Red Meat for the Faragists

James Butler

Boris Johnson is on a law-and-order kick. Since coming to power, he has promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places, and restore blanket stop-and-search powers. It’s a headline-grabbing reversal of the cuts to police numbers made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and continued under May; it also does away with May’s reforms to stop-and-search, one of the few unalloyed goods to have come from her otherwise authoritarian Home Office, though already substantially reversed under Sajid Javid. Alongside his new home secretary, Priti Patel, who spent a significant part of her early career agitating for the return of the death penalty, Johnson promises a culture of fear for criminals.

The attitude is not new. Johnson has always favoured a harsh penal system: attacking Ken Clarke’s prison reforms in the Sun in 2011, he wrote that ‘soft is the perfect way to enjoy French cheese, but not how we should approach punishing criminals.’ It’s an issue on which he is close to the hanging and flogging Tory base; the new policy seems calculated to appeal to those drifting into the embrace of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. It also looks like an attempt to reconstruct the authoritarian alliance pioneered by Thatcher, whose invocation of truncheon and prison cell paid electoral dividends, as well as leading to the militarisation of public order policing, and ensuring the loyalty of the police in moments of intense civil and industrial conflict. Johnson’s policing push is one of many signs of groundwork for a possible election in which he needs to pull together his fractured base: red meat for the Faragists.

Like so much in contemporary British political life, the new push is untroubled by expertise; Johnson made sure to attack ‘left-wing criminologists’ in his Mail on Sunday article announcing the move. There is little evidence that blanket stop-and-search prevents knife crime – it’s on a level with #knifefree chicken boxes – and significant evidence that it poisons fragile relationships between police and communities: black people are already nine times more likely to be searched by police. As for longer prison sentences, there’s no evidence that they have a deterrent or rehabilitative effect, and those condemned to them have often already suffered the worst British society has to offer. The Prison Reform Trust reports that nearly a third of prisoners were abused as children, and more than half of women prisoners report having been victims of domestic violence; according to Inquest, last year saw the equivalent of nearly a death per day in prisons, 92 of them suicides.

Hannah Arendt once wrote that the police dream in a totalitarian state is that ‘one look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy’; post-Snowden, after revelations about police retention of data and DNA evidence, undercover spying on protest movements, and the staggering latitude of anti-terrorism powers, it is clearly the dream in liberal democracies as well. Successive Met commissioners have hymned the virtues of technological policing, automated recognition and surveillance; a government susceptible to computerised pipe dreams – as in their proposals for the Irish border – will find these congenial solutions for policing, too.

Labour’s response to Johnson’s penal push has been weak: Louise Haigh, the shadow policing minister, challenged Johnson on the consequences of austerity but also suggested that his expansion of search powers didn’t go far enough. There is a longstanding instinctual cringe in the party at the thought of being weak on crime: New Labour substantially accepted the Thatcherite position, and introduced its own raft of discretionary powers and sanctions under a succession of authoritarian home secretaries. Fearful of Tory attack, the party is still reduced to mimicking true blue policies, softened with appeals to collective belonging and equality: phrases such as ‘our communities’ and ‘for all of us’ litter the policing section of the 2017 manifesto.

One of the deficiencies of Corbynism has been the way it thinks about the state; riding the back of an anti-austerity wave, it has tended to treat all questions of state services, including the police, as a matter of funding. The limbs of the state atrophy under a Tory tourniquet, so the role of a Labour government is to loosen the knot, restore the flow of money, and return the body politic to health. The problem is that this ignores any consideration of what the limb in question does, what its hand grasps or lets go: what is considered a crime, what public good is served by policing, how it acts to reduce crime. It is a commonplace in post-conflict societies that policing has a profound effect on the unity and character of the state, and public trust in it; the same is true here, and the circuit of political feedback between policing and the state ought to make it a target for a Labour Party set on democratic renewal.

Questions of human rights, judicial power and the state have rarely been the dominant strain in British gas-and-water socialism, but materials for a new social democratic approach to policing certainly exist: one would be a deep and warranted scepticism about the penal system as the basis of social order; another, which Patrick Colquhoun and Adam Smith understood in the 18th century, the idea that most solutions to crime can be supplied by political economy. A conversation about policing cannot be limited to crime, but must also consider social peace and security – the guarantee of the fundamentals of a good life. The obvious analogy is with securing good health as well as curing the advanced symptoms of illness.

‘We are not letting the public in on our era’s dirty little secret,’ Robert di Grazia wrote in 1976,

that those who commit the crime which worries citizens most – violent street crime – are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, rotten education, drug addiction and alcoholism, and other social and economic ills about which the police can do little, if anything. Rather than speaking up, most of us stand silent and let politicians get away with law and order rhetoric that reinforces the mistaken notion that the police – in ever greater numbers and with ever more gadgetry – can alone control crime.

Di Grazia wasn’t one of Johnson’s loathed lefty academics, but the Boston police commissioner.