Was UK policing a victim of malevolence and spite?
In the introductory chapter to my book Tango Juliet Foxtrot I argued that;
“Through a combination of arrogance, incompetence and reckless indifference, a small number of politicians and their advisors have created a public safety crisis in the UK.”
However, in the pre-edit draft of the book my original assessment was that;
“Through a combination of arrogance, malevolence and fuckwittery, a small number of politicians and their advisors have created a public safety crisis in the UK.”
I discussed this sentence backwards and forwards with James, the editor, who took the view that ‘if the hat fits,’ then those are the best words. I ultimately decided that I probably needed to soften that message. However, I have always slightly regretted that decision. Why? Because there has been something about the way that British policing has been treated that has the hallmark of malevolence and spite, and there has simultaneously been a level of political incompetence that can only properly be described as ‘fuckwittery’.
I think the ‘fuckwittery’ charge is obvious. The evidence is so overwhelming that I’m not going to spend any more time setting out that argument. The evidence is in my book.
The purpose of this blog however is to set out the evidence for ‘malevolence’ in the way that policing has been treated.
A blast from the past
I was clearing out some household clutter the other day, and I stumbled on an old scrap book containing cuttings that I had kept from many years before. I found a couple of letters that I had written to the media way back in 1992, when I was very young in service and probably quite naive. I had clearly been very pissed off at the way that policing was being unfairly misrepresented by journalists, in much the same way that it has been unfairly represented and demonised in the last few years.
The first letter was written to the London Evening Standard. This was when it was a proper newspaper, not something George Osbourne gave away for free at Tube stations to help you dry out your wellington boots when you got home.
Here is the article and my letter.
My next missive was to the Home Affairs correspondent of the Sunday Times, who had written a scathing article attacking the police service, portraying them all as ‘lazy, incompetent and rude’.
Here is the article. (N.B It mentions a Coventry riot in a place called Wyken. Weirdly, like some sort of policing Forrest Gump, with a cameo role in many significant policing events, I became the sergeant in charge of Wyken ten years later when I transferred from the Met!)
Here was my response, together with letter of thanks from the much loved Met Commissioner, Sir Peter Imbert.
A emerging theme....
So….a theme was starting to emerge!
The interesting thing here is that this toxic narrative towards policing was taking place in 1992, the same year that the Tory government were trying to attack police terms and conditions of employment. The Home Secretary, Ken Clarke had appointed Sir Patrick Sheehy, Chairman of British American Tobacco, to come in and do something of a hatchet job on the police. I was seen as a ‘bright young thing’ in those days, and I was selected to take part in one of a number of focus groups with Sir Patrick Sheehy. It was crystal clear that he had no interest whatsoever in anything we had to say, and this was simply a box-ticking, sham ‘consultation’.
Back in those days, unlike more recent times, the police service spoke with one voice and everyone from Chief Constable down to the lowliest uniform PC with two weeks in the job totally rejected what Ken Clarke wanted to do. The service argued that ‘We do an incredibly difficult, dangerous and frequently distasteful job that no-one else would want to do. We have no union and no ability to take industrial action, so if you do this there will be serious consequences.’ The plans were therefore quietly abandoned when Michael Howard took over from Ken Clarke in 1993.
One of the key architects of those 1992/93 reforms was future Prime Minister, David Cameron, who at that time was employed as an advisor at the Home Office. Many in policing (with longer memories) actually lay the blame for the demise of British policing at Cameron's feet. Theresa May enthusiastically wielded the axe, but they say that it was Cameron who gave it to her.
Here is the letter that I received from Michael Prescott, the author of the Sunday Times article. It’s tricky to read, so below the picture I have re-written it. There is something rather quaint about this entire exchange that speaks of a time long past. I wrote a letter to a newspaper and had another hand-written letter sent back to me.
Dear Iain Donnelly,
Thank you for taking the trouble to write. Your letter was passed to me yesterday.
I certainly hope that my article has not had the effect you suggest- of destroying police morale. I attempted to summarise the many questions being asked about policing at the moment, by people inside and outside the profession. The accusations levelled against the police, and the way the police are managed, came not from me, but from the people I quoted. Indeed, I find one of the most remarkable facts about public life at the moment to be the way which very senior conservatives have ceased to have a high regard for the police service, and regard it to some extent as a problem area that needs “sorting out”. Indeed, this is what lies behind the review of police pay, ranks and organisation announced by Ken Clarke just days after I wrote.
I hope that my article primed all those who read it, including police officers such as yourself, to expect the kind of manoeuvre pulled off by Clarke on Wednesday. And I also hope that despite your hostility towards that what I wrote, that it hasn't put you off continuing to read our newspaper.
Thanks once again for writing; I do read the letters which you and other readers send in, and tried to respond to the points raised.
Fast forward to 11th May 2010. David “Call me Dave” Cameron becomes Prime Minister. A mere six weeks later, on the 29th of June 2010, Theresa May, his new Home Secretary, addressed the Association of Police Authorities National Conference in Manchester and announced the governments intention to carry out a complete review of police pay and conditions in addition to making significant budgetary cuts. No other public sector organisation or any other part of the emergency services faced a similar double whammy.
It's worth pointing out there that Cameron had had a bee in his bonnet about 'reforming' the police during his opposition years, like a constant annoying itch that he continually needed to scratch. In January 2006 he gave a speech where he stated that the Tories would be;
"Tough on crime; tough on police reform. Unless we have the courage and the determination to pursue radical police reform, we will never build the safer communities we all want to see"
So in 2010, it was payback time for David Cameron, and the rest is history. Since then we've seen the decimation of British policing, a collapse of Neighbourhood Policing, a 35% increase in murders, an epidemic of youth knife crime, dozens of dead kids and the closure of 50% of the police stations in England and Wales.
Well done Dave. Not quite the safer communities that you had in mind I suspect?
I don’t agree with a lot of what Jeremy Paxman says, but I think his assessment of David Cameron as Prime Minister on Room 101 was absolutely spot on.
So, was UK policing a victim of one man's malevolence and spite? I don't know. Probably better if you decide.
However, my advice to the next generation of police officers joining the service is this.
The Tory party are not your friends.