John Alderson: Outspoken liberal policeman who angered Thatcher with his views

David McKittrick
Saturday 22 October 2011 08:46 BST

A rugby player and heavyweight boxing champion who was a sergeant-major in the Army Physical Training Corps might be expected to become one of the more muscular types of policeman. Yet despite a pedigree suggesting more brawn rather than brain John Alderson was an unusually cerebral police officer, a stance which was all the more remarkable because much of his career coincided with the Thatcher era.

His brand of uncompromising liberalism meant he was probably the Prime Minister's least favourite cop. She did not like his obvious suspicions of the security services or his emphasis on community policing. Nor did she appreciate his criticisms of how her government deployed police during the miners' strike of 1984. He made these after his retirement but even while a chief constable he made his views crystal clear, often on television.

There must have been many moments of prime-ministerial pursed lips as he made statements such as: "What is in dispute is whether the police are to be a remote, threatening, repressive arm of government, or a body of public servants protecting, befriending and advising the meanest as well as the grandest of our citizens."

The fact that he was so much out of tune with the political zeitgeist of 1980s Britain meant he did not go to on to head the Metropolitan Police, as many had assumed. Instead, he spent years writing and lecturing, in particular providing intellectual underpinning for the community policing he had practised as Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall. His efforts meant the idea, once reviled by fellow chiefs, has been incorporated into mainstream policing.

Born in 1922, John Alderson was brought up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, where his mother was a community worker: his father died young. His family had deep community roots, one of his grandfathers serving as mayor and magistrate. Alderson joined the army in 1938, serving with the Highland Light Infantry before becoming involved in physical fitness and battle training in North Africa and Italy.

After the war he joined the West Riding Constabulary. In addition to his duties on the beat he proved useful at rugby and boxing, as well as studying criminology and reading for the Bar. Promotion came quickly and he won a fellowship enabling him to spend a year in Australia. Identified as a high-flier, he completed prestigious courses before spending two years as Deputy Chief Constable of Dorset. Next came the Met, where he served under the reformist Sir Robert Mark before becoming commandant of the National Police College at Bramshill in Hampshire.

Taking over as chief constable of Devon and Cornwall he introduced innovations which disconcerted traditionalists. Officers were put into tracksuits to help run football teams for youngsters. He appointed more than 100 community officers, taking them out of cars and back on to the beat. He wanted, he said, to get away from a culture in which officers "ride around in cars, sweeping down on offenders."

He advanced women officers and community involvement at almost all levels, suggesting, for example, giving communities a say in appointing commanders. He also made clear his disapproval of many of the activities of Special Branch, which he described as "the government's police force." After checking local files he ordered the destruction of many documents which he regarded as infringing civil liberties.

His approach was watched with interest, though chief constables generally regarded him as excessively radical. Most tended more towards the tougher, more authoritarian approach of Manchester's James Anderton. Alderson favoured working closely with community workers and probation officers: a police officer "must be someone who helps as well as avenges."

When he realised he would not be offered any more top jobs his pronouncements became less and less restrained. One of his parting shots before retirement was: "What I try to do is to build relationships between the police and the public. It is no answer to resort to brute force to control people."

Another, in the wake of a bout of rioting, illustrated how distant he was from a traditional approach. As colleagues in other forces considered tooling up with water cannon, CS gas and plastic bullets, he said: "There has to be a better way than blind repression. This whole volatility has been detonated by the impact of the recession and the feeling of hopelessness. The recourse to sheer force as a solution is very dangerous." He added: "We must tackle the underlying tensions and develop unorthodox, imaginative and radical solutions. Having muscle is not enough; you have to use it wisely. A violent police reaction is not a panacea."

In retirement he continued his outspoken opposition to Conservative policy, at one point standing for parliament for the Liberals. Looking back at the miners' strike he called the police role "anything but democratic", saying that officers had become a de facto arm of the state. He described police tactics as "precisely how the Hong Kong riot squad would act," adding: "The British people should never accept colonial-style policing. It is forceful, repressive policing. Instead of exporting the developed British traditions to the colonies, we are now importing colonial policing into Britain."

His stance caused one left-wing commentator to write wonderingly: "It is his anti-Thatcher standpoint which is so refreshingly progressive, coming from a former police chief. Ideas which would appear moderate in a social worker ... put Alderson firmly on the extreme left of police culture."

In retirement his work rate was as prolific as his opinions were trenchant. He wrote many books and contributed to many more. One example of his work was a textbook for the training of police and human rights officials, commissioned by the Council of Europe.

John Cottingham Alderson, police officer: born Barnsley 28 May 1922; Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall 1973–82; Queen's Police Medal 1974, CBE 1981; married 1948 Irené Macmillan Stirling (died 2008; one son); died 7 October 2011.

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