If you’re trying to find New Labour’s deepest flaw, just ask a policeman
In his Dimbleby Lecture last year, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, declared that ‘policing is becoming not only central to our understanding of citizenship, it is becoming a contestable political issue as never before’. He called for ‘open thought’ and an ‘open debate’. He said it was time for the police service to transform itself into ‘one holistic service’.
In most police canteens they probably think that ‘holistic’ is a kind of glue. But Sir Ian is, if nothing else, a very unusual copper. He has the troubled countenance of a regional manager for Kwik-Fit Euro who is failing to make his targets and dreads every call from head office. Yet he speaks like a sociologist: more Howard Kirk from The History Man than Dixon of Dock Green.
Well, Sir Ian might say, so what? Where does it say that Knacker is only allowed to read the Riot Act, and can’t dip into a little Durkheim or Gramsci? And the Met Commissioner would be right, I suppose. The trouble, in his own case, is that intellect has proved no substitute for guile and political dexterity. In 13 months he has fumbled, he has stumbled and — in the end — he has been nabbed secretly taping telephone conversations, including at least one with the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. So much for ‘open debate’.
The full extent of Sir Ian’s errors will not be clear until the Independent Police Complaints Commission delivers its report on his handling of the aftermath of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes last July. What we do know already, however, is something of the Commissioner’s state of mind in recent months. And one must ask why so senior a public servant felt constrained to make private recordings of this sort. The claim that Sir Ian did not have an official note-taker with him may be accurate, but does not have the ring of psychological truth. This was a frightened man, and probably a desperate one. His finger surely trembled as he pressed the ‘record’ button.
Yet this is not the heart of the matter. That the Metropolitan Commissioner thinks it necessary to tape a conversation with a senior minister says as much about the sickness of the polity as it does about Sir Ian’s moral fibre. No previous incumbent would have dreamed of such behaviour — not least because they would have found the idea laughable.
Sir Robert Mark, the only other commissioner to give the Dimbleby Lecture, made light of Reggie Maudling’s swearing (‘His words did not remind me of the accession of the youthful Victoria’). Douglas Hurd recalls in his memoirs that when senior police officers like Kenneth Newman entered the Home Secretary’s office ‘they brought power with them. That did not make them easy to deal with, but I would not have had it otherwise.’ Michael Howard was scarcely a soft touch at the Home Office. But when Sir Paul Condon threatened to resign as Met Commissioner over proposed reforms of the police, Mr Howard took him seriously and compromised.
Something fundamental changed after 1997, however. Sir Ian’s much cannier and more robust predecessor, Lord Stevens, has written scathingly of the way in which stories about his private conversations with David Blunkett would find their way into print. ‘There were only three of us in that office,’ he remarked, ‘myself, the Home Secretary and his dog. And it didn’t come from the dog.’ Indeed it did not. The frustrations Lord Stevens describes are symptomatic of a much deeper problem that has long afflicted New Labour and — in one sense — defined it: the ferocious competition to copyright truth, to get one’s versions of events out first, to smash opposing versions of reality.
The founding moment of the Blair era, after all, was the Granita deal: a conversation over a meal that has splintered into a thousand shards of contested memory and bitter controversy. Who said what to whom? Do you believe Gordon or Tony? Would you buy used polenta from either man?
So grievous has the legacy of that deal (or non-deal) been that another such summit, in 2003, was held at John Prescott’s flat in Admiralty Arch, with the Deputy Prime Minister as witness, notary and referee. And even then there are wildly different accounts of what was (or was not) agreed over dinner. Alastair Campbell once referred to ‘this huge stuff about trust’. But it is not only the trust between government and public that has broken down. Within the government, between its members, trust has gone, too: perhaps it was never there.
Truth, of course, is always a matter of opinion when there is no contemporaneous record. In the many inquiries into this government’s behaviour, it has been a common complaint of the investigators that New Labour leaves little or no trace behind when it is doing serious business.
Five years ago Sir Anthony Hammond com plained in his report on the Hinduja affair that ‘I have been hampered by the lack of consistent record-keeping in the private offices which were involved’. Lord Hutton, that most biddable of inquisitors, remarked of his inquiry that ‘there did not appear to be minutes of discussions in Downing Street, but I simply had to proceed on the material which was before me’. Lord Butler criticised ‘the informality and circumscribed character of the government’s procedures’. Sir Alan Budd grumbled about the absence of an ‘audit trail’.
There is, to say the least, a pattern of behaviour in all this. Forests are laid waste to feed the Whitehall paper machine. But too often — at the moment of decision — the note-taker is banished, the minutes are suspended, the form is left unfilled. This is the true danger of the ‘sofa’ government identified by Lord Butler: not informality, but unaccountability. To update Orwell: he who controls yesterday’s minutes controls tomorrow’s headlines.
No wonder the frantic Sir Ian was so keen to make a sneaky recording. No wonder Lord Goldsmith — who knows all about spin wars from the row over his legal advice on the Iraq invasion — was so shaken and so furious when the treachery was uncovered. The New Labour regime had the Commissioner down as one of their own who had proved a major disappointment. They did not have him down as a grass, a man who wired his own phone as an insurance policy against the briefing battles to come.
For Sir Ian knew that more of those battles were imminent. His conduct in the de Menezes case is still being scrutinised and, if he is found to have erred, he will be the natural fall guy for a horrific accident that the government badly wants to be forgotten.
Sir Ian, on the other hand, would like a proper debate about a question he posed in his Dimbleby lecture: what kind of police service do we want? ‘I have an assumption,’ he said. ‘We want a 6 July police service, not a 7 July police service.’ But if so — to put it crudely — how are his officers to address the heightened threat of terrorism on our streets without running the risk of killing innocent people?
It is a good question. In some ways, it is the most important question of our times: how far are we willing to go in our battle to defeat fundamentalist terror at home and abroad? It is a question that Sir Ian was richly entitled to pose. But — by his astonishing behaviour he has ensured that he will not be the Commissioner who provides the answer.