What’s this officer thinking about Matt Hancock, I wonder? Clue - it possibly rhymes with ‘stunt’ (photo credit: Mirror Online)
As a lockdown-sceptic, I’m reading Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp dump with a mixture of sadness and anger. Saying that, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the mediocrity that is Matthew John David Hancock.
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Hey Matt, let’s run a scenario through the National Decision-Making Model, you know, the one ‘Plod’ uses? Okay. You want to write a self-aggrandizing memoir before a public inquiry exposes your myriad inadequacies. You sit down (masked, presumably) and think to yourself, who shall I hire to ghost my book?
(1) Phone my old politician mates and get them to recommend a Tory-friendly hack who knows their way around autobiographies?
(2) Hire a notoriously cunning and hardnosed media operator whose partner heads up a rival political party. Someone who did a hatchet job on David Cameron (the one with the pig’s head allegations)? Hey, what could possibly go wrong with providing her with a gazillion sensitive WhatsApp messages?
You know what happened next. Well, this is Matt. He’s the person, remember, who helped criminalise meeting a friend in a park for a cup of coffee. The person who aided and abetted putting kids under virtual house arrest for 18 months. The person who refers to the police officers lumbered with enforcing his totalitarian bullshit rules as ‘Plod.’
Matt gives Plod their ‘marching orders,’ contrary to every accepted principle of operational independence in UK policing. I am ordering a truckload of popcorn for the Public Inquiry
Anyway, thanks Matt. I was wondering what to write this week and your ‘Plod’ comment prompted todays Substack, which is sort-of-about British Policing and Class. Because that’s all the Police are to politicians of every stripe.
The political class loathes the police. They always have and always will. When Andrew Mitchell called police officers outside Downing Street ‘plebs’, was anyone shocked? He was simply articulating received wisdom among his peers.
Funnily enough, shortly after reading about Matt Hancock’s fuckwittery, I happened upon an editorial from the Daily Telegraph concerning the Manchester Arena Bombing Inquiry’s criticism of the Security Service, MI5. They were found to have missed multiple opportunities to investigate the bomber, a Libyan whose family came to the UK as refugees. To whit;
This is obviously deeply regrettable. Families of the victims of the atrocity are justifiably upset that it could potentially have been prevented. MI5 and counter-terror police will doubtless study Sir John’s recommendations and seek to rectify the deficiencies in their approach. The head of MI5 has apologised. But it should not be forgotten that, given the intelligence services by necessity work in secrecy, there will be many successes by MI5 that the public will never hear about.
‘Regrettable’? Can you imagine a similar police fuck-up being given comparable sympathy? The police have just spent a month having the snot kicked out of them for not finding a missing person who tragically fell into a river. The Head of MI5 apologized? Well, that’s alright then, I’m sure the families of 22 dead and over a thousand injured are tugging their forelocks with gratitude. As for the many Security Service successes the public will never hear about? Well, actually that’s a fair point and undoubtedly true. Then again, so are the tens of thousands of small victories police win every day - secret and otherwise - none of which are of any interest whatsoever to journalists.
My point? MI5 gets a pass from the establishment media. MI5 is sexy. MI5, like the army’s officer corps, is resolutely upper-middle class. Its leaders are from a similar background as the senior civil servants and government ministers they report to. Am I having a dig? Not really - just pointing out their baked-in cultural advantage. As I’ve written previously, I’ve worked with the Service and sympathise with the challenges they face. I accept Ken McCallum, the present DG, is from a fairly ‘normal’ background. Still, he’s spent 25-plus years in the machine. He’s either genuinely good, as shrewd as fuck, or both.
I’ve witnessed our Gene Hunts parley with our George Smileys. Spoiler: Smiley wins
Yes, for me, MI5’s as good a place as any to start when pondering Policing and Class. I hope it’s different now.
Imagine the scene; it’s 2006 and I’m sitting in Thames House, MI5’s Millbank HQ. The Met’s counterterrorism police are meeting their intelligence service partners to discuss operations. Although discuss is a euphemism; the Service holds ‘primacy’ when it comes to terrorism. Still, they’re polite enough issuing their thinly-disguised orders.
On one side of the table are MI5 - young white men in their early-to-mid thirties. They are the Boden catalogue made flesh - they wear a pseudo-uniform of chinos, lambswool sweaters and open-necked shirts. There’s a preponderance of suede shoes. No ties, although you do see the occasional pinky ring. They mostly speak with received pronunciation, although the occasional outlier might have a regional accent. They have the easygoing confidence of the privately-educated. Intelligence work is for gentlemen. Evidence - coppering - is for players. I’m fairly certain none of these young men have ever been punched in the face. I doubt few of them would last a week in a CID office.
On the other side of the table are the police. Older guys. SO15 officers. Detectives. Men (90% of them are male) with years of experience in murder investigation and serious / organised crime. Proper policemen, not the poncy special branch wankers they recently defenestrated (who were far warier of the Service, having worked cheek-by-jowl with them for eighty-odd years). They wear suits and ties from Debenhams, Army and Navy and M&S, not bespoke of course, their collars unbuttoned in the CID style. Although the detective wearing a waistcoat has the bottom button done up (the MI5 officers will chuckle about this after the meeting). Some wear gold jewellery and most speak with the glottal stop of the Thames Estuary. They are, despite being chief inspectors and superintendents, overwhelmingly working and lower-middle-class. C2s in marketing speak (skilled manual labourers).
These delineations of clothing, speech and demeanour are as precise as anything you’ll find in a Japanese tea ceremony. The Security Service officers talk in euphemisms. They are persuasive and witty. The cops call the spooks out on their sophistry and ask them to explain themselves in plain English. They aren’t mugs. It’s like watching a ballet dancer trying to pirouette with someone determined to pogo. The poor bastards taking minutes are the real heroes here.
