Steve Richards: Sir Ian Blair says the police are stumbling around in the dark. They are not alone...

No one has come to terms with the decline of elected institutions and the rise of unelected ones
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The Independent Online

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has delivered one of the most important speeches of recent times. In his Dimbleby lecture Sir Ian ranges widely, but navigates tentatively. On tiptoe he guides us through the wreckage of the 7 July bombings and the subsequent rows over the shoot-to-kill policy before moving on to the more fundamental changes in British society since the 1980s.

The tentativeness is the novelty. He calls for a national debate on policing in the light of dramatically changed circumstances. Here is a leader asking others to tell him what to do, or at least be part of the decision-making process. He declares bleakly that the sky is dark in relation to the threat posed by terrorists, but the metaphor applies across the vast terrain. He is quite open about it. He is stumbling in the dark. His point is wider. We are all stumbling.

The speech should be preserved and put in a museum as an emblem of the confusions whirling around Britain at the start of the 21st century. No one has come to terms with the decline of elected institutions and the rise in importance of unelected institutions such as the police, bodies supposedly accountable to Parliament or the Government but with a fair amount of ill-defined space to act on their own.

Most leading politicians posture self-confidently as if they pull all the strings. In itself this is a sign of their insecurity. They are too scared to admit that they are not in control and are not entirely sure who is. On several levels Sir Ian's speech reflects the confusion over policy-making in Britain. Seething controversies form the immediate context of the speech. They highlight vividly the chaos of decision-making and the blurred prism in which the process is viewed.

With good cause a huge row erupted when it emerged last summer that the police had adopted a shoot-to-kill policy. There had been no public debate. Parliament was not consulted, let alone asked to authorise the change. The Prime Minister said at his press conference in July that he recalled vaguely the policy change "crossing his desk". Implicitly Sir Ian is uneasy about the lack of informed scrutiny. Presumably part of his proposed national debate would consider how police officers are adapting to the threat of terrorism, including the thinking behind the shoot-to-kill policy.

Yet last week's events suggest a wariness of debate. Sir Ian and other senior officers headed for Westminster to urge MPs to take it from them that they needed the right to hold suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Ministers argued more vehemently that the police had wanted such a policy so they must have it. They stated explicitly that the views of the police overwhelmed all other arguments. In effect ministers and senior officers were saying this was a matter for the police and too important for the rest of us, hardly a starting point for a constructive national debate.

The confusion was multi-layered. The weakness of the ministerial argument should not have barred the police from making their tendentious case to MPs. The fleeting outrage over the intervention by the police was absurd. Apparently the police could make their case to the Government, but not to MPs who were about to take part in a decisive Commons vote. The police had a case. Rightly, MPs heard the case. Rightly, they rejected it when they made up their own minds. There should be more dialogue along the same lines between Parliament and increasingly powerful unelected bodies, rather than less.

Instead, the relationship between politicians and outside institutions is deformed by irrational and contradictory prejudices. Most of the time politicians are told to keep their supposedly incompetent hands out of the running and provision of services. When there is a terrible mishap - a rail crash, police incompetence - the cry goes up: what are politicians doing about it? In relation to the police, there is a familiar populist cry: "Let them get on with the job without political interference!" Yet when the police seek to get on with the job by interfering with the politicians, all hell is let loose.

The cause of the confusion is cited indirectly in another part of Sir Ian's speech. There is a crisis in our democratic institutions caused by a lack of self-confidence in elected politicians, post-Thatcherite confusion about the role of the state, the destructive cynicism of the media and the erosion of local government in the 1980s. Sir Ian does not put it quite like that, but he points out that the old traditional agents of social enforcement, such as park-keepers, caretakers and bus conductors, have disappeared. He reflects also on the "under-funded and imperfectly implemented" decision to close most of the long-stay psychiatric institutions in the 1980s. He concludes: "This has left many people looking, in the absence of anyone else, to the police services for answers to the degradation of communal life."

In each case the absent factor is a vibrant municipal culture. Local authorities have virtually no power over the areas they are supposed to represent. Most specifically in the 1980s they were given neither the money nor the powers to arrange for a smooth transition after the closure of psychiatric hospitals. Patients were released and left more or less to get on with it. No council pays for park-keepers any more. The unelected police have filled the democratic void almost without the rest of noticing. What is needed urgently is the revival of a more self-confident democracy at a local and a national level. Councils must be at least as involved as the police in acting as agents of social enforcement.

Sir Ian calls for a national debate on the vast terrain he navigates gingerly. In the end the most suitable arena for such a debate is the elected national parliament. This is where Sir Ian adds to the confusion. What is wrong with a debate by elected politicians? It seems the obvious forum, although the shocked reaction in some quarters after MPs dared to assert their own judgement in relation to the detention of suspects suggests otherwise.

Of course there are flaws in this arena: the timidly whipped MPs, the various parties placing political positioning above principle. But it is the Government that raises the money to fund the police and makes decisions on the overall policing strategy. As Parliament is demonstrating with renewed vigour at the moment, ministers are accountable to MPs. There is no need for another unelected quango to make pronouncements on policing, another layer of confused power-holders.

Even so, ministers have responsibility without power and an assorted array of unelected institutions have power without responsibility. Flailing in the darkness, Sir Ian should take a hesitant bow for seeking more responsibility to go with his vaguely accountable powers.