Only Parliament can now reverse this dangerous trajectory
As a vignette for future historians, the sight of a member of an embattled royal family laying flowers at a vigil later broken up by the forces of the state may be hard to resist. By visiting Clapham Common, the Duchess of Cambridge unwittingly reminded us of an organic form of government which exists to serve and protect its subjects’ liberty, rationing its monopoly of force accordingly.
The truncheons of the Metropolitan Police embodied the opposite: a self-serving state apparatus seeking to complete the syllogism between public order and its own power. On one side, we find Common Law; on the other, the increasingly draconian statutes developed by commission and rubber-stamped by Parliament — including the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court‘ Bill being debated today.
The internal logic of authoritarianism — that any relaxation of state power is an unacceptable threat to public order — risks being perfectly served by the present moment. The authorities are transfixed with the unpredictable social consequences of lifting a series of unprecedented lockdowns. Doing this ‘safely’ means police authority must be preserved at all costs. Hence why Cressida Dick has resisted calls for her to resign, which would be the normal political safety-valve in such a situation.
Responsibility for Saturday’s crackdown will instead remain safely diffused through the organisations involved, allowing the repressive precedent to remain quietly in place. The only glimmer of light has come from the rank and file, reported by the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation as being unwilling enforcers. But the more unpopular they become, the more they will be forced to embrace this new role to both justify and protect themselves. This wedge is both the diametrical opposite of Robert Peel’s vision of ‘citizens in uniform’ and a key component of all police states.
The state flexing its muscles against the weak has been the turning point in every slide into dictatorship in history. But instead of owning to this Mephistophelian transformation, the government is pushing ahead with its public-order bill while distracting us with a range of other proposed measures for women. While many are undoubtedly needed, the government is also violently suppressing women’s freedoms with the other hand. The juxtaposition brings to mind Homer-Simpson’s pithy summation of his parenting philosophy: “Don’t you hit my kid: that’s my job
The endpoint of the authoritarian ratchet is that freedom must be withheld from people for their own good. Its waymarker has always been the type of scene we saw on Clapham Common this weekend: the state turning its monopoly of violence on those who cannot defend themselves, for what it considers to be the best possible reasons. But the lesson of history is that such violent means always become an end in themselves.
Now it is Parliament’s turn to respond. It must vote down the new Bill and respond to the mounting public-order risk by bringing forward the lifting of lockdowns as infections fall — not turning the ratchet further by pushing them back. We have already seen the power of linguistic creep as ‘Denier’ has migrated from the Holocaust to Climate to Covid. The word ‘Lockdown’ has already started the same insidious journey. Under such circumstances — and with evidence before us from Saturday — what credence can voters possibly give to reassurances that the new public-order bill will only be used for ‘certain sorts’ of protest? If the agencies of the state cannot be trusted to evenly and justly exercise its current powers, they cannot possibly be rewarded with more.
If the British body politic does not rise to this moment, then it will have failed in its historical purpose. The fundamental relationship between the state and its citizens is at stake, and Britain stands closer to the brink than it realises.