The Police Federation’s recent claim a few months back that London’s 24,000 constables have ‘no confidence’ in their leader, Sir Ian Blair, and Tony Blair’s recent admission that Labour still has not got it right on law and order, are all symptoms of a deeper problem that few in our political establishment seem ready to face. Our nationalised police service is a manifest failure and much of it should be swept away in a tide of consumer based reform.
As is the case with all nationalisations, union bosses fight the management, politicians are pained by the organisation’s inability to keep up with demand and ordinary people feel anger at an unresponsive and out of touch service.
For a number of years in the early 1990s I was an occasional guest lecturer on the Strategic Command Course of the National Police Staff College at Bramshill. There I taught the economics and politics of the future to Britain’s brightest up and coming senior police officers.
Away from all the spin of on-the-record professional and governmental propaganda, I was constantly struck by the officers’ understanding of their own situation and plight. Like many people in nationalised industries they well understood that so long as they remained in the state sector they would inevitably be the play things of vote seeking politicians – and not the ordinary people in communities they invariably wanted to serve.
Having signed up to deliver better law and order they often found themselves in a politicised bureaucracy that forced them to fill in endless forms so that a minister could stand at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and recite a Home Office version of the Soviet mantra: ‘tractor production is rising’.
As the play things of ever more statute and an endless array of moral panics, the police have been turned by successive governments more into an extension of social services than a force to deliver real law and order. But it does not have to be like this and there was a time not so long ago when things were very different.
Today, for every police officer in the UK there are now more than two private security guards. In our high streets, in countless private developments and across the country’s shopping centres, a diverse and ever more professional army of private guards and security personnel are being employed to protect people, property and livelihoods.
Now, while the state police force commenced with an Act of Parliament in 1829, between 1750 and 1850 Britain had a multitude of private law enforcement agencies. The services on offer ranged from the systematic use of newspaper advertising to professional detectives and thief-catchers.
Perhaps the most significant of these were the private associations for the prosecution of felons. These were voluntary associations of citizens that were initially set up to defray the sizeable costs of mounting criminal prosecutions and over time they grew to essentially resemble private police forces.
Over the years they acquired by popular demand a wide range of functions including crime-prevention and insurance. And association members paid for services in proportion to their ability to pay. The income was then used for compensation of loss through theft or criminal damage, to recover stolen goods, or to cover criminal prosecutions – particularly the compiling of information against known delinquents. Moreover, the monies raised were used to finance permanent community foot-patrols or watchers.
Between 1744 and 1856 more than 450 such associations were established. By the 1830s the largest and most successful of these agencies – organisations like the Barnet Association – had effectively become private police forces in their own right.
The evidence suggests that these private services were hugely popular. Providing a service that was reasonably priced, efficient and totally focused on real crime, one can only imagine how much better things would be today if they had been allowed to continue and thrive.
While in the early nineteenth century the political class eventually managed to push through a network of tax funded constabularies (this process took more than fifteen years and was often opposed by most counties) the membership of the private sector had spanned the social classes and was by no means confined to the well healed.
It is an irony that while in the 1820s and 1830s many Tories opposed police nationalisation – prophetically complaining that the service would prove ineffective and detrimental to liberty – the police now stand as one of the political class’s favoured nationalisations.
What politicians find so difficult to admit is that as the British state increasingly fails to deliver in those areas where it remains active so ever larger numbers of people are defecting to an emboldened private sector. In desperately trying to get themselves off the hook of past promises, politicians obfuscate and confuse so that they can hide the defecting millions who are opting for private solutions.
For instance, on the back of an inevitably failing NHS, seven million people have private medical insurance and another six million are covered by private health cash plans. In 2004, more than 250,000 people chose to self-fund for independent acute surgery without any insurance at all. Below the radar screen of popular politics, more than eight million people went private for a range of complimentary therapies last year and today more than 3.5 million trade unionists – more than 50 per cent of the Trade Union Congress’s membership – now enjoy the benefits of either private medical insurance or private health cash plan schemes. That’s in addition to rise of the private spectacles industry over the last twenty years and the nationwide collapse of NHS dentistry.