To err is human, but to foul things up completely requires a politician. Or rather, it requires a particular kind of politician: ideologues flawed by incompetence and floored by dishonesty.
Yesterday (Jan 17th), I read a powerful article written by Danny Shaw – who was, until very recently, the BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent. Titled ‘Home Truths’, it tells a story that exemplifies so much of what has been wrong with the political leadership of this country during the last eleven years: a combination of ideology, ignorance and ineptitude, allied with a basic inability to tell the truth about almost everything. (You can read Danny’s piece in full here: https://www.dannyshaw.net/post/home-truths.)
Let me try to explain why it resonated so strongly with me.
From 2010-2018, the Government cut 44,000 officers and staff from policing in England & Wales. It was a conscious, deliberate political choice – one with consequences that were as predictable as they were devastating.
From the outset, police officers tried to warn politicians about all that would follow. But their concerns were dismissed with contempt. Infamously, Theresa May accused them of ‘crying wolf’. Later on, whenever the government’s approach to policing was challenged or criticised, the political response was to circle the wagons and repeat the mantra that ‘crime is down and police reform is working’. But the fundamental problem with that statement was that neither part of it was true.
Which brings me to Danny’s excellent article.
In early 2018, nationwide surges in violent crime (particularly knife crime) were becoming a source of widespread public concern. And it was clear to all with any knowledge or understanding of the subject that there was a direct connection between rising crime and falling police numbers. Clear to all except the politicians that is. Their response was one of denial and deceit.
In April 2018, Amber Rudd – Theresa May’s successor as Home Secretary – tried to suggest that “the evidence does not bear out claims that resources are to blame for rising violence”. It was a remarkable statement – one that defied both common sense and the professional experience of generations of police officers. More than that though, it was a direct contradiction of an assessment made by Ms Rudd’s own department.
The problem for anyone wanting to hold the Home Secretary to account was the repeated refusal by the Home Office to release the relevant analysis. It took Danny Shaw almost three years to compel them to do so – at a cost of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer. Towards the end of his article, Danny writes this:
“It was an unpalatable truth [that there was indeed a connection between police numbers and crime numbers], too politically toxic to be told… and the Home Office used the courts to try to stop it gaining currency.”
As a conclusion, it could hardly be more damning.
But, actually, the deceit is not the worst thing. All the available evidence suggests that people have died as a consequence of the government’s failures (not only in relation to policing) – and that is worse by far.
There is one thing that David Cameron and Theresa May were right about: that there was (and still is) a clear and compelling need for police reform in this country. But they were wrong about practically everything they did in response to that need. They were driven by ideology (not least the view that the police were ‘the last unreformed public service’ – a problem in need of fixing) rather than by evidence and experience. They paid attention to the voices of those with little or no understanding of the realities of policing (not least the self-titled ‘four horsemen of the police reform apocalypse’), while dismissing the voices of those who actually knew what they were talking about. They developed and encouraged an extraordinarily hostile public narrative about policing – one lacking any semblance of balance or integrity. And, when faced with inconvenient truths about the consequences of their actions, they responded with rebuttals and lies.
All of this has meant that the current government has spent a fair proportion of the last eighteen months scrambling desperately to repair the damage done during the preceding decade.
- In his first speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced urgent plans to recruit 20,000 ‘new’ police officers. In political terms, this alone was a spectacular admission of the abject failures of his immediate predecessors (who had managed to cut c.21,000 in the space of just eight years).
- At the start of this year, it was announced that changes to police bail – introduced by the government in 2017 in the face of repeated warnings that it was a bad idea – were being abandoned. As Fiona Hamilton reported in the Times newspaper on Jan 13th, “an overhaul intended to speed up the system instead made police investigations longer and left victims at increased risk.” She quotes an unnamed Chief Constable who described the 2017 reforms as a “cautionary tale of ideology driving policy”. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/reforms-to-police-bail-that-left-victims-at-risk-will-be-scrapped-2mdzzmxk5)
- In today’s Times, Fiona has written a separate piece about a warning given to the Home Office fully 18 months ago, concerning a lack of investment in ‘creaking’ police databases that is putting the public at ‘significant risk’. (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/home-office-warned-of-creaking-police-database-khmtnspgc)
And so it goes on. Governments that fail to learn from the mistakes of the past – and then compound the problem with a repeated refusal to acknowledge that those mistakes were ever made – are destined to repeat them. And the public are placed at risk as a consequence.
It is a truth that troubles me more than I can say.
There’s a great deal being written at the moment about the way politicians have been handling the response to the pandemic, and about the way they have been handling the realities of Brexit. Their dealings with both have given rise to overwhelming levels of concern – not least about their basic competence and their ability to be honest with the public they serve. Of course, there are epidemiologists and economists far more qualified than me to talk about those things, but when I consider the way politicians have been handling policing in recent years, it’s hard not to detect a pattern.