I remember buying a book from an excellent book shop called News From Nowhere in Bold Street, Liverpool in the 1980s (the shop still exists and it is still highly recommended). The book was called ‘The Political Police of Great Britain’ and the contents of it were disturbing but not shocking, particularly in light of the police’s behaviour during the Miners’ Strike, by which time we had grown used to the sight of police in full riot-gear, pummelling ordinary members of the public to the ground.
Riot-gear had been used by the police before; the first time it had been seen was during a march by the National Front in April 1979 in Southall, West London. If the date sounds familiar it is because it was during this march that New Zealander, Blair Peach was killed when the police attacked Anti-Nazi League demonstrators. The police’s political sympathies of the time were decidedly to the far-right, one officer’s locker was crammed with Nazi regalia and he and many of his colleague were found in possession of illegal weapons. Of course, these events happened many years ago, but The Guardian have recently drawn ‘parallels’ between them and the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 demonstrations in 2009, and the recent report is widely perceived as flawed. The truth about Tomlinson’s death is unlikely to be revealed for many years – certainly the truth about Peach’s death was only made public in April of this year. This is a disgrace in a so-called modern democracy and an insult to Blair Peach’s family.
In many ways the belief that the police have ever been apolitical is naïve but owing to the existence of the mass-media during the Miners’ Strike, it was the first time that it became so obvious to the electorate. And the strike has been prepared for. One of the first actions of the Thatcher government was to increase police pay by a wide margin – previously they had been under-paid, but the wage-hike was almost certainly a bribe when examined in hindsight. The police were used against rioters, peaceful demonstrators, Trades Unions, the women in Greenham Common, and many more ordinary people throughout Tory rule.
Some of you may be wondering why I’m dwelling on the past, but as the cliché goes we’re supposed to learn from it. There are already rumblings from this government about introducing democracy into the police. The word ‘democracy’ is much abused and misunderstood. Universal suffrage does not guarantee a democracy since those who run the media control the interpretation of information, exerting pressure on who is elected into government and what the agenda will be.
This is now a paranoid society; fundamentally the consequence of 24-hour rolling news about paedophiles, serial-killers, ‘illegals’, national debt, drug-dealers, ‘benefit cheats’, ‘anti-social behaviour’, ‘hoodies’ and so on. As pernicious as all of this is, the focus on celebrity culture is just as destructive since it is a distraction from what really matters in people’s lives and creates an environment of vicarious living. The electorate can bring about change and the conservatives understand this, which is why they are happy with Murdoch, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Sky News setting the agenda.
Democratising the police does not work – this is demonstrably clear when one looks at system in the USA, where short-term planning between elections has led to shocking ingrained drug problems, gun-crime, violence, racism and so on. Ministers often spend very few years (often only two) in one department and it is civil servants who enact long-term policy – turning the police into politicians would change their priorities in a destructive manner. Their agenda would be set by irrational hysteria whipped up by the media and political short-term planning to gain headlines to get re-elected. The Raoul Moat case is an example of such media-led hysteria – hours of pointless media attention on one case, and scores of police in full riot-gear concentrating all their attentions on one disturbed individual. Do we really need that to turn into a trend? Thousands of women suffer domestic violence every day – don’t they deserve as much attention? Their cases aren’t heard because the media aren’t interested.
I was disturbed by the Moat case, because yet again the police were shown in full riot-gear, but this time armed to the teeth with guns on streets in the UK while ordinary families walked by with prams – not unlike the footage we saw of occupied Northern Ireland. Is this part of the new agenda? I don’t want become used to seeing this and government policy appears to be moving in that direction.
This Tory government is making cuts in our public services and dismantling the welfare state – once again they will use the police to silence the opposition. Let’s make sure they don’t get away with it.