With the creation of new Police and Crime Commissioners last year, along with recent inaugural elections, the British government’s attempt to politicise the post of the Chief of Police appears to have come at a wrong time.
The PCC Elections are emblematic of the Coalition’s attempt to push power and democracy downwards and outwards. But will democratising the police refresh the flabby institution, making it more accountable and responsive to the community it serves, or will it turn the police into a political football, having a corrosive effect on the quality of the service?
Defenders of PCCs say that policing is already a political issue. How could it not be? If politics is about how we best live together, the importance of both individual and collective security will form a central part of public discourse. Political parties have disagreed about policing ever since Robert Peel established the world’s first professionalised force in 1829. The function of the new PCCs, the government argues, is not to ‘politicise policing’ as their Labour critic claim, but to push the politics down from a national to municipal level.
And if this exercise in decentralising one function of Britain’s leviathanic state can be shown to work, it may prove to be simply a harbinger of further devolution from London to the localities.
Why Westminster Rules
Among the club of liberal democratic states Britain remains its most centralised member. The legacy bequeathed by earlier generations was born of noble intentions. During the Second World War the country unified – and centralised – to kill Germans. So why couldn’t it do the same to lift people out of poverty and squalor? These pressures, manifested in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory, led to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state – its proudest achievement: the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health who pioneered the NHS, famously ordered that should a bedpan pall in some provincial hospital ward, its echo would reverberate around Whitehall. The Atlee government believed first in social justice, but they were quintessential centralisers, asserting not just the primacy of public over private but of national over local. Both features would become central to British national life.
The Thatcher government challenged the first of these with its programme of liberalisation and denationalisation. It left the second untouched however, leaving swathes of the public sector unreformed, inefficient and out of date. The Labour government of Tony Blair began to force change through the public sector, introducing market incentives into healthcare and freeing schools from the deadpan hand of the education authorities. It bowed to nationalist sentiment and devolved power from Parliament to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed, to Greater London, now the fiefdom of Boris Johnson. For the first time the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the haughty principle that what is decreed in Westminster shall be – was formally repudiated. But as the conflict in Iraq escalated, Blair’s authority evaporated and his reforming allies were marginalised. The ascendancy of Gordon Brown to the Premiership in 2007 ended further attempts at reform, a victory for the vested interests in the public sector that had supported Brown’s rise.
Giving people a say
Whilst David Cameron’s government has been less than successful in reviving Britain’s fledgling economy, it has breathed new life into the public sector. Of special noteworthiness, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made thousands of state schools ‘independent’ within the public sector, giving them powers to emulate their outstanding rivals in the private sector. More radically he has permitted local parent groups to set up hundreds of ‘free schools’, allowed to teach to their own curriculum. Projects like Toby Young’s ‘West London Free School’ in Ealing, which emphasises a ‘classical curriculum’, promise to shake-up the British class system in a way not attempted since the advent of comprehensive (non-selective) education five decades ago, ironically pioneered by Toby’s father, the late Lord Young.
‘Giving people a say’ is the mantra of this government. And in education at least they have been faithful in executing it. But what happens when the people don’t really fancy a ‘say’ in how their services are run?
The government intended the PCC elections to capture the interest of local people, and to attract candidates prominent in their local area. That plainly hasn’t happened. Few serious and successful local figures have been willing to take the plunge into what remains an ill-defined role, the powers of which are wholly ambiguous. Moreover the public has been largely unwilling to invest time into learning about the non-party candidates. The information conferred by a ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’ or ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate has therefore been all that the public are willing or able to take in, strongly prejudicing their choice against candidates they might otherwise warm to.
More politics = better politics?
The tension, ultimately, is between the general public's two conflicting instincts: (1) for a greater say in how they are governed and (2) an unprecedented loathing of the political class. The second of these feelings is currently the strongest. In light of the scandal over British MP’s expenses claims, as well as crises in journalism and finance, the whole British Establishment has been thrown into disrepute.
This cynicism has already undermined for a generation attempts to empower urban towns and cities. In May eleven of England’s largest cities were granted referenda on whether they wanted directly-elected mayors. With the exception of Bristol and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, they refused. So it is unsurprising that turnout in the PCC elections was next to abysmal: 18% nationally with many of those spoiling their ballots. The message, it seems, is unambiguous: the public simply does not want more politicians.
That is why Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who has spent the autumn in Britain, has provoked derision at his call for more politics, not less. Despite its scepticism the public should listen to his argument. Sandel describes healthy societies as those in which people of different incomes and cultures rub along together, in which they share a similar understanding of what their welfare consists in. In Britain communities are divided between regions as well as within them. It means that a banker living in Chelsea, West London, has more in common with, say, a landlord in Edinburgh – not to mention his kinship with another banker in Hong Kong – than he does with his near-neighbour. This is no way to cultivate a sense of place and local identity. Yet far from encouraging that, the British state as constituted governs its citizens in such a way that alienates groups from one another.
If the effect of Police and Crime Commissioners is merely to add a new layer to the political class then another nail in the coffin of localism will have been struck. If, on the other hand, people see policing as a means to put right what is wrong in the community, then the PCCs could, in time, become a vital catalyst in rebuilding what has been lost since 1945: an identification with, and pride in, local bodies. Ultimately, the dubious mandate of the newly-elected PCCs will be forgotten if they make a success of it. It only takes a small number of charismatic, reforming characters to imbue the role with the significance it surely merits. When a previous Labour government introduced a mayoralty to London in 2000, it took a couple of election cycles and two sparring candidates – Ken and Boris – to embed the mayoralty firmly in the public consciousness. The government could not have picked a worst time to expand the political class, but having done so the public will eventually come to thank them for it.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.