Chris Harman


The law and order show

(April 1982)

From Socialist Review, No. 42, 20 April–19 May 1982: 4, pp. 18–21.
Illustrations by Peter Court.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Police campaign

Last month saw a concerted campaign involving police chiefs, the Police Federation, sections of the press and right wing Tories to create a powerful ‘law and order’ lobby. Chris Harman looks at the real issues at stake in this.

First the Met released figures on crime designed to give the impression that ‘black muggers’ were terrorising London. Then the Police Federation joined in with their national newspaper ads calling for a return of hanging. Finally, Anderton, chief constable of Manchester, launched an attack on the very existence of local police committees. The press were not slow in following the cue. The Daily Mail, raved about the apparent softness on crime of a home secretary it christened ‘Wetlaw’. And even the Daily Mirror covered its pages with photos designed to send a shiver up the spine of every law-abiding citizen.

The immediate goal of the campaign was simple enough. The police’s image has taken a bit of a battering lately. There has been a growing total of complaints against the police. The riots last summer led to very public questioning of police methods. In the months since, pressure has been put on local police chiefs to be more ‘sensitive’ in their dealings with the black population, and the old style Sus laws have been scrapped.

The campaign was meant to create a counter-pressure, to reverse these trends and to allow the police to assert themselves again.

To some extent the campaign seems to have achieved its immediate goals. To rapturous applause, Whitelaw told a meeting of Tory backbenchers that he intended to back the police wholeheartedly and to introduce a new law, extending to the whole country the power police already have in some areas to search people on the streets for weapons or stolen goods.

However, when it comes to the more long term implications of the campaign, there is much confusion.

For some people on the left it is purely the latest instalment in a most sinister long term development. This is the continual push of senior police chiefs and army officers to create a ‘strong state’, in which long established liberties are trampled underfoot.

This has long been the implication in the argument of many of those who write upon the police and the Defence establishment in the New Statesman, The Leveller and the London listing magazines. It has been a theme taken up by all sorts of left political figures, ranging from E.P. Thompson, through Ken Livingstone to Tony Benn.

For all of these people it is the autonomous drive within the police and military themselves that is the threat that faces us all. To resist this trend, it is necessary to expose state secrecy and to establish ‘community control’ over the police.

CS gas

Those who hold this view have produced some very useful exposés of the machinations of police chiefs and the Defence Establishment. But they have at the same time is and what is really at stake.

On their view, the enemy becomes the police and defence chiefs alone. Resisting them becomes a question of creating counter-lobbies, aiming to reform the way in which the forces of the state operate.

But what has been happening in the police cannot really be understood unless you see the police as one organisation among others of a wider capitalist society.

To understand this, you have to understand why the British police have traditionally been able to operate in a certain way, and how this has been put into question by the development of a deep economic crisis over the last decade.

The traditional slogan of British home secretaries and chief constables has been ‘policing with consent’. This has not meant softness – it was held by those who had no compunction about using the hangman, flogging and long prison terms in 19th century jails.

But it has meant attempting to present a friendly image to the mass of the population while cracking down heavily on those who challenged the rule of property.

So, for instance, there has been resistance to the creation of any permanent paramilitary force like the French CRS, even among the ranks of chief constables. When a delegation of them met Whitelaw during the steel strike two years ago, the head of it, Alan Goodfield, expressed the view that to create a CRS-type force would be ‘deplorable’: ‘We have got to have policing by consent.’

This is the perspective still shared by Whitelaw and, in an even more open form, by Alderson, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall.

It is not in any sense a ‘left wing’ perspective. Rather it follows from a clear perception of what any ruling class needs to do to maintain its power. It has to persuade the great majority of the population that the state acts in their interests, even while it preserves the property of a very small minority.

‘Policing by consent’ – based on the image of a hundred thousand Dixons of Dock Green helping old ladies across the road while grabbing the occasional villain – could serve this goal admirably for a long period of time.

It was in many ways the other side of the coin to the stifling reformism that dominated the working class movement in Britain for so long. British capitalism could provide improvements in working class living standards first as ‘the workshop of the world’, then as the centre of the world’s largest empire and finally on the basis of the arms economy boom of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It could therefore benefit from a virtuous circle in relation to the ‘consent’ of the mass of the population. Riots were few and far between and revolutionary movements were small. Therefore its police force was not nearly as alienated from the mass of the population as in many other countries.

Therefore a policy of ‘policing by consent’ was possible which did not contribute towards creating widespread disaffection or new revolutionary moods.

Of course, things were never quite that simple. In certain cities there was always a greater than average hostility between the working class and the police. And at times, as in the crises of the 1880s and the interwar years, the iron hand had to be brought out of the velvet glove, with baton charges and bitter confrontations on the streets.

