Last week’s police commissioners’ election was the biggest non-event in a very long time. In terms of voter turnout it was truly abysmal. Were it not for the court jester’s candidacy – John Prescott – it would have been even worse.
This lack of interest is a pity because crime in a recent poll was right up there almost on a par with benefits and pensions as an issue of great concern to the public. Why then this lack of voter turnout when it has been given a chance to do something about it?
First, unlike general elections and referendums, there was a marked lack of information and hype. It all seemed like one big yawn; we didn’t even know who was standing nor where we were expected to vote and what’s more, no one bothered to tell us. In my own case, on the day itself, I had to ring up the town hall to find out where to vote and ask for a list of candidates. It took them ages to find out. Then I had to Google each one to find out what he or she stood for and what their track record was. Who, apart from a few nerds like me, was going to go to all that trouble? I tell you, I was on the line all of ten minutes waiting for an answer – and then they gave me the wrong place to go and vote.
What then was so important about this particular election? First, law and order is something that impinges on the life of every one of us. We have more contact with plod, by far, than we do with our local MPs. And the person who heads up our constabulary is responsible for an area and population hugely greater than our MP – in my case the whole of Devon and Cornwall, where there are many MPs.
We have all for many years been feeling that our friendly neighbourhood policeman has been slipping away from us: his presence on our streets declines daily, his appearance grows more intimidating, and his friendly nick closed – except by appointment in increasing numbers. He cannot, as a matter of course, have guns because on this one we dig in our heels, but he says ‘in that case then let us have tasers’. He seems unwilling to listen to our pleadings and determined to go his own way.
We have always judged it important that, operationally, the police should be free from political interference. And while this has to be right, it is equally right that ultimate control of policy should rest with civilians. In theory this is the case, but every Home Secretary has found it next to impossible either to impose their will on a Chief Constable or sack him when it becomes necessary. The reality is that the police have many of the characteristics of an army: they learn to march in formation and salute; they are trained to obey orders; and they can hold you against your will; they have armouries; are licensed to kill; and they wear uniforms, even body armour. But we do not allow an army commander – even the chief of staff – to decide policy, much less to determine the magnitude of the lethal force to be used. If we did, then General MacArthur – admittedly an American but bound by the same military ethos – would have atom-bombed the Chinese in Korea. His insistence caused him to be sacked by the president.
Because the new police commissioners have hire-and-fire powers over chief constables, as well as budgetary control, we can now reasonably expect police priorities to move in the direction we would all like. What was important in this recent election was that we didn’t get a load of puffed up, power-hungry chancers make it through to these crucial positions. Nor did we want them to be over politicised. In the event, the public (at least that small part of it that voted) thought this too and the Independents, as a result, made a very good showing.
In a perverse sort of way the pathetically low voter turnout may have aided (this first time round) a good outcome. Elections are normally held during the better weather of the summer, and what with the lack of information and hype, Two Jags’ supporters couldn’t be bothered to stir themselves from the warmth of their slumbers on that cold November day. Yet the Polly Peck, compromised Michael Mates for the Tories couldn’t get his loyal followers out either so the field was left clear for that little band of determined, civic-minded individuals who saw the potential and understood what was at stake to make the effort. So, for the second time, Two Jags had egg on his face, but on this occasion managed to restrain himself from throwing a punch at his adversary.
May these elected police chiefs not be seen as part of the much touted ‘Big Society’ so beloved of the PM? David Cameron may not have planned it this way – that would have been too Machiavellian; too clever for him – but the fates conspired to keep the famous ‘plebs’ at home and leave it to the more dedicated. He may, as a result, have got himself some very good police commissioners. If the commissioners they do a good job, they can reasonably expect a new term with re-election.
For all the present government’s shortcomings, there is at last the prospect that many areas of public life will be the better for police commissioners having been brought into existence, albeit again – like the recent election – in an unplanned for way.
The coalition is hellbent on making us solvent again, although weaker on promoting growth; it is tackling welfare abuse and shrinking the bloated state; it promises a revolution in raising educational standards and it is not giving up on immigration. Only the police stand unreformed – a law virtually unto themselves with some horrendous practises coming to light. Now, at last, we may see some real changes there too.
If the economy starts to recover it would be a mean person who would not give the government on whose watch it all happened some credit.
