The vast majority of the United Kingdom’s citizens—or more correctly, His Majesty’s subjects—do not realize that law enforcement in their country was always intended to be different to that of other European states. This is largely due to the fact that when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (after whom British police officers are still affectionately known either as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’) proposed to establish the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century there was considerable uproar.
William Cobbett, the freedom-loving Radical, was horrified by the suggestion of a police force in the sceptred realm, arguing that such a thing would soon take us back to the loathed Cromwellian days of government mediated by a standing army. Tories and Radicals alike campaigned against the idea of a uniformed body of law enforcers, regarding the very concept, as Peter Hitchens explains in A Brief History of Crime, as deeply “foreign and repressive.”
Having watched chaotic, revolutionary impulses emerge on the Continent, and the rise of rationalist despotisms displacing ancient Christian monarchies, many Englishmen were terrified at the prospect of a Joseph Fouché-style Ministry of Policing coming across the Channel to endanger our received common law, behead our landed class, and topple our monarchy. In the early 19th century, much of the educated public continued to glory in the hallowed name of Edmund Burke, and they treasured their Anglo-Saxon freedoms over any continental liberté—an exotic word that they took to be a euphemism for servitude.
In response to this well-founded suspicion against everything French, Peel insisted that an English police force must be nothing like the hired heavies of the continent. They were to wear blue suits, top hats, shoulder capes, small, concealed truncheons (to be used only with the greatest restraint) and were to be men selected only from the working class so as not to exacerbate socio-economic tensions. These policemen were also to be the most exemplary members of the local community. They would not need any profound understanding of law beyond a grasp of the common liberties known to all English subjects. It was up to each patrolling constable to decide, for the most part prudentially, how law and order were to be kept on his ‘beat’—that is, the streets allocated to him, each paving slab of which he was expected to see every ten to fifteen minutes.
One thing that the English constable absolutely was not to be was an enforcer of whatever happened to be the current fashionable ideology or creed of the governing party. In fact, the police constable was not to be political at all. He was a fellow civilian and subject just like everyone else, what Peel called a mere “uniformed citizen.” As Peel wrote elsewhere, the English policeman was just “a person paid to perform, as a matter of duty, acts which if he were so minded he might have done voluntarily.”
Until as recently as 1929, one hundred years after the Met Police was founded, the Royal Commission on Police Powers was still insisting on the Peelite conception of the police constable as an ancient office, with a pedigree going back to the esquires who assisted knights in protecting their estates, with powers rooted in the common law. “The police of this country,” the Royal Commission declared, “have never been recognised, either in law or by tradition, as a force distinct from the general body of citizens.” The same idea of a police force independent of state power was still being advanced as late as the 1962 Royal Commission.
Meanwhile, it was said that in France and across much of the Continent, if a political demonstration flared up in the streets of a given city, the head of police would contact the central government to ask whether or not it supported the cause of the demonstration. If the response was ‘Yes,’ the police would withdraw and let it take its course. If the answer was ‘No,’ the police would arm themselves and attack the demonstrators with all the heavy-handedness they could muster. In such countries, the police essentially played the role of political enforcers, the paid agents of a ruling ideology, as opposed to fellow citizens encouraging the rest of society to respect the law which was deemed to rule them all.
The patrolling English constable, with his dark suit and hardhat, saying little but seeing everything, was the product of a thoroughly conservative anthropology that deemed human nature to be fallen. If men thought they could do what they liked and get away with it, they would do many more bad things. This distrust of the common man, however, was applied equally to those in government, and as such the entire system of policing was established to prevent the agents of law enforcement from being turned into political bludgeons.
Eventually, however, those who disliked English culture, who saw the common law as a plodding old assortment of traditions and precedents that had to be purified by the transposition of civil codes through EU assimilation, who had an essentially liberal anthropology that emphasised rights granted by the state over liberties enshrined down the ages—in short, oikophobes—naturally wanted a police force that would resemble those found on the continent. We now have it.
