by James Moreton Wakeley
One of the most sublime hymns to England is to be found at the end of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Returning from the bitter battles of the Spanish Civil War, wounded in the neck, and having narrowly avoided further bodily harm in the bloodily fratricidal politics of the doomed Spanish Republic, Orwell looks forward to returning to a land at peace. To an idyll of “railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers” and “slow-moving streams bordered by willows”, inhabited by a gentle folk wearing bowler hats whose streets are adorned with “posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings”.
Fighting in the ranks of an international socialist movement though Orwell was, Homage to Catalonia is replete with such heartfelt musings on England. First among such sentiments is the notion that the police are nothing to be feared. Unlike the highly-politicised and faction-riven police forces of Republican Spain, or other such continental gendarmeries, Orwell saw the British bobby as a cheery friend of the honest citizen, who polices with consent rather than through force, and who would only go so far to arrest someone if they had, or were strongly suspected to have, broken the law.
Saturday night’s footage from the vigil held in honour of Sarah Everard makes this image as remote from our age as the rest of Orwell’s nostalgic paean. We have certainly awoken from the “deep, deep sleep of England”.
It is perhaps unsurprising that pictures of young women being dragged around and pushed to the floor by often male police officers has caused such outrage. Whatever one’s private thoughts on how society should respond to such bitter, senseless, and cruel tragedies as the murder of a young woman, it is impossible not be moved by scenes of the brutal treatment meted out to those who felt a deep need to commemorate a girl with whose situation they felt such a connection. As the editor of this website has already pointed-out, however, the Metropolitan Police’s behaviour is wholly unsurprising in the context of the past year, their relative temerity in the face of last summer’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests notwithstanding.
Other police forces, in other parts of the country, have also made a habit of over-enforcing the Government’s poorly-written and confusing Lockdown measures, damaging trust in the fairness and integrity of British policing. The whole country, for example, is familiar with the case of the Peppermint Tea Two, who were farcically ambushed by a gang of policemen when out walking a short distance from their homes and fined for apparently breaking the ‘spirit’ of the Lockdown restrictions rather than the letter. Public pressure forced Derbyshire Police to rescind the fines and to apologise.
This, however, was but one instance of a wider trend. Individual police officers and commanders appear to have been routinely over-interpreting their powers and capriciously fining people whose behaviour has been in line with the law. Figures from the end of last year show that three forces, Merseyside, Staffordshire, and Derbyshire, were forced to cancel almost half of the fines they had by then levied. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, of the 14 cases brought to court under the Coronavirus Act this January, 10 have had to have been withdrawn. The number of fines levied by different forces across the country varies enormously, suggesting that the way in which the law is understood and enforced is more postcode lottery than clear, objective exercise.
Recent court rulings have also demonstrated that, contrary to a growing tendency of the police to exhibit a previously alien ‘papers, please’ culture, there is in fact no legal duty on those suspected of a breach of COVID regulations to supply an officer with their name and address. All too often, the threat and practice of arrest – physical restraint and hand-cuffing – appears to have been used to intimidate people into supplying such personal details. The well-publicised account of one such case also tells how officers threatened to use scissors to begin a forced strip-search: all for the alleged crime of going for a household walk on a beach. Finding oneself at the whim of uniformed individuals, who feel free to use force to get what they want, is the stuff of a police state.
In many respects, however, the police are not actually to blame. There have definitely been instances of flagrantly unprofessional and arrogant behaviour by individual police officers, for which constabularies have duly apologised after their embarrassment on social media. Many recent examples of overreach, however, seem to have been a result of different understandings of the word ‘local,’ which government did not define in the Lockdown rules. Ministers, therefore, have simply abandoned the police to arbitrariness.
The Government’s twin embrace of trivial restrictions and avoidance of detail has gone hand-in-hand with a tendency of some ministers to eschew the convention of commenting on operational police matters and to voice support for aggressive and incorrect behaviour. Matt Hancock, for instance, “absolutely backed” Derbyshire Police’s treatment of the peppermint tea girls, despite the fact that the police’s overreach was plainly evident at the time he made those comments. Home Secretary Priti Patel, moreover, has advocated enforcement over engagement, and led a politically-seductive witch-hunt against Instagram Influencers whose photographs from Dubai were somewhat magically and mysteriously causing COVID to spread in England. Especially at a time when the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Lord Chancellor and Minister for Justice has made a habit of hounding Government critics online, ministerial comments such as the above risk amounting to political pressure on the police.
These comments are, alas, hardly out of keeping in a milieu that has seen government public information broadcasts become little more than Lockdown propaganda. Truth, that lodestar of what amounts to information versus disinformation, has been a casualty: the Advertising Standards Agency had to step-in to stop the state broadcasting falsehoods about joggers spreading COVID, for example. This willingness to lie was the inevitable result of a conscious decision to stoke fear to win compliance with Lockdown measures, a strategy of emotional attack demanding exaggeration, doom-laden language and imagery, and the selective use of data.
The regular Downing St briefings, moreover, ensure that such sinister messaging reaches households to a previously unknown degree. Combined with other advertisements advocating the deeply-questionable and hotly-debated efficacy of Lockdown, the state has been able to influence perceptions and to mobilise obedience in a manner that is not only wholly unprecedented, but that also strikes at the heart of what we formerly accepted as the right way for government to behave. Justifying such supreme, barely accountable authority on the basis of public safety is taken from the textbook of tyrants.
It is astounding, therefore, to see figures like Patel demand a review into the Metropolitan Police’s behaviour at the Sarah Everard vigil. The chutzpah and hypocrisy of so many politicians and commentators who have supported and legislated for Lockdown only to condemn what it means speaks to the sheer superficiality of the political class and their failure to think beyond the media storm. The police were merely doing what their political masters have asked them to do. Indeed, unlike in the situations underlying the litany of rescinded fines, Dame Cressida Dick’s embattled force were probably on firmer legal ground: an example, if any were needed, on how unjust, inhumane, and immoral the Lockdown laws are.
What, then, can be done? The next few weeks may prove crucial to stopping the spread of Lockdown and the kind of authoritarian measures it means. The government will have to extend the powers it gave itself to shut down the country for another six months before the end of March, and it is facing court action to open hospitality sooner than it intends. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will extend the powers of the police to stop protests, is due to come before the House of Commons this week. Tragic chance means that an emotive, visually shocking demonstration of the perversity of Lockdown – police brutality in an area where COVID cases are down 97% since the recorded January peak, at the kind of outside event now known to have all but no COVID risk whatsoever, in which members of the public were manhandled, restrained, and handcuffed “for their own safety” – has coincided with a time at which parliamentarians can clip the wings of the government.
There already appears to be momentum behind a backbench revolt on the Government side of the House and Labour – in a typically opportunistic move belying a deeper lack of principle – are set to vote against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In past correspondence with my local MP, a Government loyalist, she was entirely dismissive of the negative ramifications of Lockdown, for overall health, the economy, as well as for civil liberties. To apply the principle of charity, I imagine that she has simply been ignorant and unthinking rather than malign. She now has even less of an excuse and I shall be writing to her again. From my experience, even low double-digit figures of personally-crafted letters can cause consternation in some parliamentary offices, giving an MP the excuse that one suspects they needed to vote a certain way anyway. If the pro-Lockdown politicians lining-up to criticise the police really care about what took place last night, let them wake-up to what Lockdown means, having seen what strikes them as new evidence, and do something about it.
We may never drift into Orwell’s “deep, deep sleep of England” again, but at least we can try to wake up from the nightmare of Lockdown.
Dr James Moreton Wakeley is a former parliamentary researcher with a PhD in History from Oxford.