I’d been watching too much Line of Duty, but my interview with Ian Blair started off in a rather AC-12-like manner. No video link, no hint of his location, just a phone call – oh, and please keep his number to yourself.
It’s hardly surprising. A little over a decade ago, Blair, 68, held the most senior post in British policing: commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. A divisive figure, he was praised as a “thinking man’s copper” by those who welcomed his modernising streak (he denounced the “canteen culture” of prejudice within the Met and championed diversity) but antagonised rank-and-file officers.
As a Londoner who grew up in the Nineties and Noughties, I find Blair sticks in my mind as a particularly controversial Met commissioner – my memories are mainly of him looking uncomfortable on the news after another row. So much happened during his tenure, which ran from 2005 until his removal in 2008 at the behest of then London mayor Boris Johnson: the 7/7 London bombings, the mistaken shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell, Tony Blair’s push for 90-day detention without charge, cash-for-honours…
A cross-bench peer since 2010, Blair has been closely following the police’s recent challenges. “I watch it – if you spend 35 years of your life doing something, you probably have an occasional interest!”
The task of policing successive lockdowns has been a peculiar one. The sudden flood of new Covid-19 powers has proven to be more of a curse than a blessing for even the most megalomaniac officer.
Whether it was officers using drones to spy on dog-walkers in empty expanses of the Peak District during the first lockdown, or police fining two women daring to go on a walk with takeaway peppermint teas two lockdowns later, it has clearly been difficult to strike the right balance.
“Obviously, there’s always that kind of story!” laughs Blair. “In the Met, you’ve got 43,000 people working, hundreds and hundreds of them [will] do something brilliant today, one of them is going to be doing something deeply idiotic.”
We speak as the Met is once more under intense public scrutiny. In March, campaigners and politicians alike criticised officers for manhandling and arresting women attending a vigil in memory of Sarah Everard – a 33-year-old living in south London whose disappearance and death led to a serving Met officer being charged for her kidnapping and murder.
“It does show the power of a single picture, and nobody can stop that,” Blair says of the vigil, where officers were captured physically restraining women: shocking images that flooded social and mainstream media. Blair says he knows “nothing of social media” himself (his children “are very keen that I keep it that way!”) but believes it has added to the challenge of policing protests. “It does make it much more difficult when a video or picture can go round the world in moments.”
Defending what he describes as the “proud tradition” of British police refraining from using arm’s-length methods such as water cannon and tear gas, Blair has reservations about the upcoming and controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would restrict peaceful protests that cause a “serious annoyance”.
“I think it’s going to have to be very carefully drawn up as a piece of legislation, because the right to protest is absolutely vital,” warns Blair, who will scrutinise the bill in the House of Lords. “Now, all protests – you just have to look at the word – are going to irritate somebody, aren’t they?… There are some issues there that need a bit of careful thinking.”
Over the past year, a further challenge has been posed by “the number of changes to the coronavirus regulations that have occurred and the police are supposed to enforce”: there have been 64 changes since the start of the pandemic in total.
These have confused police responses to demonstrations, as coronavirus laws provide no automatic exemption for protest. While Avon and Somerset police decided not to intervene as the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during last summer’s Black Lives Matter rallies, for example, the Met shut down the Clapham vigil with force.
Blair describes the current Met commissioner Cressida Dick as “an old friend and a very fine officer” (she was also, incidentally, the commanding officer of the operation that killed De Menezes). When she and her officers are under the spotlight, he can relate to what they are facing.
“I feel concerned for people, colleagues, but I also have a fairly self-denying ordinance that I don’t intervene very much, because I don’t think it’s right for people to keep popping up saying: ‘Well, they’ve got that decision wrong’. That’s not how I would operate.”
Nevertheless, the issue of stop and search still preoccupies him. In the year to March 2020, ethnic minorities were more than four times as likely to be stopped and searched as white people in England and Wales – and the figure is almost nine times higher for black people specifically.
“It is the most difficult of all the issues that face the police, particularly in London,” he says. “There are lots of boroughs where the phrase ‘minority ethnic communities’ has no meaning, because it’s the majority.”
Just before he left office, Blair was formulating a new, place-based way of using stop-and-search – by identifying certain areas where the powers would be deployed. “If we could find a way of getting public acceptance of the particular area that has a problem, and if you go to that area, you are quite likely to be stopped and searched, that might be useful,” he suggests. “If we could put notices up to say: ‘This is a stop-and-search area, by agreement.’”
It is unclear to me how this would remove prejudice from the process, however. “It was at a very preliminary stage,” Blair clarifies. “It was just a thought I was beginning to have.”
Another of Dick’s predicaments that he recognises is grappling with two masters from different parties. “I was the first commissioner to have a mayor from one political party and a home secretary from another one,” he says, recalling how Boris Johnson and Jacqui Smith once both claimed credit for a policing initiative while he stood between them unveiling it at a south London Tube station.
“I just began to think: ‘We’ve got politicians here who have very fixed ideas on either side, and we’ve got a public that’s not really being consulted.’ Anyway, that was interesting! Like a shotgun marriage or a shotgun divorce. There was a play, wasn’t there? One Man, Two Guvnors.”
The contemporary version pits Labour mayor Sadiq Khan against the Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel.
“The difference,” says Blair, comparing the two eras, “is that if I reflected on my time as deputy commissioner and commissioner under the Blair and Brown governments, I didn’t agree with all their policies, but what I did sense was that they were interested in policing.
“They saw the police as part of the public realm, and they treated the police in the way they would, say, deal with education. Some of that was quite maddening, but at the same time, they were definitely interested and involved.”
Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, Blair feels their approach towards policing has been less engaged than that of Labour, though he refuses to comment on Johnson directly.
“The coalition and the Conservative approach has been much more disengaged with the police, and in fact sometimes, I think, profoundly unhelpful,” he says, adding that the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners in 2012 has made things “more difficult” for police.
Policing, to Blair, seems “less of a public service in an ordinary sense than it used to be, and I think that’s difficult”. Under New Labour, he was “beginning to work up more of an NHS model of policing, so that there were different professions inside the overall police bubble – but it seems to me that that conversation’s died away”.
Austerity – with the loss of 23,500 police staff – and the closure of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Staff College in Bramshill in Hampshire in 2015 have restricted police voices in public life, says Blair.
“In the past there were quite significant figures in policing, who would appear while serving on Radio 4, for instance, and that’s disappeared, with the exception of the commissioner. You hear from the police and crime commissioners and that’s it… There’s a quite funny mood about, that’s all I think I would observe.”
Even at a distance from public life, Blair has detected this shift. His priorities are “beginning to be more domestic”, as he spends more time with his two grandsons – although he sounds a little bored of the enforced downtime brought by lockdown. “I’ve done an awful lot of walking,” he says. “Free time is great if you’ve got something to do with it.”
Robert Peel gave a “gift to the world” when he created the modern police force as home secretary in 1829, Blair says. Yet he questions parts of this legacy, in particular “the concept of policing by consent” – a Peelite principle for the original Metropolitan Police – which he feels “is now kind of beginning to be a rather meaningless comment”. He favours a focus on how to establish “police legitimacy in politically contentious times” instead.
Yet these are questions for police chiefs and politicians with a whole new set of priorities – and problems as old as the police force itself.
This interview was conducted before the publication of the final report into the murder of Daniel Morgan