Monday, 6 October 2008

Blair, Boris, politics and the police

By Dr Bill Dixon

The resignation of Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police (and ‘Britain’s top cop’) following a meeting with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has led to bitter recriminations about ‘playing politics with the police’, and to unprecedented levels of interest in the constitutional position of the police.

As Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), Mr Johnson has been accused of overstepping the constitutional mark by forcing Sir Ian out of office. Worse still he’s been condemned for politicizing policing in London at a time when the capital is plagued by knife crime and faces a continuing terrorist threat. Meanwhile, Sir Ian himself has been blamed for contributing to his own downfall, amongst other things by lobbying too enthusiastically in favour of key New Labour policies. Stuck in the middle of this firestorm is Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who will eventually have to appoint Blair’s successor.

Although Commissioners don’t resign every day – the last Commissioner to fall on his sword was Sir Edward Henry in 1918 – control over policing in London, has been fiercely contested by national and local politicians, and successive Commissioners, since the Metropolitan Police was established way back in 1829.

In the early days, the Home Secretary had the whip hand and one of Jacqui Smith’s predecessors, Lord Melbourne, even went so far as to give detailed instructions on how the police were to handle a demonstration at Cold Bath Fields in Clerkenwell in 1833. As it turned out, the operation was a disaster and ended with a running fight between police and demonstrators in the course of which an officer was stabbed and killed. Half a century later, in 1888, local politicians called on the government to transfer the management of the city’s police to the newly elected London County Council.

The high point of what became known as the ‘doctrine of constabulary independence’, and the heyday of the Met’s chief officer as the master of all he surveyed, came 40 years ago when one of the most famous judges of the 20th century, Lord Denning, ruled that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was ‘answerable to law and to the law alone’. The responsibility for enforcing the law in Britain’s capital city, he went on, was the Commissioner’s, and no mere ‘Minister of the Crown’ or ‘police authority’ could tell him how he should discharge it.

Then, 15 years later, the soon to be abolished Greater London Council (GLC) published a consultation paper calling for the Metropolitan Police to be brought under democratic control. Under the GLC’s proposals an elected police authority for London would be given a statutory duty to enforce the law and have ‘ultimate control of all decisions relating to deployment and policing methods’. The Leader of the GLC at the time was none other than Ken Livingstone, the recently unseated Mayor of London and one of the sternest critics of his successor Boris Johnson’s ousting of Sir Ian Blair.

The politicization of policing in London and the desire of locally elected politicians – be they mayors or councillors – is nothing new. In attempting to exert a measure of control over policing in London by toppling Sir Ian, despite the continued - if lukewarm and ultimately ineffectual - support of the Home Secretary, Boris Johnson has only succeeded in doing what generations of local politicians have tried but failed to do. Whether you prefer the politician or the policeman, Boris or Blair, is beside the point. Policing is too important to be left to the police. It is also, as Robert Reiner has reminded us, ineluctably political. If the sad end of Sir Ian Blair means that policing in London has become politicized again, and given locally elected representatives some influence over the strategic direction of their city’s police force, his resignation will not have been entirely in vain, and Johnson’s part in it not quite as reprehensible as Livingstone and others would have us believe.

Reference Robert Reiner (2000) The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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