The battlebuses have pulled out of their depots, the pledge cards
are freshly laminated, and various overpaid journalists are secretly
looking forward to their first ride in a helicopter. But amid the
pre-election chatter one significant development appears to have
been missed: the launch of a new political party.
This party has large organisations in all major cities, though as
so often these days few of the members are willing actually to pound
the streets. It has a big fleet of brightly painted vehicles and all
the usual marketing men’s catchphrases. Uniquely, however, this
party asks questions of the voters, rather than vice versa. Indeed,
if it is dissatisfied with the answers, it can lock us up. It is, of
course, the Police Party, whose leaders are now in long-term
strategic coalition with New Labour.
Traditionally, the role of the constabulary was to police the
laws that MPs, ministers and judges drew up, not openly proselytise
for new legislation themselves. But fighting crime can be jolly
tricky, and politics is so much more fun. The difficulties are
summed up in the official slogan of the Metropolitan Police. This
really ought to be something simple, like ‘Cutting crime’, ‘Catching
criminals’ or, possibly, ‘You’re nicked’. The Met is cutting some
non-violent crime. But sadly, with a clear-up rate of less than 20
per cent, it has traditionally been rather bad at most other things,
so it’s had to settle for the vaguer, but more achievable and
certainly more politically sound, ‘Working together for a safer
The police have, of course, been accused of acting as political
tools in the past, especially in breaking strikes. But they were at
least the tools of democratically elected politicians. In recent
times we have witnessed unprecedented and unashamed attempts by
senior police officers to enter the political arena in their own
right. Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of North Wales, told the
Wales on Sunday newspaper last month, ‘My job is to lead public
opinion as much as to follow it.’ He simply could not be more wrong.
In the last few weeks, a time in the electoral cycle when
old-style police chiefs would have been deeply wary of political
controversy, leading members of the Police Party have been actively
campaigning on behalf of the government. When Tony Blair claimed
that there were ‘several hundred’ active al-Qa’eda terrorists in
Britain, the security services briefed the newspapers that the
actual number was no more than 30, condemning Mr Blair’s claims as
‘irresponsible and likely to scare people unnecessarily’.
It looked horribly like another dossier moment for the Prime
Minister, but then Sir John Stevens, the recently retired
commissioner of the Met, came to the rescue. Writing in that
respected journal of criminology the News of the World, Sir John
painted an even more lurid picture of 200 ‘Osama bin Laden-trained
terrorists ...walking Britain’s streets’ who would ‘commit
devastating terrorist acts against us if they could’. It was, he
said, ‘vital’ that highly controversial legislation to imprison
suspected terrorists without charge or trial, opposed even by many
members of the Labour party, was ‘enacted as soon as possible’.
Sir John’s successor in London, Sir Ian Blair, also warned —
after the Lords rejected the Bill — of a ‘grave threat to national
security’ if it were not passed, and backed his namesake’s ‘several
hundred’ figure, though more cautiously. The ‘hundreds’ turned out
not to be active terrorists at all, but people who have passed
through Afghanistan’s training camps and not done anything since:
perhaps not quite so grave a threat as all that, then.
And then, only last week, Mr Brunstrom went on TV to spoil the
launch of the Tories’ crime policy, condemning an ‘improper’ and
‘misleading’ Tory election advertisement, published in a local
newspaper, which claimed that violent crime in his force area had
risen by 127 per cent since 1999. ‘It is a well-established fact
that crime has been falling for years, both locally and nationally,’
he said. This statement was quoted approvingly by Tony Blair at his
last Prime Minister’s Questions.
The truth, alas, appears to be more complicated than either of
these claims. The Tories were guilty of exaggeration — the basis
on which the figures were compiled changed in 2002, increasing the
total overnight and making comparisons difficult. But Mr Brunstrom’s
response was misleading, too. Even allowing for the adjustment,
violent crime — the subject of the ad — has increased, both in North
Wales and nationally, since 1999, according to the police’s own
figures. Overall crime — the ground Mr Brunstrom chose for his response
— has, however, fallen. The chief constable was employing a classic
New Labour tactic: furiously denying a charge which has not actually
We expect, and discount, simplistic claims from politicians fighting
an election campaign, though not, perhaps, from policemen. But then
Mr Brunstrom, as a leading member of the Police Party, is so much
more than a mere police officer these days. With his criminal investigation
of Anne Robinson for insulting the Welsh, his Eminem-style rap performance
at the launch of a black police association and his threat to DNA-test
members of his own police authority to find out who leaked information
to a journalist, this particular chief constable is clearly upholding
the finest traditions of New Labour.
There is, naturally, a large element of age-old self-interest in
the behaviour of Mr Brunstrom, Sir Ian and other members of the
Party. Any policeman, of any political persuasion and under any
government, would want to defend his force. Any policeman would
want to talk up the terrorist threat, because that way you get bigger
budgets and greater powers and you can never be accused of complacency.
As for house arrest, any policeman would seize on Charles Clarke’s
kind offer to lock up the alleged offenders of their choice without
the need for anything so tiresome as evidence. It is the criminal
justice equivalent of one of those newspaper promotions offering
to fly your entire family to Barcelona for £5.
Yet, for all this, the special relationship between the police
and New Labour is real, and is rooted in deep philosophical similarities.
Both are instinctively bossy and bureaucratic. Both want to make
us better people, whether we like it or not. Both are touchingly
vain and obsessed with the media. The police symbolise how New Labour
has succeeded in at least partly co-opting what were at least partly
independent organs of state.
And, just as with the government as a whole, there is a slight
sense that the police, though not unsuccessful, somehow don’t quite
connect with the concerns of ordinary citizens, and don’t quite
appreciate how unloved they are becoming.
Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator,
and is on the staff of the London Evening Standard.