Police the police

Agreeing with former Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair is not easy. It’s not without problems because this is the man who presided over the force at the time of Jean Charles de Menezes’ shooting and whose choice quotes includes referring to Islamic terrorism as the greatest threat to the United Kingdom since ‘the Cold War or the Second World War’. I’d like to say it’s easy to find middle ground with him, but it’s just as easy to compromise with a patch of nettles or quicksand. Or your bank manager a week before payday.

Anyway, yesterday Sir Ian (“Baron Blair of Boughton”, if you please) told SKY News that he’d recommend nobody vote in the forthcoming Police Commissioner elections. He isn’t convinced that one elected person, almost all with party political labels, could possibly manage looking after the police force and crime fighting priorities across a massive geographical area. It’s not as though the politicisation of the police was an unknown concept at his time in office, of course, though the relationship between the Met and the then Labour government wasn’t exactly like that between choice eastern European governments and their police forces. Close, of course, but not that close.

So why do I find myself sort of, kind of, agreeing with him? I’m a constitutional reform sort of guy, I supported the AV referendum and want to see House of Lords reform and local government reform and votes at 16 and all the other things which would drag this country into the 20th century (I don’t hold out hope for us to get into the 21st for a good generation or twelve yet.)  The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are a different kind of reform though, looking tempting on the box whilst only providing fudge chews underneath. And nobody picks fudge chocolates from selection boxes, do they? I want orange and mint and mini Bountys, not fudge. Yet next month we’re all being invited to gorge on fudge, an experiment in constitutional reform which radically alters the relationship between the police and who polices them, with the SV voting system for the love of all things holy, and I can’t swing myself behind them. It’s like finding a private club available for a very specific fetish only to discover the admission price is too high. Or not high enough. Or in a different currency, perhaps. Ach you know what I mean.

Few people out there in real life world dislike the concept of democratising the police-force. Lord knows how the police need to be held accountable, more so than at the moment, and in the context of recent institutional failings the police could do with a stronger, more responsive structure around them. But American style Police Commissioners? Directly elected? And not just that, of course, directly elected and almost exclusively from political parties? In the case of Labour’s candidates, current MPs (Tony Lloyd in Greater Manchester, the sitting MP for Manchester Central, and Alun Michael in South Wales is the current representative for Cardiff South and Penarth) and former Ministers (including Lord Prescott in Humberside.)  In Wales, Alun Michael’s son – his son – is standing as a candidate in North Wales. Now that’s Eastern European.

In Lancashire, the four candidates are all party political, all male, and half of them are sitting County Councillors. One is the current portfolio holder for transport, whose lasting legacy seems to be the removal of bus timetables from the county’s bus-stops. Is this really the best we’ve got? Could this really be the reform we need?

As a democrat, I’d never knowingly stay away from a polling station. I’m no stranger to making difficult decisions in that moment of secrecy – in the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate at local elections I’ve been known to vote for another party rather than spoil my ballot. Next month will be my toughest challenge. I’ll vote Liberal Democrat but…what for? For whom? For what? Sir Ian has a point – there’s real reform needed at the core of our police force and this has to come from within as much as it comes from beyond. I’m not sure it needs to be done at the ballot box. Dust off Lords Reform, I say, that might be something worth contemplating. That’s how bad it might be….

up in smoke

Many moons ago at High School, some ‘rites of passage’ were discussed as though they were constitutional duties. One of these – “to visit Amsterdam” – euphemistically described getting blotted over a long weekend chasing more dragons than St George. That teenage dream may soon be denied to future youngsters from this year, now that the Dutch have confirmed their decision to restrict access to cannabis cafés to residents only.

My youth had no 18-30 holidays, no RailPass jaunt across the continent or the like. I was most certainly not the kind of person who would wake up on a ferry bobbing its way from Zeebrugge on a Monday morning. As such – and I was not alone with this – talk of the magic world of drugs and electropop seemed beyond tempting. Some of us heard stories about older brothers and friend’s friends who could smuggle half an Oxo cube sized resin block through the usual channels, but a whole city where it could be smoked in public? Through the looking glass  – and on the sofa, giggling, eating cake…

That the Dutch are closing down the tourist trade is probably met by parents of a certain age in this country with as much nostalgia as relief. Thousands of young people – mostly British and American – and as many stag do’s chose the Netherlands for a release from the stifling attitude against drugs in their native lands. Indeed with a regime whose attitude towards drugs is as schizophrenic as the alleged counter-effects of taking substances, Britain has always appeared to be the wrinkled grandfather looking with disdain at the youngster over the water – a grandfather who would, nonetheless, occasionally drink more whisky than he ought to when the missus wasn’t looking.

Proving that I am settling into middle age, I can see the arguments for tightening the restrictions. Alas, it does have something of the “pulling up the ladder” about it, enjoying our days in the sun and now stopping future generations from doing so, but that argument takes us down the route of tuition fees/free education and we don’t want that conversational cul-de-sac quite now…That all said, I am saddened to see another conservative move in a formerly liberal part of the world. This move once again shadows and colours the arguments for decriminalisation of cannabis in this country, the debate shunted away by the Morality Police as though Dutch considerations can be used as a facsimile in a British context. Even if people of a certain age these days no longer partake in naughty cigarettes, denying the argument to be open for future generations seems just as irresponsible as having a drug liberalism free-for-all. Nobody born today has a say in the continued legalisation of alcohol or tobacco, after all.

Each generation bemoans the passing of their youth. Our parents did so, and so do we. Where once “doing” Amsterdam was part of a teenager’s calendar, now sits an empty box into which many things, or none, can be pencilled in its place. Maybe nostalgia is getting in the way as much as the smoke – for every group of lads on the bant in the red light district there are hundreds more skiing, visiting South Asia or risking their lives in New Zealand with….well, Kiwis….The passing into history of the “Dutch experience” may be marked by those unable to try it in the first place, or too old to remember what happened there clearly. Regardless, shutting down the shops for outsiders marks another turn in the long, long, long argument for and against drug policy in the UK. When the UK faces the realities of recreational drug-use amongst its own people will be the next turn. Until then….pass the biscuits, and woah, this keyboard is like so fuzzy….

Plus ça change…

Maybe I should not be so surprised. Word hits the newspapers that the planned Leaders Debates prior to the next UK general election have been “negotiated to death

I dare say this quote was spoken in the same style as a soap opera “baddie”, who having pushed his wife down the stairs assures a worried sibling that “Mummy just slipped.”

Labour didn’t want these debates in the first place. That much was obvious by the very slow reaction – such as it was – from Gordon Brown. His bulldozing interview technique would have killed any spontaneity in the debates anyway, had the audience not been filled by party hacks and ordered not to ask questions.

In the US, Presidential Debates are often stifled by rules and contracts as thick as Whitaker’s Almanack. What a pity the UK version has gone the same way. There is a lot more to do by way of attracting audiences to politics in general, never mind specific television programmes, so although the debates were flawed in theory they could have done some good in practice.

Critics of the Leaders Debates always assumed the UK model wouldn’t fit. “It would be like being caught wanking to ‘Pants Off, Dance Off'”, that sort of thing. My optimism for all things modern, new, and different looked at these televised debates with less cynical eyes; in good hands, all three leaders would have seen their reputations enhanced. David Cameron could have even been shown real-time repeats of his previous answers to assist in stopping his usual trick of contradicting himself mid-programme.

Alas, these events are clearly not likely to happen. If the suits don’t get in the way, either the Champions League or just-as-vital-no-really Eurovision Song Contest are scheduled for the run-up to polling day. Another small glimmer of modernisation in UK politics is extinguished.

….plus c’est la même chose.