I’m deputising for my boss. A walk-on part. I work with both agencies and see both sides’ point of view. I’m also without ambition and on the verge of a full-spectrum mental health crisis. I’m not remotely interested in who ‘wins.’ The meeting closes with forced bonhomie. A score-draw. Until next week.
I close my daybook. In my head, I’m hearing Eton Rifles by The Jam.
This is Britain; nobody should be surprised. The aristocracy traditionally offered three career paths for their sons; one would inherit the family estate. One would join the army. The third would become a priest. The nobility of old recognised the immutable importance of Land, War and Religion. This echoes through history; Britons descended from the Normans - those with French-sounding surnames - still tend to be richer than those of ‘Saxon’ origin. Yes, Baskervilles and Darcys are still winning the game of life over Masons and Fletchers. A single arrow fired at Hastings, changing the destiny of millions.
Furthermore, historically speaking, Policing as we know it is a fairly recent trade (I’m not sure it will ever be fully accepted as a profession, degree or no degree). The 1800s? Bah. Not that long ago, really. Coppering was a simple job - keeping the Queen’s Peace among the rabble. Why would the upper classes send its sons to perform such base drudgery?
It’s also why the political left also traditionally loathes the constabulary. I found this on a left-wing website to counterbalance the Tory ‘plod’ comment;
All police officers, even those who come from working class and minority backgrounds, have thrown in their lot with the ruling class against the working classes historic interests. As Trotsky said, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”
See? Policing really is about equality - everyone hates you equally.
For the hard left, this is an article of faith.
You do occasionally encounter a posh policeman. For example, there was Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Rosslyn, formerly known as Commander Peter Loughborough. He took his seat in the Lords in 1980, the same year he entered Hendon police training college. Pc The Lord Erskine. How cool is that? Also known as ‘The Queen’s favourite policeman’, Peter ended up in charge of… Royalty Protection. Of course he did! Actually, I remember him being quite popular. The thing people don’t tell you about really posh folk, the genuine aristocracy, is most of them are charming. It’s the upstarts who are rude, which is to say Johnny-come-latelies like Osborne and Cameron. The Tories my ex-protection officer friends speak most warmly of are those from relatively modest backgrounds, people like Thatcher and Major.
Special Branch had a few posh coppers. They tended to be raffish types who joined the Old Bill out of idle curiosity or to annoy their parents. I knew of one constable with a private income who became legendary for taking his relief to Trumper’s barbershop for a haircut and shave after night duty, before ushering them into his club for a late breakfast. SB also had not-quite-but-almost posh coppers, men who’d fruitily call you ‘love’ and wore moleskin waistcoats and colourful pocket squares. Some gravitated towards the department responsible for foreign extremists, which meant a fair bit of ‘liaison’ (i.e. going for drinks at embassies, earning them the nickname ‘The Cocktail Squad’).
DS Thomas, MPSB ‘E’ Squad, dressed for cocktail squad duty.
My take? None of this is wildly surprising. Career police officers inhabit a grey area, one in which they’re structurally hobbled when it comes to social mobility. A few ex-coppers in the Lords - usually retired Commissioners - doesn’t cut it.
Police are meant to represent the people they serve, but also to simultaneously stand apart. This means police officers aren’t allowed to actively participate in politics - how many Members of Parliament have ever worn blue? Police officers aren’t allowed to be active in the media in any capacity. Police officers are closely monitored if they apply for a business interest outside their day job.
Politics, Media and Business: three key drivers of influence and social mobility largely verboten to police officers. Oh, you can’t strike either. Once upon a time this was compensated via fair pay and a decent pension. No longer. Now we have the folly whereby new officers have to study for degrees, earning the right… to be poorer. Bravo to the Home Office and College of Policing. If only we could bottle such genius and sell it.
In short? There’s no real social capital or kudos in being a police officer. It’s a mug’s game. Friend to none, Aunt Sally to all. Upper middle-class parents might - just might - come around now Cornelius and Jocasta can join directly at inspector or superintendent level (how’s that working out?).
That leaves the rest of us. The 99%.
Holding victims’ hands. Dealing with people you’d cross the street to avoid. Combing car wrecks for human remains. Taking a kicking outside pubs every Friday night. Cataloguing hours of child abuse material for court cases. Living in the back of surveillance vans. Absorbing daily barrages of hate from a pathetic, clown-show media. And don’t even get me started on the management.
It’s a recipe for frustration, anger and a culture based on defence. One that says to Matt Hancock, the Conservative Party, assorted snobs and the defund-the-police Left; screw you. We’re like Millwall - everybody hates us and we don’t care. I know, why not get rid of Old Bill for a week? See what happens?
So fuck it. I was proud to be Plod.
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Did 30+ in the Met with the handicap of having an IQ of 156. I came to despair of many (not all) of the people who held positions of rank. Illogical, short sighted, stupid decisions littered their careers. To be 'too quick' or 'too clever' in their company was, lets say 'not optimal'. They scrambled to strategic ranks, away from the dangers of tactical decisions and their consequences.
Fortunately, the Met (like the Army) was actually run by sergeants, so the strategic incompetent's buffoonery could be somewhat mitigated. I wouldn't be surprised if those senior officers felt the same way about us, as the Politicians calling us Plod.
You are correct. I do speak to new officers and remind them that we are the holder of the office of Constable. That means you stand in the middle and favour no-one. We are not on the victim’s side or against the perpetrators. We are neutral. But that means helping everyone. That might be helping to access justice or helping to be dealt with by justice.
So you are correct. Looked upon by suspicion from all sides. And unless you get it, Policing will be a mystery to most.