“When society is divided, policing has a crucial role to play by standing in the space between and operating without fear or favour.” So writes Sir Mark Rowley, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, in this morning’s Daily Telegraph.
That much is perfectly true – although it opens the question of whether or not the police actually do that.
More than one commentator has pointed out the apparent contrast between the velvet-gloved approach the Met has taken with Hizb ut-Tahrir – the outfit calling on “Muslim armies” to wrest Palestine from Israel – and the rather more heavy-handed treatment it dished out to the women holding a vigil for Sarah Everard (of many possible examples).
Before that, there was the apparent gulf in the way that lockdown restrictions on demonstrations seemed to be applied – without fear or favour, of course – to Black Lives Matter versus concurrent protests in the name of less fashionable causes.
Nonetheless, and even as someone who has repeatedly called for the Met to be broken up, it’s worth considering whether or not Sir Mark has a point. Or even more than one.
After all, it was only in 2021 that he and Sara Khan, then Commissioner for Countering Extremism, wrote in an official report that “the nature and scale of extremist activity that is currently lawful in Britain is shocking and dangerous.” They went on:
“A great deal of hateful extremist activity is currently lawful in Britain primarily because of the lack of legislation designed to capture the specific activity of hateful extremism and additionally the existing scope in current hate crime and counter terrorism legislation, designed to capture these crimes but not hateful extremism.”
By way of example, they pointed out that it is currently legal to “glorify” terrorism and “intentionally stir up racial hatred”, so long as the speaker avoids crossing the line (wherever it lies) into actually encouraging or commissioning terrorist acts or directly threatening people. This is what has allowed Britain to be described as the “nerve centre” of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation banned by several Western nations as well as many Arab ones.
That is a policy decision; as the recent outcry over the BBC’s labelling of Hamas illustrated, our Government can and does ban organisations, and in this case has chosen not to. And in the wake of 9/11, counter-extremism policy has focused, perhaps excessively, on terrorism.
And yet the argument that the police are chomping at the bit, but held back by the law, is thin. The police do not normally seem unable to crack down on much less serious cases of offensive speech, and in any event incitement of hatred against people overseas was made a crime under New Labour.
Nor do the Met burnish their reputation for even-handedness when their social media team patiently explains to people worried by a speaker calling for “Muslim armies” to attack Israel that “the word has a number of meanings”; apparently the specialist officers who assessed the video thought he had merely taken an inopportune moment to meditate on his inner, spiritual struggle.
Moreover, there is not normally a hard-and-fast line between being banned outright and being able to do whatever one likes. Sir Mark might insist that his officers cannot enforce “taste and decency”, their actions against the Campaign Against Antisemitism’s vans highlighting kidnap victims suggest they can and do enforce the opposite, as too did their forcing Christian Action Against Antisemitism to call of their planned “Pray for Israel and the Jewish People” event on Sunday.
Doubtless Sir Mark would point out that neither of these were done on the grounds of decency (they scarcely could be), but rather on the basis of maintaining public order – in both cases, danger to the participants was advanced as a reason for restricting their activities.
Yet that, too, is a policy choice. And one with troubling consequences, because it suggests that if an organisation can amass a sufficient number of potentially violent people, that mob then sets the local tone, and the police will tacitly enforce their idea of taste and decency in the name of keeping the peace.
Which brings us to the second point: ownership of the public square. In his piece above, Sir Mark writes that “we [the police] don’t licence or give permission for protests to happen”. Which invites the question: should they? Or at least, should someone?
This again is not a new debate, as anyone who followed the debate over the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act will know. There is always a tension between a maximalist interpretation of the right to protest and rights of the rest of society to go about their business in peace.
In the case of Extinction Rebellion, such arguments centred on the huge financial costs, both direct and indirect, of its repeated efforts to bring the capital to a halt. In the subsequent row over the Public Order Act, it was about when protest against individuals or premises crossed the line into harassment, or when one person’s effective protest becomes another person’s blockade of a hospital.
Both concerns apply now too, but so too does the brute fact of the virulent antisemitism which infects parts (by no means all) of the recent spate of protests, and the impact of that on British Jewry.
Notwithstanding the question of how these protests are policed (although it grows more pressing if the Met sticks to its current course), how frequently should such events be allowed to happen? The organisers are apparently aiming for weekly demonstrations; if they maintain their present characteristics, that would surely be unacceptable.
Sir Mark’s article suggests at least two possible changes of tack: more muscular on-the-ground policing, perhaps with a new legislative basis, and/or a more pro-active and preventative policy, with the Home Secretary or some other suitable authority having the power to regulate, and if necessary refuse permission to, such demonstrations.
Either course would have its costs. In the former case, more of the sort of street clashes we often associate with continental policing, and overturning what appears to be a deep-seated preference for the quiet life on the part of some senior officers; in the latter, becoming a country which regulations demonstrations (as well as some street clashes – there would doubtless be those who defied a restriction, although they would be smaller in number and easier to deal with).
Both would doubtless upset those who idealise our Peelian settlement. But as Sir Mark writes, “the chasm between our country’s legislation and public expectation is becoming more evident”. Policing has to adapt to the challenges confronting it; there is no virtue in eschewing firmer methods if they are, however regrettably, what the day demands.