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Hardly a week seems to pass these days without another police scandal being revealed, or another judicial frame-up exposed. The authorities have responded by setting up several inquiries, and promising to make the police and the law more user-friendly services. John Fitzpatrick thinks that anybody who believes that is an ass

Are you being served?

Watch out, there's an inquiry about. In fact, there's quite a few. Home secretary Kenneth Clarke has set businessman Sir Patrick Sheehy to work on the pay, conditions and management of the police forces of the United Kingdom. Sir John May is still trying to discover how the courts convicted the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four. Then there is the mother of all inquiries: the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice under Lord Runciman. Set up on the release of the Birmingham Six by previous home secretary, Kenneth Baker, it is currently busy gathering evidence on 'all stages of the criminal process'. There is going to be some heavy blossom next spring.

Awkward customers

The air is already thick with arguments, submissions and lobbying. You have not heard the last of corroboration of confessions or of a new tribunal for 'miscarriages'. You will hear more too about cost-effective, user-friendly community policing, about 'bad apples', and, of course, about 'a service not a force'. The bandwagon will be fuelled by crime statistics, and panics about terrorists, hooligans and hippies. Sir John Woodcock, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, recently managed to combine the ridiculous rhetoric of both consumerism and bogeymen: 'The abusing husband, the foul drunk, the lager lout and the belligerent squatter are customers. Different, but equally as much customers as the victims of crime.' Oh dear, are you being served?

Guilty judges

When the head man starts talking like this you can take it that the government really does have a big problem with the police and criminal justice system. At root the police are increasingly distrusted. In 1959, a Mori survey recorded that 83 per cent of the public had a great deal of respect for the police. Respect may not necessarily have meant trust anyway, but even so by 1989 that figure had become 43 per cent. That was before the celebrated 'miscarriage of justice' cases got going.

These cases have spread the credibility crisis to the whole system, and in particular to the judiciary. Very few people accepted their shifty 'not guilty' pleas - 'it wasn't us, it was the police and the forensic scientists; we just sum up'. The new Lord Chief Justice is so worried that he has spoken to the press, saying it would be better if judges said sorry when releasing innocent men and women from jail. He has even hinted that wigs might be on their way out. For this he is praised as open and accessible.

Public image

The government knows that it is going to have to do rather better than this. The American politician Hubert Humphrey once remarked, 'there are not enough jails, not enough policemen, not enough courts to enforce a law not supported by the people'. That is how the authorities here were beginning to feel. Without the consent of the public, their job is a very difficult one indeed. For them the law must enjoy respect and legitimacy. This is what the inquiries are all about; not ensuring justice, but improving the public image of a decidedly unjust system.

As Sir John Wheeler put it in the House of Commons on the day the royal commission was announced, 'it is of the greatest importance for the public as a whole to have confidence in the criminal justice system and process....[The] announcement of a wide-ranging inquiry by a royal commission...will satisfy many of the concerns that are felt'. This was almost the exclusive theme of the debate. Labour's Roy Hattersley spoke for all sides when he said that the 'damage' to the 'reputation of British justice' (not, you will note, to those wronged) should be 'repaired as quickly as possible'. He added, 'we need something which improves and rehabilitates the criminal justice system immediately'.

Not one word

Kenneth Baker took a slightly more relaxed view when introducing the commission: 'Our criminal justice system deals perfectly well with the overwhelming majority of cases. That should never be forgotten. The cases that are now the cause of our concern represent only a tiny proportion of the work that is carried out to high standards....I believe that our present arrangements work well in the overwhelming majority of cases, and I pay tribute to all those who endeavour to achieve that.'

Those enjoying the recent discomfiture of the police and judiciary and looking forward to the outcome of the inquiries would do well to remember the tone of this parliamentary debate, back in March 1991. And remember too, not one word of sympathy or regret issued from Baker for the Birmingham Six, released that day from over 16 years of false imprisonment. He was challenged to express sympathy for their families, but pointedly avoided doing so.

The setting up of these inquiries, particularly the royal commission, expresses both the weaknesses and strengths of the authorities today. Margaret Thatcher did not use the device of a royal commission even once in 11 years. It smacked of indecision, and worse it meant the devolution of control to those not necessarily 'one of us'. John Major's government had little choice; the rot was too deep, and few, if any, had the stomach to bluff it out. It was damage limitation time; credibility had to be restored.

