by Nick Wright
I watched Andrew Mitchell when he was a councillor in Haringey in the mid 80s. I was working as head of the council’s Police Research Unit before and during the Broadwater Farm fighting between the police and local youth – and thus something of a target – and he was an opposition councillor. But I found him a nice bloke (despite being a Tory lawyer), sharp minded and sharp witted, unfailingly courteous and focussed on policy.
However, it is a different Andrew Mitchell in the news today – discourteous in his routine dealings and with powerful enemies in his own party. There is a story that the now distinguished lawyer was ‘instructed’ by the even then notoriously abrasive rising Tory politician to find some other name than the ones they shared.
Politician of all parties, but especially Tories, and police have a common problem. None can speak the truth without breaching the unwritten code which wraps mainstream political discourse around law enforcement in a cocoon of hypocrisy and myth.
The truth of the matter is that surprisingly little routine police activity is actually about catching criminals. To hear the nonsense talked about putting more bobbies on the beat you would think that this is a rational use of police time and a valuable aid to crime fighting. Not so.
One chief superintendent told me – as I was reviewing his MSc dissertation – that his belief was that a patrolling police officer passed within a 100 yards of a crime being committed only once in every 14 years of service. (Except, he added when working in the City of London where it was a considerably more frequent occurrence). So the pretence of putting bobbies on the beat is more about securing consent than security.
An array of sustaining myths has grown up to buttress the political support that the police, as an institution, needs. To maintain the uncontested support of the propertied classes it is necessary for much of police activity to remain obscured from public scrutiny. Just occasionally reality breaks through and people whose daily lives are lived away from conflict with the state learn first hnd how unequal the contest can be.
It appears that the evidence that led David Cameron to dump Andrew Mitchell may not be completely reliable and even may have been partly concocted. Mitchell’s outrage at this could not be more convincing. In ‘fitting up’ a Tory minister the code has been broken.
Most Tory politicians know there is a big gap between myth and reality. It is just not considered politic to discuss it. Whilst spotted photographing police berating some black youth in South London in the early 80s I was chased by the police involved and given the routine ‘good hiding’. My GP, himself an active Conservative and a pillar of the community signed me off work with the reassurance that if I took legal action he would back me up. “I know the reality” he said.
And the reality, then as now, is that the police – in their routine dealings with working class people, young people and especially young black people – will make up the evidence if they want to or feel the need. This is not simply an individual aberration, it has the character of an ingrained institutional response, witness Hillsborough.
The phrase was made famous by the then Haringey Council leader Bernie Grant who pointed out that, at Broadwater Farm, it was the police that got a good hiding. For speaking a truth that was common currency on the streets of Tottenham he was pilloried.
Now they are in for another good hiding. This time dished out by a government that – because of the economic crisis engineered by criminal bankers – is being compelled to cut into the tribute that the police, as an institution, need and demand as of right.
If any the accounts that surround Mitchell’s abandonement by his party leader and Cabinet collegues are proved to have been fabricated then the fools who contrived them have scored an impressive own goal. They had him bang to rights but now have turned him into a martyr.
By his own admission Mitchell has a foul mouth – by common consent he is not univerally liked by his colleagues. He talked his way into trouble and has been rescued.
It is an unfashionable view on the left, but I don’t think all police, maybe not even very many, are happy with falsely concocting evidence. But from what they say, the results-driven agenda handed down by Labour and Tory Home Secretaries alike, drives the numbers game and makes it inevitable.
Even so, very few individual police officers are willing to take a stand against it although a good many give up the job after very few years.
But honest police officers are ill served. The role of the Police Federation, is under scrutiny. We may never be able to trace the exact sequence of events that connected the original account of the encounter between the Tory minister and the Downing Street protection team and the corroborative account given by a member of the public who turns out to be a serving police officer. That he is a constituent of a Tory Whip who, by some accounts, was ill-disposed towards Mitchell is a coincidence that, if crafted by a crime novelist, would not impress a Golden Dagger jury.
The federation, whose finely honed expertise in defending the indefensible is being tested, is in some trouble. The unspoken contract that protected it has been breached. Police officers would be better of in a proper trade union that puts their collective interests as workers above the privileges that separate them from other working people.