Thus the London police commissioners, Warren of the 1880s and Trenchard of the 1930s, were as synonymous with hard policing as is Anderton today.

But when the crisis passed, just as reformism reasserted itself within the working class, so did ‘policing by consent’ within the forces of the state.

The problem the police face today is that in a new period of great economic crisis, this old, effective form of policing does not fit as neatly as it used to.

A great economic crisis always breeds certain sorts of mass behaviour that are detrimental to the established order. In some cases, as in 1969–74, this means a growing level of class organisation and struggle. In other periods – as in the mid 1880s, the early 1930s or the present period – it means a growth both of crime and of the tendency to angry street confrontations between sections of the poor and the police.

A growth of mass unemployment increases the pool of bitter, poor, desperate people – especially young people – from which the minority who engage in various forms of crime come. Those paid to protect property against the propertyless come to see all those who belong to this pool as potential criminals and react accordingly. In doing so they break down the old ‘consent’ to policing.

The Whitelaws and the Aldersons fear this development. If ‘consent’ is undermined, so too is one of the bulwarks against a development of revolutionary consciousness. And so they do their utmost to preserve the old patterns of policing. . It would be quite wrong to see their resistance to certain forms of ‘hard policing’ as a mere pretence – they do not want a population that hates the police and will knock certain police heads together in order to try and stop it being produced.

But it would be equally wrong to see the trend towards harder forms of policing as something resulting merely from conspiracies of police chiefs that various reforms – like the establishment of ‘community control’ by elected councillors – can stop.

If the police are going to protect property in a society in which the lives of the propertyless are visibly deteriorating, then they are going to have to use harder methods than in the past. Just as successful reformism becomes a dream of the past, so does successful ‘policing by consent’.

That is not to say that there is no trend at all for the police to try and grab more power, regardless of the feelings of the ruling class as a whole.


The police are like many of the other bureaucratic structures in capitalist society. Those who head them want them to grow larger with ever greater funds at their disposal. This is the way in which they gain ever more privileges and ever more respect within ruling class circles.

So there is naturally a chief constables’ lobby for higher police spending, increased police numbers and ever more technologically sophisticated equipment.

This is reinforced by the palpable advantages such changes can bring to rank and file police. It is, after all, a much pleasanter life to speed about in a panda car than to pound the beat on a wet night.

The police pressure has been remarkably effective over the last decade, regardless of the government in office. Police spending increased 50 per cent in real terms between 1971 and 1981, and the number of police has grown by about 20 per cent.

But it has been less effective in achieving the twin goals of the ruling class – to protect property and to maintain the ideological case for policing among the mass of the population.

The number of ‘crimes cleared up’ has, incredibly, fallen from 109,830 in 1972 to 106,421 in 1981. This was in a period when the total amount of serious crimes nearly doubled according to police figures, rising from 377,094 to 631,328.

The dominant style of policing over the last decade has not given the ruling class value for money.

At the same time, as the riots showed last summer, it has created a growing minority who do not have faith in the police – something confirmed by a recent opinion poll for the Observer.

Hence the pressure from Whitelaw, Scarman, Alderson and so on. It has not been an ineffective pressure. In many cities police have been forced out of their panda cars onto the beat.

It is precisely because of the pressure on them to change their style that sections of the police joined in the ‘law and order’ furore last month.

But just as it would be wrong to see the trend to hard policing as mainly a result of a police conspiracy, so it is wrong to see the resistance Whitelaw has put up to the pressure of many of the police constables as ending that trend.

The ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements within the ruling class often have a way of complementing each other in practice despite their arguments. The growing crisis means, necessarily, the growing alienation of large numbers of people from the system. Pressure on police to behave like ‘friendly bobbies’ is one part of the ruling class strategy to deal with this. But so too are highly equipped tactical support groups with deadly, high technology weaponry, prepared to step in when the police on the beat can no longer hold the line.

Once this is understood, it should also be clear that for socialists the argument must not be for community policing and the bobby on the beat as against Anderton and the panda cars. Instead we should be focussing on unemployment, low pay and declining social services as the cause of increased crime. And we should insist that while such conditions exist to create more crime and more violence, then any sort of policing – whether under the auspices of Anderton, or Alderson or even Ted Knight and Ken Livingstone – will be policing directed against a growing section of the working class.

Race and crime

Daily Mail placard

The Metropolitan Police press conference last month was a conscious attempt to encourage racist stereotypes.

The press were given figures designed for them to hammer home the message that black people cause crime. They readily responded – ‘Black crime: The alarming figures’ screamed the Daily Mail.