An inside job

On the other hand, the fact that criticism of the legal system can be safely contained within a royal commission demonstrates that the authorities still have control of the process of reform. After all, it was mainly elements within the establishment who pushed the issue rather than any forceful political opposition. No doubt television journalists, writers and campaigners kept a case like Guildford on the boil. The decisive pressure, however, came from law lords Scarman and Devlin, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Basil Hume, and ex-home secretaries Roy Jenkins and Merlyn Rees. It was an inside job.

The true measure of the weakness of the political opposition is that no senior policeman, no lawyer, no judge and no minister has even come under pressure to resign as the trail of corruption has unravelled. The government clearly feels it has lanced the boil, and that the whole business can now be treated as a consolidation exercise, an opportunity, in Hattersley's phrase, to rehabilitate the system. It's working, at least in media circles. An article in the Independent on 3 July began: 'In the pre-Clarke, pre-miscarriage of justice days....'

There is certainly nothing defensive about the police attitude. Consider: if the death penalty was still in force, then Winston Silcott, the man the police framed for killing PC Blakelock, would have swung long ago. So what has the Police Federation just demanded? The return of capital punishment. Consider: if confessions had not been terrorised out of the Guildford Four, and they had been allowed to remain silent, they would never have been convicted. So what has the Police Federation just demanded? The abolition of the right to silence.

Many agree with the federation that the problem has been that police powers have been lacking and sentencing too weak. Lord Denning has already pointed out that this fuss would have been avoided if all these Irishmen had been hung. Some take a slightly different tack. Lord Hailsham suggests that the police 'cut corners' because the rules of evidence are so complex, and Frank Field thinks some police are tempted to 'tamper' with evidence because they believe the system is unfair. A corner here, a tamper there. The subtext is that these people were guilty anyway, but got off on technicalities which should be abolished.

What are they for?

There has been no shortage of more liberal demands for reform delivered to the royal commission. Most shopping lists include a pic 'n' mix of the following: restriction of stop-and-search powers; audio and video taping of all interviews with all suspects; retention of the right to silence; confessions to be corroborated; defence access to an independent forensic service; restoration of the right to peremptory challenge of jurors; judges to sum up on the law only; a miscarriages of justice commission; reform of judicial appointments; multi-racial juries to be appointed and legal aid to be extended generally. As the police inquiry gets under way, no doubt these same liberal reformers will be proposing new structures of accountability, along with elaborate schemes of community policing.

However, as battle is joined, the critics have overlooked two important points. First, in their efforts to make the legal process more just and accountable, they miss the actual nature and function of the police force and criminal justice system in our society. Second, in their attempts to ensure that there is no repetition of the infamous 'miscarriage' cases, they ignore the specific political circumstances behind the most prominent of these: namely, the war in Ireland, and state racism in Britain.

There are now about 125 000 police in England and Wales, which is about one for every 400 people (256 in London). It was one for every 500 in 1970. Government spending on the police has risen by 74 per cent in real terms since 1979, which includes a 13 per cent rise in personnel and a 39 per cent increase in pay.

What are they all for? And don't say fighting crime. Home office figures for reported crime since 1979 show an increase in 115 per cent. The figures for the year to March 1992 show that 94 per cent of recorded crimes were against property. The detection rate for crimes against property is currently nudging 25 per cent.

Crime figure fraud

Crime statistics are famously difficult to handle, but it doesn't take a mathematician to work out that the police are not doing very well at fighting crime. Nobody should really expect them to. Neither should anybody waste too much time on crime figures, or even on their definition of what constitutes a crime. Is it going up? Is it linked to the recession? These discussions only play into their hands: more crimes must mean more police.

Terrible though an assault or burglary can be, we should remember what the government wants us to forget amid all the hysteria about crime: that the real problems which most people face, most of the time, concern poor or no employment, bad or precarious housing and dreadful public services. These are the conditions which lower the quality of our lives, not once in a blue moon, but for every minute of the day. Anyway, when did the police ever stop an assault or a burglary from taking place?

