Sir Ian Blair is no political philosopher: the myth of politicised policing.

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There is a pernicious myth being propagated at the Leveson inquiry. The myth is that the police have only recently become politicised.  The truth is that the police have always been politicised to some extent. Sir Ian Blair attended the Oxford Policing Policy Policing Forum (Politics and the Police (June 2009)) where this point was discussed and developed at length.  The forum discussion heard evidence that UK policing has been political and politicized with a key period being the early 1970s. Thus, one finds it hard to square Sir Ian Blair’s testimony to the Leveson inquiry with the facts presented at the forum he attended.  Yet, he is not alone. A recent BBC report reaffirmed the myth by saying that police are never political and this is their historical position.


Politicised policing is a two way street.

We must remember that the political relationship goes both ways. There is a political relationship between the police and the politicians.  In the United States, like in the United Kingdom, they seem to be separate or independent.  As a result, only crises or political events show that underlying relationship. The Leveson inquiry is such a crisis. It is revealing the distasteful side of a political relationship that is both unaccountable and unhealthy. To believe that policing is not political or politicized accepts a hypocrisy that excuses the lack of democratic political control.  At the same time, it reinforces the hidden, rather than a public, political relationship.  For more on this see an excellent article by Margaret Beare The history and the future of the politics of policing  See also the work by Reiner on policing and politics.


To claim that police are being politicized is also a subtle political strategy to resist democratic accountability.  The effort to create democratic accountability will be considered to politicise the police.  Yet, one has to be concerned that the police lack a democratic mandate in the United Kingdom. When a key constitutional institution within the United Kingdom political regime lacks that accountability, there can be problems. The danger is that such organisations may be scrutinised but never held to account. One can see this in the outcome of the 7/7 attacks where there were a series of failings highlighted but no one was to blame or held to account, at least not publicly.

We can see politicized policing in the furore over knife crime.  In response to public outcry and political pressure, the policing priorities were changed.  We can see politicized policing in how policing priorities are determined such as the resources devoted to certain type of crimes.  We can see politicised policing in the vigour or placidity of investigations around issues like pro-hunt or anti-hunt groups.  In all case, the police do and will react to political priorities.

What does that mean?

Implicitly the police leadership know that they are political. They understand that they depend on the politicians and the state. They are funded by public money and have to work politically.  What is in question is the type of political control.  In the earlier system, the political control was by a small élite, thus an indirect political control. In many ways, this reflected that the police began as an instrument of the political élite to maintain order rather than reflect the public interest.  Thus, the concern about the democratic political control reflects a deep-seated fear or concern about the public. This is an implicit argument to resist democratic control. The vociferous opposition to elected police commissioners reflects a resistance to accountability and political control.

The contrast with the United States could not be greater in this area. In the United States, the police do not have the same history they have in the United Kingdom.  Instead, they are seen as part of law enforcement and the law, in the United States, has been democratically made.  In the United Kingdom, by contrast, the laws are from the Crown and from Her Majesty’s government.  Beyond the immediate constitutional difference between a constitutional republic and a parliamentary monarchy, we can see operational differences in the approach to crime control. In their chapter Comparative Criminal Justice Deflem and Swygart reflect on McKenzie’s review of the difference between the UK and the US. In the United States, with a stronger rights based political framework, the emphasis is on due process and the rights of the defendant. In the United Kingdom, the focus was on using criminal justice to punish criminals. This does not mean the working decisions are politicised or that the tactics are political. Instead, it is an explicit understand and acceptance that the policing in democratic.  The police may be part of the state but they show the will of the people.  As a result, in the United States, the police chief understands that they have to have a good relationship with the mayor and the politicians.

What happens if the myth is believed?

Finally, the myth that policing is being politicised creates a political problem.  The myth weakens the politicians’ ability to exercise control. In the reciprocal relationship with the police, the politicians have had a weaker hand. What Tony Blair did was to make the political relationship explicit.  When it is implicit, the police have an institutional advantage. When the relationship is explicit and political, the politicians have the advantage. In this way, Cameron’s policing reforms, which continue the New Labour idea, reflects a further strengthening of the politicians over the police.

In the end, the police are facing greater political control.  As such, Sir Ian Blair’s statements are just a political strategy. The myth must be resisted for democratic accountability to succeed.  The choice is not between politicized and non-politicized police. The choice is between a police force accountable to the public or indirectly accountable to a few.  The time has come for the political control to be democratically accountable.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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