I was astonished recently to learn that Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister whom I always thought of as something of a libertarian, should seek to clamp on the land of Magna Carta a Bill of wholesale restrictions on open justice.
He wants a special body of lawyers to sit behind closed doors conducting cases in which the accused cannot defend himself in time-honoured fashion. Incredibly, the accused will not even know with what he is charged nor have the right to face his accuser. He will be defended by a government-appointed lawyer he will never meet or speak with. And a Minister of the Crown, who may well be trying to protect himself or his department from well justified exposure, gets to decide whether the case in question merits this very special treatment.
Now, if this isn’t the very purest form of Kafka, then I’d like to know what is. Certainly every tinpot dictator of modern times would love it.
As you may have guessed from previous writings, the preservation of our ancient liberties is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. As I see it, we didn’t create, over centuries, the great edifice of The Common Law – admired around the world and used by over a quarter of it – only to see it dismantled in many of its essentials by a latter day band of political pygmies.
It is not as though I believe that it should be set in aspic, never to be changed. Some years ago I had deep misgivings when New Labour proposed to change the law of Double Jeopardy, whereby an acquitted person could never be tried on the same charge twice.
I came to believe that if science (DNA) could prove incontrovertibly at a later date that a guilty man had been acquitted then it would not be natural justice to let him continue to get away with it. There were, I considered, many good reasons for my earlier misgivings.
If, for instance, an oppressive government or police force were determined on a guilty verdict then it could keep on coming back for another bite of the cherry until it got the result it wanted.
Also, were the police to know that they could always have another try, they would not feel under the same compulsion to go that extra mile to ferret out all the available evidence the first time round. It would also be unfair on the acquitted person – who might believe that the powers-that-be were out to get him – to ask him to live under such a cloud of deferred retribution. But amendments were put in place that held to the double jeopardy principal except in the most serious of cases, so I was satisfied.
I have long felt that New Labour were cavalier in its attitude to the protections which The Common Law bestowed on us. When terrorism reared its ugly head in the aftermath of 9/11 they leaped to panic stations. They seemed to have forgotten that we, as a nation, had long experience of dealing with that particular sick and murderous element in society – thirty years, no less.
The IRA, of whom we are speaking, were, moreover, far more accomplished practitioners of the dark and terrible arts of mass murder than the Johnny-come-lately Jihadists who had grown up in our midst. Sadly, their bombs went off first time on nearly every occasion. The result was that, on a head count of victims, the IRA were light years ahead of their successors.
But New Labour saw it differently. They rushed through a whole range of measures which began the long assault on things we held dear: which had taken centuries of struggle to achieve. Now we have a new government of a different political hue, but it, too – inexplicably – continues the assault and even carries it into realms hitherto unthought-of. It has to be stopped.
Luckily, these new proposals have raised a great hue and cry from almost every quarter, including 57 of the 69 specially appointed lawyers who want nothing to do with it: bless their courage and probity.
Yet Cameron is supportive of the tragically misguided Clarke. No doubt the police and the security services would like – where they chose – to dispense secret ‘justice’ along with the hospital authorities, coroners’ courts, government Ministers and the Ministry of Defence – all of whom, it is proposed, at the minister’s discretion, can impose in camera hearings.
Were they to have had these powers, we would never had learned the truth with regard to the seven shots to the head, underground shooting of poor Charles de Mendez, mistaken for a terrorist; nor the lack of body armour and helicopters and the use of thin skinned vehicles which led to the death of so many of our brave soldiers; nor the lamentable toll of scandalous hospital deaths and shocking mistreatment of our old people; nor the truth about Princess Diana’s death; nor that of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter; nor even, who knows, of the former Energy Secretary’s alleged wrongdoings. All of them bring acute embarrassment to the people and agencies involved and they would rather we knew nothing of their incompetence or couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Truth and openness, in my view, trumps every other consideration. Only in the most clear-cut threats to national security are we entitled to consider secrecy.
If David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ means a smaller, less intrusive state and more power to the people then I am all for it. Power, inevitably, seeks more power. But I am not concerned how much power accrues to the people; the more the better: they can be trusted. But individuals and agencies must always be constrained, and a free press is there to help us to achieve that.
Servants of the state must also be held to account and answer for serious shortcomings. In industry, commerce and even sport, heads roll regularly: not so in the public sector. This must change. How often is abject failure rewarded not with the sack, but with promotion. This truly incenses the public.