Batons drawn

The police though have been pretty successful at what they are there for. The history of the development of the police is the history of the government responding to threats to public order and to political dissent. The truth is that the police spend a lot of time just being there - reminding the population of their existence, disciplining the young in particular with regard to their place in the world (see football crowd control) and generally standing by for the decisive confrontations. The batons have rarely been at rest for long: from the Reform Bill riots of the 1830s, against the Chartists in Kennington in 1848, the London Radicals in Trafalgar Square in 1884, the miners in Tonypandy in 1910, the Liverpool rioters in 1919, the unemployed marchers in the 1930s, the students in the 1960s, and over the past 20 years against the miners, dockers, printers, Irish people, black people, poll tax protesters. It must be said that in this department, especially recently, they have been doing rather well.

Obviously the more integrated the police are with the population, the more they direct traffic, tell the time and lend a sympathetic ear, the more accepted and successful they will be in their primary role. That is why in London they now deliver friendly freebie newspapers from the local stations, advertising not only the local crime scare, but also the wide range of social services they provide: the caring domestic violence unit, the liaison with local housing officers, the school visits and mixed sporting events. It is why the Met have hired public relations consultants, and why they have recently set up a mini police station inside the Whittington Hospital in north London. Said Chief Superintendent Peter Mathias, 'I was very anxious that we take policing to the customer'. Ah yes, are you being served yet?

PC Smith & Wesson

Since the high-profile paramilitary policing of Orgreave and Wapping in the eighties, a lot of money and effort has been expended on restoring a friendly image. The problem is that the state's need to professionalise, to centralise and to arm its police force has already made it impossible for George Dixon to reappear. It appears likely that the division of labour between the heavy mob and the community plods will continue to grow.

This may all sound like restating the obvious, but that would seem necessary when so many discussions of this subject today assume that the parties involved in the inquiries and reforms are gathering around the table on the same basis: 'Let's try to strike a just balance between protection for the innocent citizen and what is needed to convict the villain.' In the real world, Lord Mackay proceeds with cutting back on legal aid (one of the main proposals of reformers) and the police tool up with Smith & Wesson revolvers, Walther automatics, Heckler & Koch rifles, Uzi sub-machine guns, Remington pump-action shotguns, plastic bullets, water cannon and CS gas. They know they're playing by different rules.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the 'miscarriages'. The point that is almost completely ignored in the current debate is the central truth about them. They were not miscarriages at all in any proper sense of the word. They were not failures of the system. They were successes for a system which needed to punish and repress its Irish and black insurgents.

It is breathtaking that so many people can now address these show-trials without a word about their political content. They were not accidents but deliberate and sustained decisions to set an example. Neither was the success of the frame-ups due to inadequacies of legal procedure. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act was available for Winston Silcott but not the Guildford Four. Did it make any difference?

Did the public exposure of the whole 'miscarriages' business make any difference to Alex Murphy, Henry Maguire, Patrick Kane, Michael Timmons and Sean Kelly? Who are they? Five of the 20 Irish people convicted in 1989 and 1990 in the Casement Trials. These cases arose from the deaths of two British soldiers who drove a car into a republican funeral cortege in Belfast, then shot at mourners who tried to repel them and were themselves finally shot by the IRA. The five have been convicted on some dubious heli-tele evidence and a spurious 'common purpose' doctrine, which allowed convictions for murder not on the basis that the accused killed anyone, but that they were active members of the crowd which, almost in panic, apprehended the soldiers. They are now serving life in prison.

Face facts

The frame-ups succeeded because of a political culture which permits and supports a ferocious scapegoating of Irish republicans and black youth, a political culture which remained silent and complicit for years while the state went about its business of repression. The only reason that the authorities even dared to commit such outrageous crimes was because everybody was studiously looking the other way. The police and judges know that if there is public backing it doesn't matter what the rules say. The only way to prevent another Guildford Four or Tottenham Three is to make British imperialism in Ireland and British racism at home anathema to ordinary people in this country.

Democratic control of the police and improved procedures for criminal investigation and trial sound like fine things. But does anybody imagine that we are going to get a step nearer to justice by burying our heads in the sand (or in the procedures of a royal commission) and ignoring what we are really up against? We are dealing with an apparatus designed to coerce and contain the majority of the population. There is no point in asking that apparatus to reform itself for our benefit. Instead, we need to work out how we can organise to defend and extend our rights against it. It would be a start if we publicised the truth about the political role of the police and the criminal justice system which they serve.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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