Matthew Norman: The police are a law unto themselves

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Is there a more entrancing sound in the entire world than the sound of British police boots marching in defence of human rights? For that, so they tell us, is what the current dispute between police and government is all about. Human rights and, of course, respect.

Reading quotes from the Scargills of the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers this week, you can't help but be reminded of Ashley Cole, the England footballer whose autobiography was such an unintended comedy classic. Mr Cole was at the wheel of his Bentley Continental, he confided to the ghostwriter of My Defence, when his agent rang with news of Arsenal's refusal to pay the 60,000 a week he had requested. "I nearly swerved off the road," he observed of the 55,000 per week final offer. "'He is taking the piss, Jonathan!', I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I'd heard."

It wasn't the money that drove Mr Cole to incandescence, but the disrespect. So it is today with the Police Federation, whose apoplectic demand for Home Secretary Jackie Smith's resignation over her allegedly treacherous refusal I use that "her" as a courtesy title, by the way; Ms Smith lacks the authority to decide which shoe to put on first without authorisation from Downing Street to backdate their pay rise to September.

Admittedly, the figures concern an extra 3 or 4 per week, rather than Mr Cole's 5,000. But the principle is the same. Our coppers feel betrayed and disrespected by the government, and the livid outrage focuses their mind on the human right to withdraw labour denied them since Lloyd George revoked it. I know how much this will warm readers' hearts, especially those beating in the chests of anyone on the wrong end of the miners' strike of 1985, when police solidarity towards their striking brothers was so often expressed via the thick end of a truncheon.

Still, heaven loveth a sinner that repenteth and all that. So let's jettison the usual cheap cynicism to welcome this Damascene conversion with good grace. After all, with such a thumping, clumping irony, it would be too easy to yield to adolescent point-scoring about the human right not to die in suspicious circumstances in custody, as well over a thousand people have done over the past four decades without a single police prosecution, let alone conviction. Or the human right not to be posthumously smeared as a drug dealer in off-the-record briefings to pliant papers after being repeatedly shot in the head while sitting on a Tube train.

Some sneerers might even wonder whether Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp had a human right to be nicked at his Sandbanks home without a team from the Sun arriving at dawn with the arresting officers to record this supposedly private moment. Having said all that, with regard to this present dispute, the importance of the police's close relationship with the Sun, forged at Wapping long before this epiphany about the human right to strike, cannot be overstated. It is absolutely central to the problem faced by this administration and several of its recent predecessors.

For years, there has been a governmental yearning to sort out the Police Federation, whose chairman, Jan Berry, tells us her members "feel they have been pushed into a corner where their human rights have been withdrawn". Ken Clarke once told me this would have been a priority had he stayed at the Home Office longer than 18 months, and with excellent reason. Although not technically a union at all, the Federation is the sole surviving defender of 1970s restrictive practices and bully-boy tactics that Mrs Thatcher elsewhere blew away.

So indulged is the police penchant for secrecy that it is impossible to know how many are permanently on the sick due to "stress" at any one time, or to what real salary levels their generous overtime arrangements propel them. But the best guess is that about one-in-three is almost permanently on the sick, and that with overtime they comfortably outearn all other public sector workers including teachers and nurses.

That some do more dangerous work than doling out speeding tickets and crime reference numbers to the newly burgled goes without saying. Not all coppers are traffic officers or adjuncts to the home contents insurance industry. What they are, though, as a collective under the Federation umbrella, is a special interest group cocooned from the accountability that affects every other branch of public service, with the one obvious exception of government ministers.

Setting the tone is the unlovely example of Sir Ian Blair cockily goading a committee that allegedly oversees the work of Metropolitan Police to sack him if they can. Needless to say, they cannot. Given this brazen defiance from our top-ranked policeman, it is no wonder that two years ago police shooters threatened to hang up their holsters should the colleagues who killed Jean Charles de Menezes be disciplined in any way. Within days of the internal whitewash exonerating them all, one was back on gun duty, in a show of insensitivity to the dead man's family that ought to beggar belief, to shoot dead an armed robber in Kent.

The unquantifiable but powerful anecdotal evidence is that the public long ago tired of the police being a law unto themselves. If Gordon Brown chose to defy the Federation now, I think he would be pleasantly astonished by the reaction. God knows, he needs an issue on which to base his fightback, and standing up to this last great union barony might just be it.

It would be bitter and ugly, and more than likely highly explosive, with a grave risk of inflicting further damage that he doesn't strictly need right now. It would require raw courage of the kind on which he dwelt so lovingly in that recent book of his.

Is the man so humiliatingly desperate to duck the cameras at the signing of the new EU demi-constitution well suited to such a fight? Can you imagine Gordon accepting the gauntlet well knowing that the Sun, host of a swanky annual Police Bravery awards event in Park Lane, and permanent resident of the constabular colon, would immediately embrace the illegal practice of secondary picketing by lining up alongside all those helmeted Rosa Parkses by the metaphorical braziers?

This is a battle for a political leader with the giant balls to resist the screeching, self-protective hysteria of the police and their media sycophants. It will shortly fall to Gordon, then, to do the gottle-o'-geer voice while Ms Smith mimes the face-saving fudge that gives the police what they want, in return for the Federation putting its fierce commitment to human rights on ice until whenever next it comes in handy.