Everybody knows what a failure the head of the Borders Agency has made of her job. And not just that, but the one before. Yet she gets promoted to head up HM Revenue & Customs, an agency failing almost as badly as her own and which desperately needs real and proven talent not failure.
What a way to do business. But that’s big government for you! Spitting in the eye of its paymasters at every turn.
A letter recently unearthed during a house clearout dated 1925 read as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Grainger, We respectfully draw your attention to an under-payment of fifteen pounds, eight shillings and four pence made on your recent income tax remittance. We are sure this is an oversight. May we suggest the 31st of next month as being a suitable date for settlement of the balance. If you require clarification as to how we arrived at this figure we would be most happy for you to call at this office where we will endeavour to explain. In the meantime we remain your Most Obedient Servant’. How very polite and considerate this all is. No doubt here who the boss is.
The signing off tells you all you need to know: the state in those days knew its place. It was, of course, nonsense to suggest that its agents regarded themselves as anybody’s servants, but the then powers-that-be thought it important to continue to emphasise what the proper relationship should be. Today it is all different; government is in the driving seat.
With 4 million CCTV cameras in place (by far the highest number of any country in the world – North Korea included) and the planet’s largest DNA database and every conceivable detail of our lives – both personal and financial – logged, we are well and truly skewered and corralled. The East German Stasi (secret police) would have been proud.
Only the media stand between us and total subservience. That is why almost the first act of any authoritarian regime is to muzzle it. What people need to understand is that authority, be it central or local, has an insatiable urge to accumulate power – to regulate and control. It cannot help itself. It is in the nature of the beast. Only our ability to scrutinise it through the media and force it to submit itself for re-election has any hope of controlling its growth.
We like to preen ourselves as being almost the freest society on earth. But does this really stand up? We are bossed around to an extraordinary degree. Gone is the fanciful notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Hundreds of agencies have the power to barge into them and they don’t need a scaling ladder to do it either – just the local plod to intimidate any would-be heroes.
Our government recently wanted the power to lock us up without charge for 90 days and only the most extraordinary of efforts got that figure down to 28. And that is still one of the longest in the civilised world.
I cannot help believing that the age of terrorism has been a godsend to those most zealous in their urge to control us. It has given them the perfect cover to push through a range of measures under the mantra ‘Do you really want to get blown up?’ Well, the IRA were blowing us up for thirty years and were much more competent with explosives than the Jihadist buffoons – and just as ruthless. Yet we resisted bringing in all these special measures on the mainland so beloved of New Labour. They even talked of putting aircraft-like black boxes under every car bonnet until this was laughed out of court. But in truth it was no laughing matter.
They talked also of having all 62 million of us DNA tested – naturally, of course, so that they could catch more criminals. Townhalls were authorised to conduct certain types of surveillance on its citizens, and that ended up checking out people who were trying to get their kids into a decent school. Let’s not forget either the recent national census. Look at the ridiculous scope of the information it sought. And if you were unwilling to provide it, look out! You would be bludgeoned into submission.
But all is not yet lost. We appear to have a government (glory be!) which actually says it wants to devolve power from the centre to the regions. I never thought to hear it, but it says ‘Whitehall does not always know best’. It wants schools that answer to parents; elected police chiefs who have to clock up results or be thrown out; Mayors who have to run their cities competently or face the same fate; and even a social security network that protects the truly vulnerable, but not the army of scroungers.
The attitude of entitlement which so many display is truly marvellous to behold. What gives a person the idea that he or she is entitled to lie in their bed of a cold winter morning while their neighbour must get up and go off to work? And then, as if to rub salt into the wound, hold out their hand for large chunks of their neighbour’s earnings so that they can enjoy a not-much-different lifestyle. It’s actually all very bizarre. But the fact is that so many do really believe that they have that right. There’s no accounting for folk!
Nobody wants a return to certain of the bad old days. But not all of them were bad. We ought to cherry-pick what was best. Among them was neighbourliness, self-reliance (of the fit and able) and straight dealing – honesty if you like. Even today, members of the older generation are so imbued with this ethos of self-reliance that their pride will not allow them to take benefits that we would like them to take.