But the figures the Yard provided to justify such claims are dubious in the extreme.

First, they are based on ‘victim perception of appearance of assailant’. But the majority of the crimes dealt with by the police figures are bag, purse and wallet snatches, in which the assailant approaches the victim from behind so as not to be very clearly seen. What is more the last research done in Scotland Yard on muggings proper showed that most of them took place between 10 at night and 2 in the morning – hardly the best circumstances for victims to identify assailants clearly.

Under such circumstances, people will often say they saw things that prejudice – racial stereotyping – makes them think they saw. And in many cases, prejudice will be reinforced by the desire of racist police to get them to say their assailants were black. The whole process is self-fulfilling. By encouraging the press to link the words ‘black’ and ‘crime’ the police help get the victim’s ‘perceptions’ that seem to justify the linkage.

This process and the way in which the police have broadened the definition of ‘mugging’ to include what is little more than pickpocketing or even finding and stealing, mean that the figures contain the most amazing anomalies.

Take the figures for Hackney and Islington.

These two boroughs adjoin each other, are of very similar character, both have the same very high level of unemployment (20 per cent for adult males) and the same proportion of black people (12 per cent ‘New Commonwealth immigrants’ at the time of the 1971 census).

Yet the police figures record 1,599 ‘robberies and other violent thefts’ for Hackney, but only half that number, 732 for Islington. And in Hackney, three quarters of these crimes are allegedly committed by ‘coloured’ people, in Islington only about 35 per cent.

Again in Hackney only one victim in 16 was apparently unable to record the colour of their assailant. In Islington the figure was much higher, nearly one in four. There must be the very strong suspicion that racist police in Hackney put pressure on victims to say their assailants were black.

However, the way the police figures are put together is only half the story. The other half is the way the police focus on street robbery and theft. Even if you include bag, purse and wallet snatches in the figures, as the police do now, the incidence of this crime is only about one seventh as frequent as household burglarly in the London area. And for working class people, particularly elderly women living alone, finding a burglar in the house is just as frightening as having a purse snatched on the street.

But if the police had published figures for ‘race’ and burglaries, they could not have created the stereotype between ‘blacks’ and ‘crime’. Research by Pratt on the Yard’s figures for arrest in Lambeth in the early to mid 1970s showed that Afrocaribbeans were judged by the police to be responsible for 28 per cent of robbery, but only 14 per cent of burglary and only 13 per cent of all crime. At that time West Indians made up about 10 per cent of Lambeth’s population.


By emphasising ‘muggings’ the police and the press emphasise the one crime with a disproportionate black involvement.

But this disproportionate involvement has nothing to do with race.

Criminologists have long recognised street robbery is the most amateur of crimes. As an American book Mugging by Morton Hunt recognised ten years ago, mugging has become ‘the genetic term for robberies characterised by ... lack of criminal professionalism.’

For this reason, it is closely associated with youth unemployment. Pratt’s research showed that

‘mugging is very clearly an adolescent crime. Of the cases in which the victim was able to judge the assailant’s age, 72.7 per cent were under the age of 17 and only 10.4 per cent over the age of 21.’

Both the robbery and the ‘snatch’ figures go up when youth unemployment goes up, and down when it goes down (only three years in the last ten – 1972, 1978 and 1979).

Given that black youth are two or three times as likely to be unemployed as white youth because of racism, it is not surprising if they are two or three times as likely to be involved in so-called ‘muggings’.

Interestingly, in the 1950s when there were relatively few black youth in Britain it was another immigrant group, adults from the Irish Republic, who were said to be disproportionately involved in robbery of all sorts. In a semi-official study of robbery in 1961, McClintock argued that ‘more than half the increase in convictions of adult robbers is attributable to the element of the adult population born in the Irish Republic."

Today, ‘mugging’ has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with unemployment and racism.

Racism makes it even more difficult for black youth to get jobs than white youth. They are therefore driven to the most desperate, most amateur and least remunerative form of crime. The police deliberately exaggerate the significance of this one per cent of all crime, so reinforcing racial stereotypes. It becomes still more difficult for black youth to get jobs and there is an inevitable increase in the number driven to street crime by desperation.

The myth of mugging

The term ‘mugging’ was introduced into Britain by the police and the press ten years ago. It has been deliberately used since then to give a grossly exaggerated picture of the level of violence on the streets.


The first time the word was used widely in the British press was in August 1972. An elderly widower, Arthur Hills, was stabbed to death near Waterloo Station. The Daily Mirror headline the next day declared:

‘As crimes of violence escalate, a word common in the United States enters the British headlines: Mugging. To our police it’s a frightening new strain of crime.’

