Democracy Café:

The Café met in person in Brown Street on 12 February 2022 with a few on line via Zoom as well. Two interesting topics were discussed

The first topic was ‘Is the Metropolitan Police Service ungovernable?’ This question was prompted by the resignation the previous day of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick who had lost the confidence of the Mayor of London to reform the service. It was quickly noted that she seemed unable to deliver on her promises following a series of scandals the most recent of which were the various sexist, racist and misogynistic remarks and WhatsApp messages to emerge from Charing Cross Police station. The delayed ‘partygate’ investigation in No 10 was another factor.

There was a wide ranging discussion of the MPS and its role in society. The Met is a ‘mirror of society’ said one and they can only recruit people who represent that society. Are in fact the wrong people getting recruited? This was (therefore) a social problem it was argued not a recruitment one. Since the MPS or any police force, represents the community it polices, it can only reflect that society.

As to size, if view of the fact that London was a city of 9 million souls, was one force adequate to cope with this? It was difficult for any one person to know what was going on. Was it too close to government? – the delay in investigating the goings on in No 10 might have been a sign of that. The Home Office exerts an influence over the force and someone said (which might qualify as the quote of the day) that it was “law and order by permission of the government” referring perhaps to the recent bills in parliament.

One pertinent point was the fact that we were outraged by the goings on in the Met was itself a good sign perhaps meaning it showed we cared and that we were free to voice our views. We should maybe remember that many are lucky to emerge alive from police stations in countries like Egypt or Pakistan. It was also noted that in common with other public sector organisations, the MPS had to ‘air its dirty washing in public.’ This meant that any failing in one corner of the organisation would be quickly and widely known.

This led to a debate about social media (as ever) and that three or four decades ago, a lot of the things we see and read about today would not have appeared. It did not mean that their incidence was increasing, only their visibility, the ‘optics’ as someone referred to them. Once it became widely known, the public then demanded action. Not everyone agreed with this and there was a spirited intervention claiming that incidents of racist, homophobic and misogynistic language and attitudes were rife. ‘Locker room’ banter as it is referred to (with the false impression it was mild in nature) was widespread it was claimed. The Charing Cross incident was not a one off.

Someone who has worked in the MPS (but not in uniform) said in all the many years he had worked there he had not come across this banter or the attitudes complained of. One problem was the lack of training for the middle ranks – inspectors and the like. It is they who carry through change on the ground and it seemed as though they were not trained to do this. It was all very well for the top people to want to see change but for it to happen, it had to be delivered and it was the middle ranks in between who did this.

But back to the central question: the governability of the MPS. The problems were emotional and psychological it was argued. On the issue of race for example, the government itself had argued (to much dismay) that institutional racism was not a problem. If it is not admitted then solving it would be a problem. We were in effect asking our police to police our society (meaning its attitudes) – was that possible? Not everything can be criminalised it was noted. Finally, the effects of – indeed the growing effects of – the mental health crisis which meant we were asking our police to look after more and more people with mental health problems.

The departure of Cressida Dick finished this session which was kind of apposite. It had earlier been suggested that her replacement should not be from the ranks of the police, an outsider in effect*. One thought this a good idea. Referring to the Commissioner, she was it was claimed ‘blind’ to the problems the Met experienced. It was interesting that she did not like the various programmes such as Line of Duty, a hit on the BBC about police corruption. She found the very concept of the programme difficult to accept. However it was suggested, if we vilify our leaders will it not be difficult to recruit new ones?

Did we answer the problem? Well we thought it was too big a force which is almost certainly right and that is not just big in terms of geography but big in terms of scope of activities. We thought the training of middle ranks was insufficient and that is true of any organisation of size. The rise of social media and mobile phones meant we were more aware of issues which did not mean they were necessarily worse. The service is probably too politically entwined and the Home Office is hardly the last word in openness, efficiency or effectiveness. The politicisation was particularly so with the arrival of PCCs it was noted. So we probably got it mostly right. Is it ungovernable? Not sure we came to a conclusion on that.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

The second part of the morning was given to discussing ‘Is the job of Minister for Brexit Opportunities’ a non-job?’ Jacob Rees-Mogg, the holder of said ministerial post, had invited Sun readers to put forward suggestions of Brexit successes. The question occasioned a series of sardonic remarks: should there be a Minister for Refurbishment?’ or one for the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ or a ‘Minister for Government Entertainment’ (assuming there isn’t one already but with a disguised name). The main question was if there are the opportunities – what need of a minister?

It was pointed out that the second half of the job description was ‘… and government efficiency‘ which meant the question quickly morphed into a general discussion of government efficiency. There were massive problems with government efficiency (meaning inefficiency) it was argued.

One opinion forcefully put was that the NHS was not overrun by administrators and several reports suggest that the NHS is far more efficient than most health services around the world and particularly the USA.

It was pointed out that the government was run by civil servants. Ministers are prone to being reshuffled which clearly has an effect on their motivation and commitment to their particular ministry. Ministers are meant to decide policy, the civil service to carry it out.

Harold Wilson was mentioned as the last prime minister it was suggested who had a long term vision and the White Heat of Technology was quoted. This was a vision for a decade ahead but unfortunately it did not survive long.

There was some debate about the quality of ministers and the cabinet. The by now familiar comment was made that far too many senior politicians come straight from university into a think tank or similar organisation, then some kind of parliamentary assistant post before finding a parliamentary seat and onwards to the cabinet. They have no work experience to speak of and little knowledge of ‘real life’ as lived by thousands who will be their constituents. Add in the public school background of many and you have what we have. To get elected it was suggested, it was more important to be popular or a ‘cheeky chappie’ than having a grasp of government, relevant experience or knowledge of the real world. Ministerial appointments were more about promotion, reward and favours rather a grasp of strategic thinking.

There was some discussion about inequality and JB Priestley’s book ‘English Journey‘ published in 1934 was an early example of someone visiting the deprived areas of Britain. Someone said they had visited the coalfields following the closures and they were truly shocked: abandoned houses, boarded up shops and wrecked miners’ welfares.

It was then observed that England did not have its own parliament unlike the devolved countries of Wales, Scotland and notionally Northern Ireland. That meant power was too concentrated in Westminster. It was noted however that attempts at devolution and the creation of regional assemblies in England got nowhere. We do need more devolved decision making and subsidiarity. This prompted the question ‘what does it mean to be English?’ Should I be proud to be so?

Back, as we must, to the question of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Someone thought Brexit was an economic disaster and so opportunities will be hard to find. There should he argued, be an employment benefit now that many foreign workers had left but there was a problem of a skills mismatch. Foreign workers did the mundane tasks and the English did the management. We have now lost that ‘bottom’ layer of people and the home crew are not skilled enough. He might have added they did not like some of the work on offer either.

We do not of course know what the readers of the Sun will tell Mr Rees-Mogg about the Brexit opportunities which have emerged, but there did seem a lot of discussion about the nature of government and its efficient operation, the second half of his job. The nub of it was the poor quality and narrow – or very limited – experience of those going into parliament and hence onto the government payroll in some form. We wait with bated breath to see what the minister comes up with in that regard.

Peter Curbishley; Mark Potts

*Update – it was reported after our debate that the government may well look outside the country for a new Commissioner. Rather like our football teams. PC