In the ongoing debate about the UK riots it is important to explore further its causes as well as possible remedies. A great mystery for many is why by no means all of the rioters were from deprived, ill-educated backgrounds. What we have to recognise is that below the veneer of civilised life there lurks an anarchic streak which needs only a few factors to coalesce to release mayhem. (St. Petersburg was the most civilised of cities until its people started to eat one another under the pressures of the German seige.)
One of the factors, I suggest, which let the anarchic genie out of the bottle was the images of the early rioters getting away with stealing much sought after goods with impunity, with the police seeming to be impassive bystanders. The many rioters not normally associated with the lawless underclass saw their acquisitive instincts rise to the fore; they felt powerfully envious and jealous that others were acquiring the things which they themselves valued highly and were doing so unimpeded and without risk, so it seemed, of consequences. Ours, as we are all very well aware, is an extremely acquisitive and materialistic society and the temptation was very great. And so adding to all the other tragedies of the last few days is that of bright young people throwing their futures away. For obvious reasons, and to maintain that veneer of civilised conduct, we must come down hard on rioting. There was a time when rampaging, destructive rioters were shot on sight. As for arson, the law has always bracketed it very close with murder because in so many cases it ended up with just that. Of course those days have gone, although the arson view remains.
Many have drawn a parallel with the blatant and offensive greed we see at the top of society. They are not unconnected, though they are not the same: these people have said that a climate right across society of the devil take the hindmost and every man for himself has had a corrosive effect and they are right; they have further pointed out that the sums involved in what might be called Grand Larceny by the upper classes make their hapless imitators in the lower orders look like pathetic amateurs; perhaps more disgracefully, the big practitioners have used their superior wits and education to mask the wickedness of what they are doing. For the fact is they do know what they have been doing and are still doing. But they have been rumbled (highlighting the need for a free and untramelled press). There is, as a result, a very great anger out there among the public.
Not one of the agencies which shape our lives sets an example of probity, save perhaps the military: not the town halls with their obscene rewards for second rate executives; not the parliamentarians who frame our laws; not the police who receive payment for information; not the press with its eagerness to get an expose; not our financial institutions; nor even the House of Lords who are meant to be above it all, packed full as it meant to be with people we are asked to admire as a result of their lives of supposed selfless service in whatever field they have specialised in. But what of the professions? Have they performed better? Don’t believe it! We have doctors conning a witless government into paying them 30% more for less cover and work. We have ambulance chasing lawyers rubbing their hands with glee as they pursue what should be hopeless Human Rights cases at huge expense to the taxpayer (step forward Cherie Blair). And we have accountants stretching the law to breaking point as they seek ever more ingenious dodges and tax havens for their rich clients. Why do people in corporations such as Sir Philip Green along with the likes of philanderers and ex-drug users such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney as well as clean (as far as we know) Cliff Richard and actors such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore, all of whom along with Rod Stewart short-change their country’s treasury get honoured? They are not patriots, they are cheating scoundrels. Sanctimonious Bono’s U2 cheats even poor benighted Ireland of its desperately needed dues. All of these people and bodies have been found wanting and intent only on feathering their own nasty little nests at the public expense.
Corruption, fraud, dissembling all are alive and well in the British state. Oh, for that magnificent body that we once created in distant India – the ICS (Indian Civil Service) – which in over a hundred years of dedicated and selfless service never found one of its servants corrupt. They were chosen after perhaps the stiffest examination ever known to man (the Mandarin exam being a possible exception) and they were expected to be fluent in the language of the area they were seconded to. Setting example, leading from the front, taking the rap that is what all of us look to in our leaders. When did the last politician (David Davis excepted) resign his post on a point of principal or even when a monumental cock-up has been made in their department? Yet funnily enough, Enoch Powell was one of those to do so. Indeed, the last one that I can think of was Lord Carrington over the Falklands and that was nearly thirty years ago. Even lying to Parliament seems not a resigning matter any more. And we have a Speaker who appears little better than a clown (the previous one was no better, being both ignorant and corrupt). What a distance we have fallen. Where oh where, by the way, was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the terrible events of last week? A few words concerning Christian values would surely have not gone amiss.
Not until we show that we will not tolerate reprehensible conduct can we, with justice, expect what used to be called ‘the lower orders’ to respect the law. But meantime we must hold the line on the streets. Let the work begin. Perhaps we can now see a little of that ‘Big Society’ that David Cameron is so keen on. They were there with their clean up operation the morning after the riot.