Nothing has filled me with despair recently so much as the news that that tired old retread John Prescott is to throw his hat into the ring to become the new Sheriff of Uddersfield. You come up with a good idea, and who leaps in to ruin the whole concept but the man we all thought had been finally put out to pasture: the former prize fighter/deputy prime minister.
The idea of elected police chiefs is for us to get a form of payment by results. That is to say, the chief increases the clear up rate of crime, brings order to our streets and thus enables us to sleep easier in our beds. And in return for performing this valuable service, he or she is awarded (and paid) with a fresh mandate and a continuance of his (or her) £70,000 stipend. It does sound like a good arrangement to me to me! So let’s look at this particular applicant’s CV.
He’s certainly been a busy boy during his long career – although, at 72, I worry a bit that that it’s just too long. His cheeky-chappie approach would undoubtedly go down well with the binge drinkers of a Friday night (the same people he’s promised to sort out). And his beer belly should also appeal to many, allowing him to empathise – always a most important consideration in this touchy-feelie age. But against this there’s the risk that if he’s provoked he might strike out. After all, he has got form in this department and a GBH charge is not something that would sit well on a police commissioner’s record.
But let’s get serious for a moment and look at Two Jags’ actual record. It is acknowledged that he was appointed deputy prime minister not just as a sop to the unions, but in order to keep peace between the warring prime minister and his chancellor… a sort of honest broker. Ten years of backstabbing and plotting between the two made a mockery of that and proved even beyond Prezza’s giant abilities.
Ever resourceful, and looking for something meaningful to do, he came up with the idea of regional authorities. What an ineffectual and horrendously expensive exercise in futility that turned out to be. But not to be deterred, he pressed on.
His next idea was to knock down street upon street of houses right across the land which his office deemed not fit for human habitation. It later emerged that they could have been renovated for a fraction of the cost of replacements and kept vibrant communities from disintegrating. But Two Jags, as he will freely acknowledge himself, was never very good at sums in school.
He wanted more development, so his next ‘Big Idea’ was to allow rejected planning applications (often sent back for good reasons) to be sent to his office where his expert eye could peruse them and tell whether the planners had got it wrong. As a result, large numbers of outrageous appeals were sent back to the planners with instructions to allow the development. Prescott could never leave it – nor for that matter some of his office staff – alone. He could never accept that he was, in fact, a man of limited talents.
It adds to the gaiety of nations for every administration to have its own court jester, and ‘Prezza’ was happy to fulfil that role for New Labour – although he never fully understood how much they were all taking the you-know-what.his own side included.
His opposite number in the Tory Party is Boris Johnson. But there is one very big difference between the two of them: Boris is superbly educated. Plus he comes up with ideas like getting rid of London’s hated bendy buses and returning to the much-loved jump on/jump off version. Then there’s freezing of congestion charges and, best of all, the world-beating, environmentally friendly replacement for Heathrow: the Estuary Airport. Most of his ideas make a lot of sense and are in accord with the public opinion. I’m personally looking forward to Boris stepping forward as Master of Ceremony for the London Olympics. Quite what Johnny Foreigner will make of him I wouldn’t like to guess, but I think there’s a good chance that, like so many of us, they’ll love him. At the very least we can be sure that he’ll create a sensation of some sort.
But returning to the hoped-for revolution in policing: this is a once in a lifetime chance to get the system sorted. The last thing we need is for a plethora of failed has-beens to prove all over again how useless they are; it is desperately important that we have people of proven track record and of the highest calibre if we are to have any chance of success.
We have strayed so far from policing as we would like it to be, and in many respects the Force no longer commands the respect which should be its due. We spent well over a million pounds on a state of the art police station in my suburb of Plymouth just a few years ago and it’s not any longer open to the public. You can only visit by appointment. Many officers, sad to say, couldn’t even give chase to a baddie. With all their Inspector Gadget accessories and body-armour weighing them down – not to mention their Prescott-style waists which so many seem to be developing – it’s small wonder police chiefs recently dismissed a move to introduce compulsory annual fitness tests for serving officers.
