BOOK REVIEW / Trouble with funny hats: 'Making the Peace: Public Order and Public Security in Modern Britain' - Charles Townshend: OUP, 17.95 pounds

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AS THE incidence of public disorder increased during the 1980s, frequently showing itself in grand theatrical spectacles, the police changed shape. In operational terms, there was a process of militarisation, as constables - officers all, as common usage acknowledged - became other ranks, deployed in squads and thinking like squaddies. In symbolic terms, the most telling change of shape was that of the helmet. The last survivor of the era of tall hats was replaced, for situations of serious disorder, by a crash helmet known as the 'Nato-pattern' helmet. Though the new headgear received much publicity, nobody ever explained which department of Nato was concerned with quelling riots, or why.

More recently, and partly in response to the disquiet induced by the paramilitary image, police forces have started parroting Customerspeak. Thus one can walk into a police station to be confronted with a battery of security doors and such devices, yet read a framed 'mission statement' about how the police deal with their 'customers'. We have ended up with a force that dresses like Nato and talks like Tesco. No wonder we're uneasy.

Not that the older symbolism made any more sense. As Charles Townshend notes, the traditional helmet is itself military in origin, dating from a period after the German victory over France in 1871, when a fad for things Prussian overtook both the British Army and the police. As time went by, the connotations of Prussian military efficiency faded, and the inherent clumsiness of the design seemed to symbolise a state of affairs in which an exceptional degree of efficiency was neither necessarynor desirable. It was a helmet for plodders, and PC Plod was all that the public needed.

This supposition depended on the belief that the British were an essentially tranquil people. Yet, before the 19th century, they were at least as likely to be considered unruly, if not ungovernable. Professor Townshend endorses the suggestion that, whereas the police have never been able to do very much about the crime rate, they have proved very effective in clearing the streets of disorder, and have therefore raised the expectations of the comfortable classes in this regard. William Morris spoke scathingly of the urge to make the streets 'sort of decent prison corridors, with people just trudging to and from their work'.

The triumph of bourgeois tidiness was also the defeat of the belief that public assembly might be intrinsically good; that when people gathered together in the name of some cause or other, they were acting out and therefore reinvigorating the condition of liberty. To police officers today, cruising in their cars, any assembly at all is apt to appear suspect. 'Why don't they go home?' they wonder. 'What are they up to?' Their suspicions are reinforced by the way in which the effect of the uniform has been reversed, triggering disorder instead of quelling it.

To a larger extent than suits the British self-image, this process results from war or related states of affairs. Professor Townshend's fluent account emphasises the effects of events in Ireland, and of World War emergency legislation. He dwells on the mystery of why the British accepted the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, whose 'half-life', he notes in a smartly chosen phrase, 'looks to be perpetual'. Whatever the reasons, when the British were presented with the 20th century, in the shape of total war mobilising a mass society, they rolled over and waved their legs in the air. DORA lives on in the drug laws, in pub closing times, and in the general acceptance - libertarian rhetoric notwithstanding - of the all-pervasive modern state.

Townshend wears his theory lightly, acknowledging but keeping a judicious distance from Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Gramscists, for example. The tone is that of criticism from the outer circles of insiderdom; an effect that is occasionally jarring. To describe Bloody Sunday as 'an unstable fusion of riot control technique with anti-terrorist action' smacks of complacency, at best. If it be British, none dare call it massacre.

The question of Britishness is left hanging at the end of the book. The 'British way' of maintaining public order was helped to work by a belief in the right to assembly. Now there is a right to order. 'Somewhere between Brixton and Bogside, Grunwick and Gibraltar, sometime in the last decade, the British way seems to have petered out,' he concludes. Perhaps the time has come to write down the basics of the constitution, if only so that people would know they had never had a right of assembly after all.