Issue 227 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'Any fall guy is likely to drag so many with him and is likely to open the lid on a can of very ugly worms'
'The British police are the best in the world', began Tom Robinson's song Glad to be Gay. The song then proceeded to pour scorn on what was, at the time, a well worn cliche.
The cliche was born from the image of the mythical British bobby, a kind and friendly person, whistling a little tune, directing the traffic, helping the elderly cross the road, giving directions and telling the time to anyone unfortunate enough to lack a watch.
The kind soul, who was, of course, as honest as the day is long, only turned stern with wrongdoers, and would give young delinquents the odd clip around the ear, saving them from a life of crime.
I have no idea whether such a copper ever existed. I suppose it's possible that there was such a person riding his bike around Tewkesbury or Chipping Sodbury in the 1920s or 30s, though I have my doubts. What is certain, however, is that at no time were such characters typical of the British police. The idea that the Met was ever policed by such people is as likely as the thought that there was once a real fire station made up of Hugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.
Whatever was once believed, though, has long gone. Today most people perceive the police as corrupt, violent, racist, rude, dishonest and prejudiced. One only has to look at television cop dramas to see how far things have changed.
Dixon of Dock Green, the 'evening all' show of the early 1960s, would look more like a comedy today. Z Cars, which caused such a storm when launched in the mid-1960s, would now make The Bill look hard hitting. Series such as Between the Lines and The Cops seem much closer to the truth and much more like the general perception of today's police.
Funnily enough, what adds to this perception is the fact that no matter how badly caught out, no copper ever seems to get punished.
Actually this perception isn't quite right, as the odd copper does get nailed. Recently one was convicted for robbing an old age pensioner when he went round to advise her on crime prevention!
Such cases are, however, the exception, and they can be offered up because they fit nicely into the 'one rotten apple' scenario. No, the real problem comes when the one apple is just the tip of a rank, stinking orchard.
This, of course, is what the Stephen Lawrence case represents. The way in which the whole police investigation was conducted and the way those murderous thugs were allowed to walk free cannot be laid at the door of one dimwitted woodentop, or one low ranking good guy gone bad. The Stephen Lawrence case can only be explained by looking at the police force as a whole, by looking at the racism and the corruption, and by understanding that the twilight world occupied by organised crime, informers and coppers is one where it becomes difficult to know where one set begins and another ends.
Of course, it looks awful that when an attempt is made to single out one cop, hey presto, he disappears into retirement. Why not offer one up? From the police's point of view it would seem the obvious thing to do.
But this is quite hard to do because any fall guy is likely to drag so many with him and is likely to open the lid on a can of very ugly worms. This is not just a case of one greedy copper seizing an opportunity. It is a whole method, a whole system, and a whole institution.
That is why in each of the great miscarriages of justice--the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Tottenham Three and Carl Bridgwater case--not a single copper has ever been put on trial or dismissed from the force. To do so would have led to the questioning of entire police methods, the legal system and the judiciary, and the behaviour of senior politicians.
That is why even though the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad had to be disbanded and a number of its prosecutions quashed because of corruption, not one of its members ended up in jail.
All this covering up, though, has a very heavy price. it destroys every last vestige of the image of the British police, and raises questions about even wider layers of society.
Of course, those active on the left and those trade unionists involved in industrial disputes learned long ago of police bias. Of course, very large numbers of black men and women experienced on a regular basis and at a very personal level that the police were racist.
Of course, many people in run down inner city estates knew from childhood that the cops loathed them, and of course many in the Irish community knew of the fit-ups. Now, however, it is not just personal experience. People read, see, and hear daily of the fit-ups, the racism, the prejudice and the corruption. What is more, they are aware that justice is never done even when the cops are caught.
Now even larger numbers of people who have no direct experience of police victimisation know the facts and view with real cynicism anything the cops say or do.
The more the police attempt to cover up, the more they lay themselves bare. I think if Tom Robinson were to rewrite his song today he would change the first line because nobody believes any longer that the British police are the best in the world.