Consider what we witnessed repeatedly in response to the peaceful London demonstrations against lockdown policies and vaccine passports. Crowds gathered and protested, and then large battalions of police, otherwise largely absent, fast descended upon the scene either to disperse, mistreat, or arrest those holding placards. Many will say, of course, that during a pandemic the demonstrators were guilty of disobeying the measures brought in to keep us all safe. But so were the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, who also protested in violation of pandemic restrictions but were permitted by the police to storm through cities, smashing windows and toppling statues, while officers themselves stood by and merely watched the show. It was almost as if they had been told that one set of protestors had ideological motivations that the prevailing regime deemed intolerable, but the more rowdy set of rioters did not.
More recently, we had a case in which a military veteran was tracked down by Hampshire Police for posting a rainbow flag refashioned in the shape of a Nazi swastika on his social media. Harry Miller, a former police officer who in January 2020 was himself pursued by Humberside Police after an individual reported him for alleged ‘transphobic’ tweets, was arrested alongside the ex-soldier for getting in between the police officers and their intended target. The good news is that, following the more recent incident in Hampshire, Miller was released without charge on July 29th. Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Donna Jones, additionally issued an apologetic, somewhat encouraging statement:
I am concerned about both the proportionality and necessity of the police’s response to this incident. When incidents on social media receive not one but two visits from police officers, but burglaries and non-domestic break-ins don’t always get a police response, something is clearly wrong.
She further stated that on this occasion, Hampshire Police had fallen short of its real duty to serve the public. Finally, Jones signalled an intention to write to the College of Policing to “make them aware of this incident and to encourage greater clarification on the guidance” around responding to apparent ‘hate crimes.’ That “someone has been caused anxiety by something you posted on social media; [and] that’s why you’re being arrested”—the justification cited by one police officer in the video of the arrest—is simply not good enough.
Nevertheless, whether by ideological fashion or the de jure proliferation of civil codes displacing the freedoms enshrined in the traditions of English common law, the police no longer act in the way that Peel and successive generations of Englishmen had expected them to do so. They no longer walk the streets to prevent crime and disorder; today, their real concern is to patrol the minds of citizens so that any ‘regressive’ thinking can be swiftly checked in its tracks. Thus, the peace of neighbourhoods and the security of those who live there have become secondary concerns. The old ‘bobby’ lived at the heart of his community. Consequently, he cared a great deal about maintaining public order and guarding the settled way of life which he had grown to love—if need be by acting sternly towards ruffians, delinquents, and other species of criminal. His modern equivalent is a much more remote creature: removed from the community, hidden from public view, ready to act boldly in the face of thought crime yet pusillanimous when it comes to the real thing. The modern police officer does not so much protect his fellow citizens’ ancient liberties but punish his own countrymen when they seek to enjoy such liberties. Meanwhile, the criminal behaviour that truly undermines our way of life often goes unchallenged.
One of the authors of this piece lives on the outskirts of a small town. At one of the parks of this town, where he often takes his children to play in the playground, there is a recurring problem. Balaclava-clad teenagers from a council estate regularly joyride on unplated motorbikes through the area, putting parents and their children at serious risk. This problem has been brought to the attention of the local police almost weekly over the past decade, and yet the police claim that they are understaffed and are therefore unable to address the issue. And so, the law-abiding population of this town must live in fear of the day when, God forbid, a child goes under the wheel of one of these joyriding ruffians. During lockdown, however, this same police department was able to deploy several vehicles, packed to the rafters with personnel, to patrol the parks and ensure that children were not exceeding their lawful hour of exercise in any of the playgrounds. The officers were literally herding parents and their little children off swings and into their cars, sending them home at once. The demands of ‘safety,’ it would appear, are more or less important depending on whether they enjoy the explicit backing of central government.
The police have become an alien presence in our society. Gone is “the historic tradition,” as Peel put it, “that the police are the public and the public are the police.” They are now the agents of a ruling ideology, committed to enforcing the clumsy, top-down statutes which increasingly menace our basic freedoms and to ingratiating themselves with the far-Left activists who will always loathe the police in any case. Otherwise, this has become a land where the constable no longer patrols. The officer is absent. He appears out of nowhere, unexpectedly, to frustrate the life of the ordinary, law-abiding subject. How did England get this way?