The problem with trying to assess the ongoing row over whether or not the police need more powers in order to effectively deal with the hateful conduct we’re seeing from some quarters at pro-Palestine marches is twofold.
First, it is difficult to diagnose to what extent the current, unsatisfactory situation is caused by various factors, most obviously the state of the law, operational decisions by the police and Crown Prosecution Service, and the broader state of the justice system. Second, there doesn’t yet seem to be a clear, detailed proposal for what a new regime would look like or how it would work.
Per my article last week, I’m sceptical that there is genuinely nothing more the Metropolitan Police could be doing with their current powers – and if anything events over the past seven days have only hardened that view.
For example, here’s a grim story from this morning’s Times about officers diligently peeling posters about Hamas hostages off a business whose employees had apparently posted anti-Israel statements on social media.
The Met said it “received calls from residents” about the flyers; it claims, as it did with other examples I listed before, that it was trying to avoid community tensions. But as I wrote last week:
“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.”
But beyond providing another illustration for that unhappy argument, this story highlights two problems with the police-need-more-powers thesis.
Problem one: the police clearly do have the power to intervene against protest and demonstration, even if such interventions don’t lead to arrest and charge; they have repeatedly done so against pro-Israel groups.
Why then do they not at least intervene against, for example, a man calling for jihad in front of a banner calling for “Muslim armies” to conquer Israel? Why do some calls from north London residents (and I am one, I don’t under-estimate our importance) outweigh the outcry from British Jews at what we’re seeing at some of these demonstrations?
Problem two: all of these decisions in the name of avoiding tension are operational decisions by the police. The Met would not have needed fresh powers to not despatch two officers to peel the faces of Hamas’ victims off a London shop front, or to defend pro-Israel demonstrators rather than shutting them down to avoid confrontations.
To that extent, the problem is one of doctrine and command culture, not legal authority.
There does seem to be at least tacit agreement that something needs to be done about how this country handles extremism. The Daily Telegraph reports:
“Civil servants in the department run by Mr Gove, the Communities Secretary, are drawing up a new official definition of extremism. The move could see Whitehall, councils and police forces cutting off funding to charities and mosques whose leaders or guest speakers have voiced hateful views.”
That’s fine, as far as it goes – although it will be interesting to see how assiduously any new directives are applied by government.
One thinks of Rory Stewart’s account in his recent book of his forlorn attempt to stop the Foreign Office sending aid money to Syrian councils with jihadist links. Or, more recently, William Shawcross’ finding that organisations funded by Prevent, the counter-extremism programme, have been “promoting Islamist extremist sentiments, or of validating and associating with Islamist extremists”.
But if such a programme extends beyond stemming the flow of cash (or at least attempting to do so), it is once again going to come back to law and enforcement. And that is thorny ground.
For starters, it is necessarily hazy. What exactly should the threshold for extremist conduct be? Some people will be well within a new definition (Mr “Muslim Armies” hopefully amongst them), but there will be edge cases, and these often produce absurdities. To highlight one example unrelated to Islamism: one can be arrested in the UK for possessing the The Anarchist Cookbook, a manual for aspiring 1970s terrorists – but it was until recently available on Amazon.
Then you need the police to be willing to go in and actually confront and arrest people engaging in such conduct, not after the fact but whilst they’re doing it. Which, as we’ve seen, they currently seem deeply unwilling to do. Then you need the Crown Prosecution Service to be prepared to press the charges vigorously. Then you need somewhere to put the new criminals.
And even after all that, you won’t know for sure whether or not the whole thing is going to get torn apart by judicial review until one of those edge cases, possibly at public expense, as thrust it under the nose of a judge.
So yes, there is clearly a need for change in how this country police’s extremism. But there are so many potential points of failure for any such effort that a bit of new guidance here and there, or even yet more powers on top of the several pieces of public order legislation already passed by this Government, isn’t going to cut it by itself.