26 May 2017

Why police cuts weren’t to blame for the Manchester attack


In 2012 Theresa May, then just two years into her six-year stint as Home Secretary, was booed at the Police Federation’s annual conference. That was the year the conference slogan condemned her policies as “criminal” and a hefty number of officers demanded her resignation.

Two years later Mrs May had her revenge. Tradition dictates that the Home Secretary address the Federation each year, but there was nothing traditional about the speech May delivered in Bournemouth in 2014. The police, she said, were on notice. Reform your practices or have them reformed for you – and unless the police changed, they should expect public confidence in the service to decline.

Listing a litany of scandals – from Hillsborough to Leveson via the death of Ian Tomlinson, so-called “Plebgate”, and ample, disturbing, evidence of police corruption – May suggested enough was finally enough.

“When you remember the list of recent revelations about police misconduct,” she said, “it is not enough to mouth platitudes about “a few bad apples”. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed”.

No Home Secretary in living memory had lectured the police in this fashion. May’s relationship with the police became one of the defining features of her long reign at the Home Office. It was, everyone seemed to agree, an astonishing sight: a Conservative Home Secretary going to war with the police.

May had plenty of form, however. In 2013 she announced plans to overhaul the police’s stop-and-search powers, noting that an inquiry suggested that as many as one in four such searches might have been conducted illegally. Moreover, the idea of colour-blind policing – much cherished by the uniformed and civilian authorities alike – was, she said, a myth.

In the House of Commons, May acidly observed: “It is very clear that in a large number of cases the reasonable grounds for suspicion were not there and one can only therefore assume, given that black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person, that it is precisely the fact that they are a black person that has led to that stop and search taking place.”

It is, she insisted, “absolutely disgraceful” and in those circumstances it could hardly be reckoned surprising that this “poisoned” intra-community relations and that “a feeling” has “come through to young people in black and minority ethnic communities that this is what happens and that this is, if you like, a way of life.”

This is the context in which, in the aftermath of Monday’s gruesome terrorist attack in Manchester, we must judge the argument that the deployment of thousands of military personnel to assist the police in this current, elevated, moment of potential crisis is only necessary because of cuts to the policing budget.

According to Steve White, chairman of the Police Federation, “There is no ignoring the fact that we, the police, do not have the resources to manage an event like this on our own”.

Well, maybe. But it bears repeating that the Police Federation represents police officers, not the general public. The views of uniformed officers are important – of course they are – but they are not the only parties with an interest in policing. Indeed, as a classic example of producer-interest, it is arguable that the Federation’s claims merit some measure of scepticism.

To put it another way, is it possible to imagine a situation in which the Federation would allow that, actually, it had all the financial, manpower and operational resources it needed? I quietly suggest that it is extraordinarily difficult to envisage such a scenario.

Nevertheless, although there are nearly 20,000 fewer police officers in England and Wales than there were when May became Home Secretary, it is worth noting that these cuts – some of them undoubtedly severe – have had little impact on crime. Indeed, crime has continued to fall even as the number of police officers has declined.

As May put it in 2014, “I know many of you were sceptical. I know you meant it when you said that spending cuts would destroy the police as we know it, that the front line service would be ruined and that crime would go shooting up… But today we can say with confidence that spending cuts have not ended policing as we know it, the front line service has largely been maintained, and most important of all – according to both recorded crime statistics and the independent crime survey – crime is down by more than 10 per cent since the [2010] election.”

Every crisis is an opportunity, however, so perhaps we should not be surprised that some Left-wingers now pose as ardent defenders of more muscular, and better-resourced, policing.

Exhibit A in this catalogue of hackery is Paul Mason, the former BBC economics editor turned playwright-for-justice and anti-austerity Jeremiah. “Since 2010,” he tweeted, “healthcare, pensions and foreign aid spending *rose* – money for policing and defence fell. Tory choices.”

Cutting the police budget, it is implied, imperilled national security.

There is, it should be noted, no evidence that this is the case. And with crime at a 40-year low – something for which, it is true, politicians take too much credit when comparable reductions have been seen across much of the developed world for various, and complicated, reasons – it is worth asking whether we continued to need so many uniformed police officers.

The police will argue yes, but there is a different and, in many ways compelling, view.

Politics demands responsibility, of course, and that means that there must be someone to blame. The buck stops with the Prime Minister and doubly so with a Prime Minister who was previously Home Secretary. If there is someone to blame – a politician or the security services – then it becomes easier to channel the rage and sorrow and helplessness felt all across Britain this week.

But the sorry truth is there is no evidence that more police would have prevented this barbarous atrocity. Indeed, the evidence is that the police, in conjunction with a sharply beefed-up and better-resourced MI5, have largely succeeded in thwarting the worst terrorist plots hatched in recent years. If we have been lucky, it has been because, as the golfer Gary Player once observed, “the more I practice the luckier I get”.

And if, this week, we have been unlucky it is because, distressingly, even hard work and much practice cannot guarantee universally perfect results.

Of course it is sensible to look at what could have been done differently, at what warnings could have been seen or heard or paid greater attention, the better to minimise the chances of something like this happening again.

Realism, however, demands allowing that even learning lessons and improving counter-terrorism information gathering, will not be enough to guarantee public safety forever. Sometimes the worst will happen, though the fact that the worst has so often been thwarted in recent years should remind us that the resources required for counter-terrorism are in fact in place.

Accepting that should not be confused with fatalism. It is merely realistic appraisal of where we stand. There is always, as Malcolm Rifkind wrote for CapX this week, more that could be done. But that does not mean that everything that could perhaps be done to minimise the terrorist threat should be done. These are difficult trade-offs between liberty and security but, being so very difficult, they cannot be ducked.

In the meantime, however, we might reflect on the fact that there is something grubby about suggesting, without evidence, that Manchester was the result of “blowback” against decisions made by May when she was Home Secretary. We might also allow ourselves a dollop of scepticism before taking everything producer-interests say at face value.

May’s fight for a reformed police service was one of the nobler aspects of her time at the home office; that should not be forgotten, nor should the gains made be lost amidst a torrent of partisan, and often self-serving, special pleading.

Alex Massie is a political commentator