I’ve been enjoying recently the series on BBC2 about police corruption in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, Bent Coppers – Crossing the Line of Duty.
This series explores the dirty secrets behind London’s policing with a story of corruption that goes to the very top of London’s Metropolitan Police (and also City of London Police) and leads to the formation of the first internal anti-corruption unit, A10, which inspired the BBC drama Line of Duty, currently showing on BBC1. The first episode begins in 1969, at a time when the British police are held to be the most trusted and effective force in the world. There was a public myth of the incorruptibility of the police that helped to protect corrupt officers and led to some terrible miscarriages of justice. Some of those miscarriages of justice came to light much later when other police forces were found to have doctored evidence and witness statements relating to groups of men accused of IRA bombings in the 1970s. However, this series focused not on high profile cases, but the regular low level corruption rife in London’s police forces that led to other ordinary people being falsely accused and regular bungs of money changing hands between police officers and criminal gangs; and also the protection rackets of the sleazy sex shops and bookshops of the Soho district. In many cases the corruption went up to very senior levels of the Metropolitan Police. In some cases of armed robbery, City of London Police were also watering down evidence and complicit in allowing crimes to go ahead unchallenged.
To be fair, there were robust attempts at police reform in the 1980s with the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984. That legislation had it roots in other allegations and abuses of police power against black men in particular, and followed the Scarman Report into the 1981 Brixton riots in south London. Lord Scarman found unquestionable evidence of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of ‘stop and search’ powers by the police against black people. The report detailed the use of arbitrary roadblocks, the stopping and searching of pedestrians and mass detention (943 stops, 118 arrests and 75 charges). Operation Swamp 81, a contributory factor to the riots, was conducted by the police without any consultation with the community or the home-beat officers. Liaison arrangements between police, community and local authority had collapsed before the riots and according to the Scarman Report, the local community mistrusted the police and their methods of policing. So quite right for earlier governments to seek to redress the balance between the rights of the individual and the powers of the police.
But police corruption or mistreatment, eh? I appreciate that for a lot of people around the world, this is no big surprise – it is live issue in the United States at the moment after the killing of George Floyd and the conviction of the police officer who killed him. But I’m more interested in the effect the chipping away of trust in institutions has on the views of people in a democracy. The British, seemingly, have always valued their institutions and looked up with respect to certain ones like the Royal Family, the Church and other civic institutions. The British are also a law-abiding people mostly, we might moan at certain things, but we get cross if other people don’t follow the rules. A rules based society is a good thing provided there is widespread consent as to what is considered right and wrong, and indeed how it is policed and justice applied. But if the Police were corrupt, what else was going on in British society and what, over time, might be the political impact, and the impact on wider society? Who else was breaking the rules, or perceived social norms, or not engaging in British fair play? The last thirty years have not been pretty for the public’s trust in British institutions and we can list some ‘highlights’:
- allegations, including some convictions, of sexual abuse of children by Christian clergymen and other high profile celebrities;
- wider abuse allegations or convictions in other institutions from care homes, to other voluntary organisations, including well known and well-loved charities;
- Members of Parliament receiving cash for asking questions in Parliament; also cash for honours;
- Members of Parliament abusing the parliamentary expenses to do up their second homes;
- More allegations and findings of misconduct about police officers, including their corrupt investigation into the murder of a black teenager, and failings that led to the Hillsborough Stadium disaster;
- rumours, affairs, divorces, allegations, or alleged improprieties and associations of members of the Royal Family;
- an unpopular war in Iraq with public trust undermined by allegations intelligence evidence was not what it purported to be;
- there is a long list….
There will of course have been other scandals, allegations, and crimes that have involved the institutions of the UK and other countries. Some will have occurred at a local level within local government, but also involved other British institutions and well known multi-national businesses or business persons. Enron, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns contributing to the 2008 financial crisis are well known, but, again, there is a long list….
Now say you are now in your 60s, 70s, 80s and the world you grew up in feels remote and distant, the formative years of your life have now been exposed to the drip… drip… of events that have undermined your view of institutions/politicians and people you were brought up by your parents and grandparents to trust. Perhaps you’ve also lost your job, pension or other assets in more recent financial scandals. In addition, there are wider changes in society, and possible morality, that you do not understand, or do not like (*cough* immigration) and without noticing you’ve become a fertile breeding ground for politicians, media and narratives that could tap into your disgruntlement. Let’s say a budding celebrity businessman turned political candidate comes along promising to ‘drain the swamp’, or other politicians blame supranational institutions, or other countries for how you are feeling or they claim, repeatedly, are cause of troubles in your society. For you, those siren voices become attractive, and not unreasonably you feel someone is listening to your grievances, some of which are entirely valid. Because you feel attracted to that message, you change your voting habits (or you stop voting at all) and like the scandals, drip… drip… traditional political parties find themselves in trouble over the course of 10-15 years. Votes are going elsewhere, not to them and then the damn suddenly bursts. The siren voices become the government to the horror of many; but to the delight and satisfaction of many also.
What next? Well, there are various things that potentially stem from this point. Let’s say, by way of a thought experiment, you find out the person who came to ‘drain the swamp’ was actually only there to profit from it too. You might be horrified and vote against that person next time around; or you double down not wanting to admit your mistake, or you believe further siren (and misleading) voices that other forces within society – the Enemy Within – have sabotaged your long hoped for ‘swamp draining’ revolution. For this latter group, still mostly that older generation, the drip… drip… of undermining of faith in institutions continues around a vicious circle of hate and mistrust – seeds of which were sown decades ago. If this is something that worries you, it feels to me like a very difficult cycle to break. But if as historians we are looking for causes, I don’t think we can ignore generational differences, influences and perspectives on how media, politics, government and institutions now work for good or ill. Many of ordinary people interviewed in the BBC2 series were now retired and / or elderly. They were white and black, predominantly young men at the time the Police abused them. They won’t have been the only ones with their faith in an institution (or institutions) or their vision of a happy society and functioning democracy shattered.