Praise for officers angers those already resentful over Tory cuts to pay, pensions, budgets, forces … and the ‘pleb’ row
The annual Christmas message from the home secretary, Theresa May, went to police stations across England and Wales this week. It is a yuletide eulogy, designed to boost morale, and in it she praises the force’s 140,000 officers.
“She says we’re the best police force in the world, we do a good job,” said one recipient. “Nobody in my station has had a good word to say about it. They would have preferred she didn’t say anything.
“I’ve seen people reading it and angry that she’s got the gall to send out a Christmas message,” said the sergeant, who works for a provincial force. “It’s so two-faced. She says this, yet with the other hand they are taking it all away.”
So toxic are relations today between the government and police rank and file that May’s message has probably provoked similar ire at stations across the force.
Burning resentment over cuts to officers’ pay and pensions, the slashing by 20% of police budgets, and removing 16,000 officers from the streets are cause enough for such wrath, say the government’s critics. But, stoked by the perceived snobbery that is at the heart of the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” affair, this is a new nadir.
By and large, police have been natural Conservatives but relations with the Tories has soured under the current government.
“Not just the uniforms were blue, the politics were too, up until this government,” said Brian Paddick, former Scotland Yard senior officer and twice Liberal Democrat candidate for London mayor. Now he believes some officers are defecting to Ukip.
Timothy Brain, former Gloucestershire chief constable, described relations between police and the government as “pretty wretched”.
“Plebgate is representative of a lot of bad blood that has been built up over two-and-half years,” said Brain, now honorary senior research fellow at Cardiff University. “You get something that is mind-numbingly trivial but it gets blown out of all proportion.”
Budget cuts and changes to the police forces’ traditionally generous pension scheme are the flash points, fuelling a rising fury which next year could see a ballot for a right to strike – raising the prospects of the first police strike since 1919.
If more evidence were needed, more than 35,000 officers marched in London against the cuts – a record turnout.
A huge irritant was the 2011 report by the former rail regulator Tom Winsor, who recommended cuts in overtime and special payments. Another was Lord Hutton’s report in the same year on public-sector pensions, which said police should pay more into their pensions and work longer before receiving them. Sir Patrick Sheehy’s 1993 report was an unsuccessful attempt at police reform by the Tories, and beaten down by protest and public support.
“The Winsor report highlighted many of the outdated practices,” said Paddick “The last Tory government tried to reform them through Sheehy, but were defeated. There has been a lot of pain leading to a lot of resentment.”
Some detected a hint of elitism at the heart of Winsor’s 1,000-page review, when he complained that for too long policing had been regarded as an intellectually undemanding occupation.The roots of policing in Britain lie in working-class culture, who, for various reasons seemingly now feel they are viewed as below the salt. Thatcher famously said: “What they need is support and not criticism.” The police counter that the “Plod” image is completely outdated with 68% of recruits educated to A-level and above, and 30% graduates.
Then, to top it all, when it came time to appoint a new head of the Inspectorate of Constabulary, a job traditionally given to an experienced chief constable, it was controversially given to Winsor. That was a red rag to an already furious bull.
Strains between police and leading Tories could be detected during the Tories’ days in opposition. The resignation as MP of the shadow home secretary David Davis in 2008 – to force a byelection in protest over plans to extend pre-charge detentions for terror suspects to a maximum of 42 days – was seen as a direct conflict with police.
Shadow immigration minister Damian Green’s 2008 arrest by the Metropolitan police as part of a leaks inquiry was condemned as “not proportionate” and caused widespread anger among MPs who feared police had exceeded their powers when they raided his office. He was never charged. Today, Green is minister for policing and criminal justice.
Brain sees the conflict as “historical”. “The new Conservatives under David Cameron were determined to have a new relationship with the police. They thought Labour and the police were too cosy.
“David Cameron, I think, thought the police had bullied his bosses around in the past, the way Michael Howard and Ken Clarke were dealt with over Sheehy,” he said.
At the time, Cameron was a young political adviser in the Home Office, watching and learning.
The “conspiracy theory”, according to one sergeant who prefers to remain anonymous, is that today’s assault “was long in the planning”.
Brain predicts problems in resolving differences. “It seems to me whatever the Conservatives say, it’s perceived as going through the motions. So when they say something positive, it’s not really taken very seriously.
“I think that’s because they show quite a lot of condescension, bordering on contempt, to the police, whether it’s senior officers through Acpo [Association of Chief Police Officers] or junior ranks through the federation, I think it’s a very negative relationship all round.
“Then something like ‘plebgate’ happens and both sides interpret those events from their own standpoints.”
So the government sees it as a “conspiracy” – “very unlikely” – while the police are thinking: “That’s how they would talk to us”?
Brain said: “It’s a nightmare of negativity. I don’t believe anyone’s interested in getting off the treadmill.”
But, he concluded: “Any attempt at making a gesture will be seen by the other side as just that, making a gesture.”
Nigel Rabbitts, a police sergeant and chair of the Devon police federation, said the rank and file in his force “feel the government has been disingenuous in the breaking of a covenant we’ve had since 1919”. They were still expected to police “without fear or favour”, though felt devalued. “When we are talking about a starting salary of £19,000, they feel that’s insulting and doesn’t value the office of constable.”
“On a day-to-day basis they are worried. When they were turning up for a shift of 14 people, there are now seven; when they ask for assistance, it’s not always there and the public are starting to notice.”
Clive Chamberlain, who during 30 years with Dorset police has served as a patrol and community beat officer, said he had never heard Cameron say anything positive about the police. “The government is seen by many police officers as out of touch. They are making decisions about things they know very little about,” he said.
“They don’t seem to listen to people who do the job; they’re listening to 20-year-olds working in a thinktank rather than people with experience. There are a lot of people at the centre of government who are out of touch, never had a job, gone straight from public school to gap year to thinktank to policy wonk to whatever. They are not living in the world the rest of us live in.”
He added: “Appointing Tom Winsor was a two-finger salute from Theresa May.”
Police were “getting on with jobs”, he said. “In the background there’s this feeling they aren’t being valued. I don’t know where it’s all going. Police officers feel they have no protection, the home secretary can overturn anything and force on the service what he or she wants.
“You have a government that seems to be behaving more like Victorian mill owners.”
The Tories are not just sceptical about the way police operate, they also want to change the culture. They are impressed with the US model, in part because of its focus on localism. No 10 wanted Bill Bratton, a former New York and LA police chief, to become Britain’s top officer when Sir Paul Stephenson was forced out as Met commissioner over the phone-hacking scandal last year.
The plan was blocked by the Home Office, insisting the candidate must be British. Such a move could only have been seen as an insult to a generation of British police leaders, some of whom felt the Tories were obsessed with the US style – although police would say it produces worse results than the British system.
Sir Hugh Orde, Acpo president, trashed the prime minister’s idea and dismissed the call for foreign police chiefs as “simply stupid”. He was denied the Met commissioner job, despite two panels saying he was the best candidate.
That, and the appointment of Bernard Hogan-Howe to the post, after he had carefully courted the Tories, is another stream of disquiet. A fear among police chiefs and the lower ranks is of increased politicisation of the service, and of it being subservient to politicians’ whims.
In turn, politicians in private have talked of imperious police chiefs, dismissive of accountability, acting like uniformed emperors in their fiefdoms.
The view seems to be: if policing is the last unreformed public service, this government is determined to try.