I spent the long Jubilee weekend in Liverpool, helping my daughter and her husband move house. Until she moved there a few years ago, I didn’t know much about Liverpool beyond the accent, the football teams and, of course, the Beatles. I had only been there once in my life before then.
It’s a great city – warm, friendly people, lots of beautiful buildings and wide streets (like anywhere, of course, it has its less nice parts!) – and I love it.
It’s a place with a lot of history – including some that’s less well-known but very signficant – and bears a very relevant lesson for us today.
You may well not be aware of it (I wasn’t, until quite recently), but in 1919, after police strikes in London in 1918 and 1919, Liverpool police went on strike. In London, the government had responded to the strikes by doubling police pay but declaring the police union illegal, but in the provinces most police officers continued to be paid less well than the local street-sweepers. In Liverpool, which had a notoriously draconian ‘Watch’ (oversight committee), more than half the local police force went on strike.
The government’s response was rapid and severe. The army was brought in to bolster non-striking police, to keep order but especially to break the strike. In the end, every single police officer who took part in the strike was dismissed. Pension rights were lost, and many were never able to work again – employers who took on a dismissed police officer received visits from senior officers and were warned of undesirable consequences if they continued to employ him. And, of course, the it was made illegal for the police to strike ever again.
Why such a savage response? What was the government so afraid of that it felt it had to act so strongly and make such an example of these men, especially when they also granted to remaining officers the improved conditions the strikers had wanted? In context, it’s clear enough – Russia had just revolted against its rulers, resistance was growing among other workers, and the government was terrified that if the police sided with the workers, it would have no chance of maintaining the status quo. The government knew it had to divide in order to maintain control, so it did whatever it had to to make sure it kept the police on one side and the rest of the populace on the other.
Since then, the police force has generally seen part of its role as being to enforce the government’s wishes against people who disagree with it, and it hasn’t always covered itself with glory in the process. Whatever the feelings and opinions of individual officers, from the miners’ strike in the 80s, through the Fleet St/Wapping conflict to the controversial ‘kettling’ tactics of today, in recent decades the police have, in my opinion, gone beyond their duty to maintain order in the way they’ve handled lawful protest. It’s not an easy choice for them, of course, and I’d never make light of what it would mean to disobey orders from their superior officers. But the fact remains that the public views the police in at least two, largely contradictory ways: as the welcome providers of safety on the streets, and also as a group that sometimes goes too far, too enthusiastically, in acting as the government’s enforcers. Last year’s riots, when police (rightly or not) took a ‘stand back’ approach to looting and arson in contrast to the strict handling of protest marches, didn’t improve public perception.
Yet now, in implementing the Winsor report, the government is taking actions against the police who have resolutely supported it over the last 90-odd years, and the police are protesting against these measures, and looking for public support for their resistance.
As you’ll know if you read this blog regularly, or even if you just watch and listen to what the government says, ‘divide and conquer’ is a standard Tory tactic – and the reason for it is still the same: fear. Any group that tries to resist the austerity measures the ConDems (especially the Cons) try to ramrod through becomes an immediate target for a propaganda campaign whose aim is to portray it as somehow privileged, selfish and blinkered – and to turn the opinion of the rest of the electorate against the resisters. They’re being slightly more circumspect in how they do this with the police force, but it’s still there. ‘The police have to face reality’, their response to Home Secretary Teresa May was boorish and misogynistic, they’re being obstructive in daring to claim that law-enforcement must suffer if numbers are cut, or dispute claims that only back-office functions are affected, or stating the obvious truth that if you remove or privatise back-office functions, the effectiveness of policing as a whole must inevitably be affected. And so on.
But now the government is adding insult to injury, by trying to appoint the much-despised author of the Winsor report as the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, which can really only be construed as treating the police with ill-disguised contempt.
If you look at it in its historical context, the government is playing a high-risk game in its treatment of the police, at a time when it’s also trying to strip hard-won benefits from workers, the unemployed and the disabled. If the police side with the rest of the population, the government has reason to be scared. Look at what happened in Tunisia, Egypt etc when the police forces (and armies) there either joined in the general uprising or decided not to intervene.
For the Tories to do this, it can really only mean that either they’re planning to offer some kind of sop to the police which they believe will be enough to mollify them, or else they simply take for granted that no matter how they’re treated, the police will always toe the line and respond to the government’s call when it wants action against protesters and strikers.
So, what’s the lesson in all this for us – and what for the police?
Well, I’m absolutely in support of the police in their fight against the Winsor ‘reforms’ – for the reason that I believe the recommendations to be immoral, wrong and foolish. The police are public servants, and every right-thinking person should be doing whatever they can to resist the persistent and shameless attack on all kinds of public-sector workers, just as we should resist the attacks on and demonisation of the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. For this government to claim ‘we’re all in it together’, while enriching the wealthy, letting huge corporations escape taxes, and attacking the people who are not responsible for any fiscal problems is staggering hypocrisy, not to mention downright malignant. So, if you’re a reader of this blog and you have mixed feelings about the police or about supporting them in their campaign, I appeal to you to put aside your reservations and jump in, in whatever way you can.
And if you’re a police officer, then my appeal to you is this: remember the support you’re receiving from people now that in the future the government might be asking you to kettle, arrest or otherwise clamp down on. Don’t forget the way the Conservatives are treating you now, even if they throw you a bone or two at some point to try to get you onside. Don’t let them take you for granted, and don’t go one millimetre beyond your statutory obligations in how you treat protesters and strikers.
Governments who plan ill for our country for the benefit of their own small clique of ‘elite’ friends and backers fear one thing more than anything – that we stand united against them. And if ‘we’ includes the police, they’ll be shaking in their boots and can be stopped in their tracks. The lesson of Liverpool 1919 is just that, really.