Sunday, 14 August 2011

Hooray for Sir Hugh

Hooray for Sir Hugh Orde, chief of the Association of Chief Police Officers, a figure in the British establishment who is at last prepared to criticise this absurd obsession we have in this country for piloting in "experts" from the United States of America (always the United States of America) to tackle whatever problem certain politicians think is not being adequately addressed by our own people – be it public order, drugs, performance of tube trains, funding of the arts, whatever. But policing and crime are the strangest cases of all – as I commented in a previous post, how absurd that we in the UK should take lessons from the United States, of all places, the nation that finds it needs to lock up 0.74% of its own citizens! Or, as Sir Hugh says about the plans from the Prime Minister to draft in US "Supercop" Bill Bratton:
I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective.
If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are fundamentally different from here.
What I suggested to the home secretary is a more sensible approach, maybe to look across far wider styles of policing and - more usefully - at European styles; they, like us, are bound by the European Convention.
My sense is, when we've done that, we will find the British model is probably the top.
For a figure in the UK establishment to suggest we could usefully look at how anything is done in Europe, as opposed to the United States, is truly exceptional, and I salue Sir Hugh for this.

It is my suspicion, that I can't prove, it is just a thesis, that this implicit belief in the superiority of American expertise in the minds of many (principally right-wing) British politicians is a kind of reverse-colonialism. I think it started in the early to mid-twentieth century, as the USA replaced Britain as the most powerful nation in the world, and it is associated with the decline of British influence and prestige since then, our status becoming eclipsed by the superpower status of the USA. I think a kind of romantic-nostalgic feeling about the "sundering of the English-speaking world" developed at this stage in British culture, and you can trace this trend in the writing of figures like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan, and, of course, Winston Churchill (as great a writer as a leader), a feeling that with the loss of the colonies, of which the United States was the first to secede, Britain had lost its "best people" – its strongest, bravest, most adventurous folk, and that Britain's greatness would be regained, not through integration with Europe, but by some kind of ill-defined future "re-unification of the English-speaking peoples". (This phrase, or a similar one, was used by both Conan Doyle and Churchill).

This romantic world-view was, of course, completely unrealistic, and ignored the true nature of the United States, which was that it was a total cultural melting-pot, with huge contributions from the Germans, Poles, Irish, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and Africans, it was not, from the mid 19th-century onwards, "basically British" in culture, and the fact that there was a linguistic and historic bond became increasingly misleading. But still, down to this day, British prime ministers and US Presidents seem to fell duty-bound, as a sort of sacred rite, to re-confirm the "special relationship" between the UK and the USA at regular intervals, though the phrase has little meaning. The "special relationship" is in reality a confirmation of the decline of the UK in world rankings since 1900, its failure to find a new place in Europe, and of a sad, head-shaking, kindly-uncle-like attitude on the part of US politicians who feel it best to play along with the UK "special relationship" delusion, for fear of making British even sadder by telling them to go and carve their own, modern path in the world.

The "get someone from the USA" reflex to solving problems in British politicians is part of the "special relationship" delusion and inferiority complex. So far as I know there is no equivalent in other European countries. I might get corrected on this, but I am not aware that the Portuguese regularly look to Brazil for problem-solving leadership, or the Spanish to Mexico.

The reason I salute Sir Hugh is that if we can get a grip on current world realities, in this case, that the crime-and-punishment culture is totally different in the USA to the UK, move away from this Transatlantic cultural fixation and start learning lessons from the way certain things in public life are done well by our far more culturally-similar European neighbours, who just happen to speak different languages to us, then I think we stand to benefit enormously. Who knows, the next stop on this road might be getting Dutch or Danish urban planners, who actually understand how to construct an environment that encourages cycling and walking, at work in our cities. That would be truly revolutionary.


  1. My first impression from US policing is far from flattering, so when my MP calls for "NY style policing" imagine my shock. However if by NY style policing they mean "stop blaming the victim already" (and other principles that actually make sense) then I'm going to agree with him on this one.

  2. David, whilst I also support Sir Hugh in this, I can understand the knee jerk reaction from Cameron. For me the issue lies with where we go to for our principle cultural references - as a nation we seem to lean exclusively to the USA, Europe is somewhere we go on holiday but the USA is where we get our culture from. Much of Europe has managed to resist this thereby maintaining a strong national identity but for some reason many Brits want to be "fellow Amuricans"

  3. "I am not sure want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective."

    With respect to Sir Hugh, this is a rather baseless argument, because it tells us nothing about how the number of gangs has *changed* under Bratton's stewardship, which would be a more reasonable measure of effectiveness.

    The number of gangs could have decreased from 800 to 400 under his watch, for instance - in which case, I would say that Bratton has been effective, and we might have something to learn from America.

    The opposite is, of course, true - the number of gangs could have gone up. But simply quoting a number like Orde is rather unhelpful, because it gives no idea of any trend.