Since then there have been a succession of press scare campaigns over the issue, in each case carefully whipped up by the police. Figures are given purporting to show how the number of muggings has grown year by year, and it is implied that all of these ‘muggings’ involve the sort of appalling, random violence directed against Arthur Hills.

The tone of the press scare campaigns has not changed one iota in the ten years.

Thus in 1972, the London Evening News could report:

‘At night when you are lying in bed, you can often hear the screams of people who are being attacked.’

In that year there were all of 1,544 street robberies – that is, fewer than five a day for the whole 8 million population of the Metropolitan police district – it is only possible to suppose either that the Evening News journalist had an excessive imagination or that he lived near a police station and heard the beatings down in the cells.

In 1975 it was the turn of the Sun to excel itself. It reported to those of its readers who looked at anything more than page three:

‘Four times a day the thud of a cosh on an innocent skull.’

In that year there were 1,977 street robberies, of which only one case in 14 – i.e. fewer than 150 in total – involved either threats with or the use of a blunt instrument. The Sun was, to put it mildly, exaggerating by something like 800 per cent.

Exactly the same techniques of distortion have been used over the last few weeks. Take, for instance, the Daily Mirror on 29 March. It ran nine pages on ‘Our violent cities – bloody, battered, frightened.’ On each page was the photo of a gashed and bruised face. As one of the captions put it, this was what happened: ‘on an average night in Britain’s cities’.


Yet the facts actually show that violence, particularly violent robbery on the streets, is still a relatively rare occurrence, even if it is on the increase.

Your chances of being robbed on the streets of London in any year are only about one in 1,400. And research done six years ago in the Met’s research department showed that over half the cases of robbery involved no injury, in only a quarter of them was a weapon used and only one case in 20 involved the victim going to hospital.

In other words, the average person has to live 1,400 years before being robbed, 2,800 years before being injured in a robbery and 28,000 years before joining the hospitalised victims whose faces covered the Daily Mirror.

Nor is it the case that your chances of being robbed violently are greater than the average if you are an elderly woman. In fact, the. research of six years ago showed that four fifths of victims were male and the police figures for last year show that twice as many adults between the ages of 21 and 30 are victims of theft on the streets as people over 60.

Only conscious distortion of the statistics has enabled the Met to present a picture of millions of old people afraid to leave their homes because of ‘muggers’.


The very term ‘mugging’ is part of this distortion. As the most recent book on the subject notes:

‘“Mugging” has no legal meaning at all and has entered the vocabulary of crime statistics purely as a result of popular usage.’

The police and the press trade on exploiting the vagueness of this term, giving the impression that almost any form of theft in the street involves vicious wounding.

Until recently, they did this by implying that all forms of street robbery involved vicious assault. In the latest scare, they have gone even further. They have widened the definition of ‘mugging’ to more than treble the incidents included in it.

Mugging used to refer to ‘robbery’ on the streets. But now the Met have widened it to include a new category – ‘other violent thefts’.

This is a very strange procedure indeed. For ever since the precedent-setting legal case of Rex versus Harman (no relative!) in the early 16th century, all thefts involving ‘violence or the threat of violence’ have been included under the heading of ‘robbery’.

So the police have inflated the ‘muggings’ figures by adding to them so-called ‘violent thefts’ which involve neither ‘violence or the threat of violence’.

What the police have done is to throw in with genuinely violent thefts those that involve no more than the snatching of a purse, handbag, or wallet, without the ‘victim’ being touched or threatened at all. Something is pulled from their pocket, off their shoulder or out of their bag by someone who runs off with it. The ‘victim’ often may not even notice anything has happened. Yet this is counted now as ‘mugging’.

Of the alleged 13,000 ‘muggings’ in London last year, 7,330 fell into this category.

The police quite crudely fiddled the figures. Had they not done so, instead of seeming like three per cent of all crime, ‘muggings’ would have been less than one per cent.

But then it would have been much more difficult for the press to run their scare campaign.

For Britain as a whole there are in any year only about 400 homicides, of which only about 130 are classified as ‘murders’. And. far from this being a pattern of ‘random’, ‘pointless’ violence, in three quarters of cases the killers are close relatives or friends of the victims.

Such figures also put the recent hullabaloo about murders of police into perspective. The average number of police killed in any year is two, out of a national total of 110,000 police.

By contrast, out of every 100,000 agricultural workers, 24 die of fatal accidents at work and out of every 100,000 miners, 17 die – and this is ignoring the 630 deaths through coal dust diseases each year.

Last updated on 5 October 2019