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Politics no image

Published on March 11th, 2012 | by William Dahlgreen
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="289" caption="The Police: fading away © Etwood"][/caption] There are two caricatures of conservatism, each with conflicting beliefs: ‘small c conservatives’ preserve value, just for the sake of it; ‘big C Conservatives’ make progress, for nothing but progress’s sake. At least since Thatcher, we’ve been firmly in the grip of the latter. The great philosopher and free-market economist - F. A. Hayek - once wrote, in his book The Constitution of Liberty, “The question whether, if we had to stop at our present stage of development, we would in any significant sense be better off or happier than if we had stopped a hundred or a thousand years ago is probably unanswerable. The answer, however, does not matter … Progress is movement for movements sake”. In 1975, so the story goes, Thatcher pulled this book from her briefcase and held it up for all to see. “This”, she said sternly, “is what we believe”.

And the quiet whirr of ‘progress’ hums steadily. Back then it was utilities, railways and resources; now its education, welfare, healthcare, and the police. But hold still, wait a minute, did you even hear progress take its latest prize? Will we remember the fight over the privatisation of police services? Most likely: no.  That’s not only because progress has Alzheimer’s, it’s because we weren’t ever asked.

The home secretary, Theresa May, has imposed a 20% cut in Whitehall grants on police forces and said frontline operations can be opened to private investment. Yet the forces are devolved. To enact the reform, then, May doesn’t need legislation, which would’ve been debated by our elected representatives. It’s left for the forces to decide. But while they’re facing huge job lay-offs, no one can blame them for cutting corners. Clearly, the public have no influence on the procedure. And neither do we on the substance. For private security forces won’t be answerable to our Independent Police Complaints Commission, who we’d usually approach with our problems.

No one can say the services up for privatisation are minor, either. So the response can’t be that the lack of accountability to the public doesn’t matter, here. Investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence and managing engagement with the public; these are tasks that require the highest level of responsibility. All of them are up for grabs.

Responsibility will not be what we find. G4S, the private security force that will most probably win the bid, don’t have an unstained record sheet. In 1993, they were given a prison escort contract. Within a week, four prisoners escaped. Last year, they were contracted to deport 88 immigrants. An investigation revealed they used highly offensive and racist language, mocking, laughing and offered no advice to the deportees on arrival at destination. At their immigration centre, three claims of assault against inmates were upheld. The Complaints Commission only have the power to sack Chief Constables, but cancelling entire contracts will be well beyond their remit.

Of course, money is the real driver. But when money exhausts explanation, ideology takes up the slack. So now we’re back at the beginning. Say the economy booms again, we get a less ‘big C Conservative’ government. Will the police force, and all the other now semi-privatised public services, be brought back under public ownership? Or will it be too costly; will the infrastructure be so entangled with privatisation that going back to before will be too complex? Will know-how be so out-sourced that the state will simply be powerless to re-publicise? We won’t know ‘til we get there. But one thing is almost certain: those who make such suggestions will be the new ‘small c conservatives’. So when their adversaries echo Hayek - “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such … The conservative feels safe only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change … keeping the change ‘orderly’” - let’s just hope they really are only appealing to a caricature.

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Police, Privatisation and Progress for Progress’s Sake

The Police: fading away © Etwood

There are two caricatures of conservatism, each with conflicting beliefs: ‘small c conservatives’ preserve value, just for the sake of it; ‘big C Conservatives’ make progress, for nothing but progress’s sake. At least since Thatcher, we’ve been firmly in the grip of the latter. The great philosopher and free-market economist – F. A. Hayek – once wrote, in his book The Constitution of Liberty, “The question whether, if we had to stop at our present stage of development, we would in any significant sense be better off or happier than if we had stopped a hundred or a thousand years ago is probably unanswerable. The answer, however, does not matter … Progress is movement for movements sake”. In 1975, so the story goes, Thatcher pulled this book from her briefcase and held it up for all to see. “This”, she said sternly, “is what we believe”.

And the quiet whirr of ‘progress’ hums steadily. Back then it was utilities, railways and resources; now its education, welfare, healthcare, and the police. But hold still, wait a minute, did you even hear progress take its latest prize? Will we remember the fight over the privatisation of police services? Most likely: no.  That’s not only because progress has Alzheimer’s, it’s because we weren’t ever asked.

The home secretary, Theresa May, has imposed a 20% cut in Whitehall grants on police forces and said frontline operations can be opened to private investment. Yet the forces are devolved. To enact the reform, then, May doesn’t need legislation, which would’ve been debated by our elected representatives. It’s left for the forces to decide. But while they’re facing huge job lay-offs, no one can blame them for cutting corners. Clearly, the public have no influence on the procedure. And neither do we on the substance. For private security forces won’t be answerable to our Independent Police Complaints Commission, who we’d usually approach with our problems.

No one can say the services up for privatisation are minor, either. So the response can’t be that the lack of accountability to the public doesn’t matter, here. Investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence and managing engagement with the public; these are tasks that require the highest level of responsibility. All of them are up for grabs.

Responsibility will not be what we find. G4S, the private security force that will most probably win the bid, don’t have an unstained record sheet. In 1993, they were given a prison escort contract. Within a week, four prisoners escaped. Last year, they were contracted to deport 88 immigrants. An investigation revealed they used highly offensive and racist language, mocking, laughing and offered no advice to the deportees on arrival at destination. At their immigration centre, three claims of assault against inmates were upheld. The Complaints Commission only have the power to sack Chief Constables, but cancelling entire contracts will be well beyond their remit.

Of course, money is the real driver. But when money exhausts explanation, ideology takes up the slack. So now we’re back at the beginning. Say the economy booms again, we get a less ‘big C Conservative’ government. Will the police force, and all the other now semi-privatised public services, be brought back under public ownership? Or will it be too costly; will the infrastructure be so entangled with privatisation that going back to before will be too complex? Will know-how be so out-sourced that the state will simply be powerless to re-publicise? We won’t know ‘til we get there. But one thing is almost certain: those who make such suggestions will be the new ‘small c conservatives’. So when their adversaries echo Hayek – “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such … The conservative feels safe only if he is assured that some higher wisdom watches and supervises change … keeping the change ‘orderly’” – let’s just hope they really are only appealing to a caricature.

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About the Author

William Dahlgreen

Will is a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester, reading for a Master’s degree in Political Theory. A paper he wrote last year was accepted by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory, for a presentation at their conference of world-leading philosophers. He was the youngest and only pre-PhD contributor. During the university funding crisis he ran a Social Sciences Forum where 300 students, staff and members of the public debated and celebrated their subjects with a panel of renowned professors. Will wants to relate the ‘big questions’ of political philosophy to real-world issues. He believes philosophy gets too abstract because it’s isolated from the public, and real-world issues get muddled and full of rhetoric when they’re isolated from philosophy. He feels they ought to be combined and that this is the best way to engage the younger generation – everyone cares about their freedom; too few know that’s what politics is about.



  • Steven Robert Gill

    Unfortunatley these things are usually a one way street, the Tories know this.

    The opposition will oppose, but once in government will use a feeble, 'too expensive to go back' line of argument. (and there will be .some. truth in that)

    Welfare, Housing, Police, Health, Fire, Post Office, Education & Army.

    To me, only a utter mentalist would even consider contracting out bits and pieces of the above to various money makers.

    Oh, wait a minute………..

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