Thursday, 20 February 2014

English Local Government and Police: Historical Summary

(I recently attended a discussion on the subject of trusting the police. I wrote this as an historical background)

The structure of English local government remained basically unchanged from Tudor times till the 19th century. The general idea was that everyone had a part to play, dependent upon status; service was compulsory and no-one was paid.
    Thus, in each county, a nobleman would be lord-lieutenant and the landowning gentry would be the sheriff and the justices of the peace, and also Members of Parliament. In each parish the middling classes (mostly the richer tenant farmers) would take it in turns to be surveyor of highways, poor law guardians, churchwardens or village constable, and the poor had nothing to contribute except labour. The corporate towns, of which there were about 200, ranging from London down to very small settlements (“rotten boroughs”) had their own structures: mayors and aldermen, magistrates and M.P.s, who might be democratically elected, but frequently weren’t! Power was thus entirely in the hands of the landowning classes, who were extremely jealous of this power being taken from them by central government. It was really only the French Revolution which convinced the landowning classes that a strong central state might be their best defence against revolution from below.

England had its only experience of military government under Cromwell, and this led to a dislike and suspicion of the army which lasted for at least a century and a half. When Colonel Pride led his troops to expel M.P.s from Parliament ("Pride's purge"), what was particularly offensive was the Pride was only a brewer’s delivery man! The 18th century army remained small in numbers, recruited from the poorest classes and officered by the stupider younger sons of the nobility and gentry. Every proposal to expand the army was shot down in Parliament with the cry, “This could lead to another Cromwell!” The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 and the settlement that followed represented a surrender by central government to the landowning elite. The Act of Settlement of 1701 declared that it was illegal to maintain a standing army in peacetime, and for a long time afterwards an annual Mutiny Act had to be passed, permitting the army was exist for another 12 months.

Englishmen believed that they were a free people, unlike the unfortunate French, who were enslaved by a powerful state. Central to this was the belief that the French government used its army as a paramilitary police force (a “man-at-arms” = a gendarme!), and that this must never be allowed to happen here. (Several countries in our time can illustrate this fear: e.g. Egypt today!) Any attempts to set up a professional police force were vetoed by Parliament; the sole exception being the formation of the Thames River Police in the 1780s. We can consider in this light the famous Amendment 2 to the American constitution, guaranteeing the right of citizens to bear arms in order to form an efficient militia. A free people defend themselves: to rely upon a professional army or centrally-controlled police force is to risk enslavement! In Britain, as in America, in an emergency, such as the threat posed by a gang of highwaymen, the sheriff could summon all citizens to take up arms and follow him: an armed group (“comitatus”) having powers (“posse”). A reading of “Lorna Doone” shows that this was not always effective! The last attempt to summon a posse in Britain occurred in Glasgow in the 1820s. I don’t think it worked!

During the 18th century no reforms were attempted and the local government system became fossilized. In the rural villages it remained reasonably effective, though it left considerable arbitrary power in the hands of local landowners (the oppressive, corrupt, stupid or merely useless rural magistrate is a stock figure of literature from Shakespeare through to Kipling), but in the growing urban areas it broke down entirely. In the first half of the 18th century London was dominated by a gangster called Jonathon Wild, who would, for a reward, “find” stolen property with no questions asked, and capture criminals for the magistrates - the only criminals being caught were, of course, those who were not members of his gang. Bethnal Green in the East End was run by another gangster, Joseph Merceron, who for decades controlled the local parish vestry by threats of violence. The famous Bow Street Runners were not policemen, but a detective force set up by the Bow Street magistrates, Sir John Fielding and his brother, the novelist Henry Fielding. In the Gordon Riots in London in 1780, mobs rampaged through central London, burnt down all the prisons, sacked the houses of unpopular people, and were only narrowly prevented from storming the Bank of England. They were only put down after a week of mayhem by regular troops, with large numbers of people being shot; but afterwards the leader of the Opposition, Charles James Fox, proclaimed that he would rather see England ruled by the mob than ruled by the army!
At the time of the notorious “Peterloo massacre” in Manchester in 1819, Manchester was legally only a village, the only legitimate authority being a solitary magistrate, Joseph Nadin, who had at his command not even regular troops but only the local Yeomanry: that is, a militia of volunteer farmers on horseback. It is little wonder that the situation got out of hand.

Sir Robert Peel famously established the Metropolitan Police in 1829, but it took many years for similar forces to be established throughout the country. Great care was taken to make sure that the new police should not be a paramilitary force, that they should not normally be armed, and that control should rest with the local authorities, not with the central government. Staffordshire still had no county police force at the time of the Chartist riots in Stoke in 1842, and considerable damage was done to property before the rioters were dispersed by the troops. In a debate in the House of Lords, Lord Sandon accepted the need for a county constabulary, but insisted that its authority be limited to the towns, not to the countryside!

The new police forces managed to establish a grip on the roughest areas, which impressed the young Charles Dickens, but they were not necessarily popular. Part of the trouble was, they were plebs! Pay was low, and a high proportion of the recruits were Irish. Contemporary folk-songs accused them of  dishonesty and drunkenness, and in many cases this seems to have been justified. We can also see how the police were given a poor image in works of fiction. In the Sherlock Holmes stories the police are shown as unimaginative clodhoppers. In Agatha Christie’s stories the upper-class characters treat the police more or less like servants, and resent being questioned by them; and much the same attitude prevails in the Oxford of Inspector Morse. At least this is better than Raymond Chandler’s portrayal of American policemen, many of whom are blatantly corrupt, in the pay of gangsters or crooked politicians - which would indeed have been true in the Prohibition era in cities like New York or Chicago. Because control of the police was entirely local, there was very little that the government in Washington could do about it. The British police may have been plebs, and not very bright, but at least they have seldom, if ever, been accused of outright bribery and corruption.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Cambridge Eccentric

When I was at Cambridge, there was a legendary don who was famed for his absent-mindedness. In fact, he used to tell stories about it. When he was working through a problem in his head, he lost all awareness of what was going on around him. He was even capable of walking up to his own front door, ringing the bell, and when there was no reply, muttering, "Bother! He's out!" and walking away.
    His best story told how he suddenly "came to" and realised he was lying in bed on a sunny afternoon. Why should this be? He wasn't ill! Reconstructing his movements, he remembered that he had promised to play tennis with a friend and had gone to his room to change, but he was concentrating on solving a problem and so the sheer act of taking off his clothes had led to him going to bed!
   On a not dissimilar level, there is a legendary Cambridge story about the young Bertrand Russell walking along King's Parade and suddenly exclaiming to himself, "Good lord! The ontological argument is true!" He then stood stock-still for several minutes before saying, "No it isn't!" and continued on his way.