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Two British Policemen

Sir Ian Blair wants to open a debate about the police, but he doesn’t realise that he himself is the problem

Sir Ian Blair was right about one thing in his appearance on the Today programme yesterday: there is a growing problem in the relationship between the police and the public they are supposed to serve. What is ironic, and what the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police obviously fails to see, is that his comments encapsulate the problem.

Sir Ian walks, talks and acts like a politician, yet he is neither elected, nor, it seems, is he accountable. Who can forget his attempts to stop the inquiry into the Stockwell shooting and his refusal to resign as a result of its findings? The growing sense that the police see themselves as controlling us, rather than serving us, clearly starts at the top.

Sir Ian’s politicisation of the job of commissioner began when he took charge at the Met. He immediately declared a headline-chasing crackdown on middle-class and celebrity cocaine users because of “…the impact of this kind of behaviour on innocent young people”. Since then he has suggested his force be granted unprecedented discretion to confiscate driving licences and issue ASBOs on the spot.

In September 2005, Sir Ian made history when he appeared on Any Questions, the first serving police commisioner to do so. Listeners were treated to his opinions on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, racial segregation and the meaning of being British, and shortly afterwards he gave the Richard Dimbleby lecture. In the same month he openly lobbied MPs in support of the extension of detention of terror suspects to 90 days.

Now Sir Ian has grandly called for a national debate on the nature of policing. This in itself is a political act.

The current framework of supervision of commissioners was devised in more tranquil times, when everyone “knew their place”. Police authorities split supervision with the Home Secretary, and chief constables are protected from political manipulation by the inclusion of local worthies on each authority. But when a police chief crosses that line and becomes a political operative, the system provides little control and no remedy.

We live in a surveillance society. A report this week revealed that the UK is the worst in Europe for the protection of privacy. We also have the biggest camera surveillance network in the world. In this atmosphere of growing fear and control, an unelected commissioner making and influencing policy should rightly make us all nervous.

Sir Ian is either a policeman or a politician, but he can’t continue to be both. The debate he has called for is needed, but the more urgent matter he unwittingly raises is whether our police chiefs should be elected, and hence whether Sir Ian should be invited to join the debate at all.