Melanie Phillips

18 November 2005

Oh do shut up, Sir Ian

Published in: Daily Mail

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What kind of police service do we want? asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair at the beginning of his Dimbleby Lecture. By the time he sat down, however, we were none the wiser about what Sir Ian, Britain's most senior policeman, himself thought was the answer to his question.

Indeed, the underlying message of his peculiarly self-serving address seemed to be: 'Help, I haven't got a clue what the police are supposed to be doing, and if anyone out there has got any bright ideas then for Pete's sake will they please tell me!'

Instead, he treated us to wide variety of views about other things. His lecture seemed to be the thoughts of a putative politician, delivering observations about the state of society.

Such opinions were not necessarily wrong. But what was the point of voicing them, except to moan that society was now very complicated and that the pressures on the police were too difficult for them to cope with?

The reaction of many people might well be: 'For Heaven's sake, Commissioner, just dry up and get on with it! We expect bobbies on the beat, not such self-serving vacuities.' For without wishing to be rude, that is surely what they were.

By bemoaning the absence of debate over the use of lethal force, he appeared to be excusing himself in advance of the inquiry into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station after police mistook him for a suicide bomber.

Even more startling was his unwitting display of personal vanity, when he said that he had been asked to deliver the lecture partly because the producer wanted to know 'why someone like you would want to be a police officer' -an anecdote whose sole point seemed to be to suggest that Sir Ian was too intellectual to be in the police.

This totally undercut his previous complaint that middle-class people didn't join the police because they snobbishly looked down on them. It appears to be Sir Ian (MA, Oxon) who is sensitive about the uniform he wears.

The irony is that one of the problems with the police is that - on the contrary - it is positively stuffed with graduates whose heads are filled with ideological abstractions but who lack the years of solid hands-on experience that are essential for policing.

Pressure to rise through the ranks too fast has produced senior officers without a clue and streets left unprotected because the key element of policing, officers who know their patch like the back of their hand, is absent.

The resulting incompetence has produced debacles such as the abortive or flawed investigations into the Stephen Lawrence or Damilola Taylor murders, or the Windsor Castle break-in.

Sir Ian says the public 'don't know who we are'. Too right - we might not see a police officer on the streets from one month to the next.

He laments the fact that no-one has ever thought about what the police are here to do. But this isn't so. The purpose of policing - as Sir Ian himself said -is to prevent crime and maintain public tranquillity. The only reason this is not discussed was that it has remained a bedrock of our society and a source of general satisfaction and even pride.

There is no mystery about what people now want from the police. They want those same principles actually to be enforced - above all, for the police to prioritise the restoration of that public tranquillity which has so catastrophically collapsed.

True, a debate is necessary about whether we have adequate legal structures to deal with the terrorist threat. But why does Sir Ian seem to think this means the police will have to change their relationship with the public? What has terrorism got to do with the fact that simple yobbery rages unchecked on our poorest estates?

The basic principles of policing are not out of date. All that has changed is the failure of the police to deliver them.

The reasons for that lie in a deadly fusion of developments over the past thirty years or so. The first was the police corruption and miscarriage of justice cases in the seventies and eighties which knocked the stuffing out of the police and caused the political and legal establishment to tie them up in knots in a massive bureaucracy.

The second was the way the police succumbed to the business-school managerialism which swept government from the mid-1990s. This required the public services to be judged by the delivery of quantifiable results.

At a stroke the purpose of policing was disastrously redefined from preventing crime to catching criminals - that is, producing quantifiable results. Instead of stopping crime, the police were now merely reacting to it.

Worse still, this led to collusion with government. Under the cosh of government targets, the police had to show results. So they concentrated on offences such as speeding which would produce the maximum results for the minimum effort.

As a result, police officers became increasingly politicised. They became paralysed by fear of giving offence to minorities, and adopted New Labour shibboleths such as a preoccupation with hate crime, domestic violence against women or gay rights. Instead of standing up to successive governments and telling them to get their tanks off their lawn, senior officers meekly did their bidding and too often turned themselves into New Labour mouthpieces.

Sir Ian himself has previously shown himself to be distressingly eager to espouse policy initiatives which just happen to be on the New Labour agenda, even - most improperly - during the last general election campaign.

Now there are calls for police forces to be controlled by locally elected boards, to deliver them from the clutches of central government and force them instead to deliver policing which meets the concerns of local people.

The problem with this, however, is that local control is likely to morph into political control. The fact that it would be at local level would not prevent local vested interests from trying to tell the police what to do.

The crisis in policing will not be resolved by anyone telling the police what to do except the police themselves. New York's legendary turnaround from disorder to tranquillity was not achieved principally by a visionary mayor. It was achieved principally by a visionary police commissioner, who was backed to the hilt by the mayor because he was an eminently competent, sensible and tough-minded police officer.

The police need to restore their professionalism and their faith in themselves. They need to get onto the streets and stay there. They need to know every single thing that moves on their patch. They need to focus on prevention and make a bonfire of government targets.

Of course this is not easy because, from the top, government is pulling them in different directions. The solution lies in effective leadership at the top of the police service which will reassert the basics of British policing, reimpose the rule of law on our streets and, wherever government impedes that process, face it down. The free and frank exchange of views Sir Ian needs to have is not with the public but with the Home Office.

What do the public want? asks Sir Ian. What they want is an end to such public handwringing and bobbies put back on the beat. A period of silence from this particular officer would now be welcome.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie