Striking miners attacked by police at Orgreave, South Yorkshire. June, 1984.
Don’t fret. I haven’t made some careless proof-reading error in the title of this piece. It’s a direct lift from the inspiring, heart-breaking speech Tom Joad makes to his mother near the end of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. As he sets off on the run (if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it), Tom, fired up by the injustices he has seen at the hands of bankers, landowners, strike-breakers and the police, vows that ‘whenever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there’. I’ve found it one of the most useful lines in literature.
I’ll explain. If I happen to turn on the TV and see riot police charging at a crowd anywhere in the world, I immediately know whose side I’m on. I might not fully understand the demands of the protestors or the background to the dispute, but I am as certain as I can be that when the state uses its police force – the body ostensibly established to protect its citizens – against its own people, I don’t agonise about where my affiliations lie. I think I may be able to feel some of your discomfort snaking its way to me through cyberspace.
So, just to be clear, I believe in law, order and justice. I have had occasion to meet individual police officers and have often found them courteous and diligent. There have been times in my personal and professional life when I have found the presence of police officers helpful and reassuring. I broadly subscribe to the notion of policing by consent and fully understand the need to protect society from individuals and organisations who are threatening and violent. If that was what policing was about, then I’d be unable to make any sense of Tom’s words.
To explain my antipathy, I turn to the relatively recent social history of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. As depicted both sympathetically and accurately in the film Pride, the strike brought together very different sets of people. The support groups set up in towns and cities produced meetings – and lifelong friendships – between the most twee of metropolitan socialists and miners and their families from small, quiet pit villages where traditional, even conservative, social attitudes prevailed. It was my privilege to meet hundreds of such people. At the start of the strike, conversations about the police, particularly in their dealings with young black people, could be lively.
The attitude of most miners was clear. First, the kid must have done something to arouse a copper’s interest and, second, if that resulted in a knock round the head in the back of the van, that kid probably had it coming to him. Within weeks of the start of the strike, by when they had been stopped from travelling outside their own area; when they had been woken by the thrumming of riot shields outside their local corner shop; when coppers shipped in from the cities waved tenners at them as they departed on coaches; when mounted police charged, batons raised, down the street where their kids went to school, no-one needed any lectures about the role and nature of the police.
When organised dissent and opposition raises its head, it is to the police that the state turns to protect its interests. We are protecting the citizenry, the Leader intones. We will be tough, tough, tough on wrongdoers – no, not those wrongdoers whose clever accountants stop them coughing up tax or paying starvation wages. Those wrongdoers – you know, those whose life-chances we limited from the get-go and whose services and support we have systematically and rapidly destroyed while using their taxes to prop up our kind of people.
The Tories quiver at this kind of stuff. Even after his predecessor had made alive the back-bencher wet-dream of robocops on the streets of Britain, Prime Minister John Major talked of condemning a little more and understanding a little less. The present incumbent couldn’t wait to play with some rusty water cannons and we now have a Home Secretary who notwithstanding ocular proof of her stumbling attempts to advocate the death penalty says that she was ‘taken out of context’. Oh, please.
So it is that the new Prime Minister, prodded along by his snarky mastermind, Dominic Cummings – yes, that’s the one…..unelected, currently in contempt of parliament – has taken the temperature of the nation and, unsurprisingly, found it fractious, nervous and uncertain. What better way to calm this restless child than by giving reassurances about more police, more prisons, tougher sentences? Never mind that all reliable statistics show a decrease in crime. Never mind that the evidence and research out there demonstrate that such measures are almost entirely ineffective in addressing the root causes of crime. As the object of his on-off bromance, Michael Gove, enjoyed telling us, we think the country has had quite enough of expert opinion, thank you. We’ll stick with lowest common denominator of gut instinct; so much better as a way of addressing multi-faceted, far-reaching social and economic problems.
We seem to be hurtling toward a general election, although anyone who predicts anything that may happen politically in this country needs to have a word with her/himself. But if it is the case, Johnson and his sort are clearly attempting to lay the ground on which it will be fought. Law and order has traditionally been a Tory strength and, of course, under that lily-livered, vegetarian, bike-rider, Labour will have nothing to say on the matter.
Which is not true. Labour has to be there for decent people juggling two or three jobs and a Kafkaesque benefit system to put food on the table. It has to come clean and shout out loud that it will build council houses, not hide behind the weasel ‘affordable’ word. It has to champion fully-funded, subsidised, green public transport and the jobs that this will create. And when it comes to crime, law and order, there is only one story to tell. In a just and fair society, crime falls.
When Johnson and his blustering bullies come flummering along with their promises of sharp justice, it’ll be the job of all of us to point out that victim-blaming is the last resort of the desperate and the poorly-informed. We’ll need to tell them that building more prisons – staffed by whom, exactly? paid for with what? – means building more universities of crime where drug-running (currently decreasing in cities but flourishing in deprived provinces) goes unchallenged. And those 20,000 ‘new’ coppers? That’d be to replace the 20,000 you’ve lost over the last six years, then?
Like Tom Joad, I remain suspicious of the role of the police. But not half as suspicious as of the charlatans who are trying to blindside us by trying to make it the issue of the day.