A searching spotlight has been directed on to police in recent weeks as a result of the recent riots. It is true to say they are all that stands between us and anarchy, since we are not a militarised state with a large standing army. (We have always found work for the latter to do far from our shores.) But anarchy did, indeed, descend on us 4 weeks ago and for a while the nation trembled at the thought that it was running out of control. What disturbed it most was not the perception, funnily enough, that rioters were on the rampage, but that the police were powerless to stop them. Let us be clear about one thing: it was not lack of numbers which created the difficulty; at 143,000 officers the police are 50,000 greater in numbers than when they faced down the miners. What it all comes down to is how those numbers were deployed. I was shocked to learn the other day that the time of greatest police deployment was on a Monday morning and the time of least was on a Friday or Saturday night. What is going on? It seems to me that the police are working themselves into an office mindset whereby they see themselves as a basically 9am to 5pm operation with overtime paid for unsocial hours. I was even more shocked to learn that in one constabulary almost half of all officers make no arrests in a whole year. And other constabularies perform in similarly dismal fashion.
What the public craves above everything is a visible presence on the streets and it has begged for this for years. But Plod wishes not to plod any more. It’s highly unglamorous and a little demeaning. Much better a high speed chase, lights a flashing and siren screaming. Now that’s glamour! In between times there’s cruising the streets in their costly, often alloy-wheeled cars (preferably with a pretty young thing for company) and seeing not a lot as they pass. The public wishes to see the money which is extracted from it under duress spent responsibly. It does not regard two officers ‘patrolling’ safe areas while they chat away to each other not noticing much as money well spent.
We know that gang culture blights our larger cities, but what do the police do when the Prime Minister wants to engage the services of a proven gang buster from the States and put him in charge of the rudderless Met? They throw up their arms and say ‘we’re not having a foreigner coming over and telling us what to do’. They know a game changer when they see it; he would be jumping on their Spanish Practices and spoiling everything. Indeed, a few years ago a South African policeman came to work at one of the constabularies. He took his job seriously and his arrest rate was light years ahead of his colleagues. What happened? He was sidelined and virtually sent to Coventry. He left in disgust. We have 43 Constabularies in Britain and the crime clear up rate in some are, again, light years better than others. Were this to be the case in a company, the CEO would descend like the Furies on the laggards: heads would roll and things would change. Nothing less than a rout-and-branch shake-up of the police is required.
But it is certainly not all their own fault. They have been blown this way and that way by the armies of bleeding hearts, health & safety directives, race & equality demands, box-ticking requirements, political correctness and courts who make their bringing to trial efforts a joke by handing down laughably lenient sentences. Even their dropping of the term Force in favour of Police Service tells you how confused they are. They cannot any longer be seen to project an image of firmness. They are ‘At Your Service’, if you please! But there is one area of law enforcement in which the police do show genuine zeal. That is their pursuit of the motorist. A hugely disproportionate level of resources are devoted to motoring offenses. Is it, I wonder, because they are easy pickings? Like shooting pop-up ducks at a fairground. The British motorist is the perfect customer: he goes quietly, is not abusive, and best of all never violent. What is never recognised is that he is the most considerate driver in the entire world with a death rate which reflects this. My Baltic wife, when we married ten years ago and she came to live here, remarked how willingly people gave way on our roads and even gave a little return wave when they were thanked for their kindness. She said such gentlemanly behaviour would be unthinkable in her country. An elected head of each constabulary – answerable for his or her own performance, with real powers of hire and fire in the top echelons – would be a good start and could work wonders. And a Home Secretary who would stand up to the vested interests within the Force and say to them that the vacant post of head of the Met was open to all, foreigners included, would also help. What does it say of David Cameron that he meekly acquiesced in his Home Secretary’s refusal to look for the best wherever it could be found? I doubt that Mrs. Thatcher would have tolerated that sort of cheek from her Home Secretary, or even Gordon Brown for that matter.
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.