The chief constable of one of Britain’s largest forces was sharing a car with the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police when they found themselves stuck in traffic in Whitehall. A PC was standing nearby, and the chief constable suggested they wind down the window to chat to him. “Oh, a PC won’t know who I am,” the commissioner said. “There are chief superintendents in the Met who wouldn’t know me…”
The chief constable, now retired, tells the story to show how the Met is not just remote from Londoners, but is so unwieldy that the communication and discipline essential for managing a force that employs 25 per cent of police officers in England and Wales has failed. The result is a Met that Louise Casey condemned in her review, published on 21 March, as institutionally racist, sexist, homophobic and corrupt. The same former commissioner told the chief constable that he never believed he controlled the Met: “It’s like riding a tiger – you just cling on.”
Although Scotland Yard is known as the hub of London policing, the Met doesn’t have London to itself. The hi-vis jackets on London streets could be from several other forces. Commuters mostly interact with the British Transport Police. The 1,000-strong City of London Police leads the UK’s fraud investigations, as well as providing the Square Mile’s street police with their unique red-and-white chequered cap bands. The armed Ministry of Defence Police patrol many streets in central London where critical security establishments sit alongside commercial buildings. But it is the Met that gets the credit – and the kicks – for being the thin blue line in London.
It is ironic that the Met should find itself so at odds with the capital city it serves. Securing respect among the public was Robert Peel’s aim in his 1829 plan for organised policing in the capital, and he took a radically different route from many countries, where semi-military units were imposed. Peel’s police officers, he explained, were just civilians who were paid for duties that were “incumbent on every citizen”. It was policing of the people by the people.
The blistering Casey report identifies failings across nearly all the Met’s departments, including bullying, homophobia and an “over-policing” of black communities. She concludes it has become “unanchored” from the founding principles of Peel.
There have been internal attempts to bring the Met closer to its communities. The Met was organised into five geographic divisions, each controlled by an assistant commissioner, in response to the devastating Macpherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Those reforms did not last. Power has since reverted to Scotland Yard and spun out in an administrative hokey-cokey. Even giving the London mayor part-control of the Met (shared with the Home Office) has not created the same link with local communities that other forces enjoy.
Setting up separate organisations for responsibilities such as counter-terrorism and royalty protection or injecting them into the National Crime Agency (NCA) is an oft-touted solution. Yet the NCA – “Britain’s FBI” – is a relatively new, little-tested body.
Will this crisis of confidence finally lead to reform or even the break-up of the Met? There are signs a Labour government would prioritise change. Keir Starmer talked recently of “root and branch” changes, yet the only specific suggestion was that the Met may need to be given a new name.
Even reformed, the force would be too large. Handing large swathes of its territory to other forces could be the solution, according to the former Special Branch officer John Fox, now a senior university lecturer in police studies. He believes moving policing in outer boroughs to surrounding forces such as Surrey, Kent and Essex could rapidly increase efficiency and produce the necessary cultural change.
All proposals to break up or radically change this £3bn-a-year monolith, with its 45,000 staff covering 32 boroughs, run a terrible risk of making matters worse through rushed or ill-considered choices. The last major change to policing in England and Wales came from a 1962 Royal Commission. Corruption and incompetence among what was then 117 local borough and county forces drove the Conservative government of the day to seek a blueprint for future policing. The commission unanimously rejected the concept of a national police force, preferring the virtues of localness. It led to today’s 43 local constabularies.
That model proved serviceable for more than half a century but the commission, working six decades ago, never envisaged that terrorism, people-trafficking, fraud and IT crime would join murder, theft and traffic as the priorities of 21st-century policing.
On 20 March, Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council and a former Met assistant commissioner, voiced what numerous police leaders have been saying privately for a decade: the Met has no “God-given right” to exist. Policing by consent has survived almost 200 years since Peel. There is a growing consensus that re-establishing the trust and respect of Londoners demands not just a cultural makeover for the Met but also a fundamental overhaul of its very structure and purpose. Without it the Met will not and should not endure.
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink