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A Very British Coup?


In 100 years time the last week of February 2012 will be remembered as a turning point in UK history, for three events that don't seem all that remarkable at first sight.

The first event was the appearance of Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police Sue Akers at the Leveson inquiry, where she claimed that there was a "culture of illegal payments" at the Sun newspaper, in which police officers and other civil servants were not merely paid for specific information but were in effect kept on retainer to leak regularly. Akers testimony coincided with James Murdoch finally resigning the chairmanship of News International, the Sun's holding company. 

The second event was the announcement that the West Midlands and Surrey police authorities have invited bids from G4S and other major security companies on behalf of all forces across England and Wales to take over the delivery of a wide range of services previously carried out by the police. A West Midlands spokesman said that "Combining with the business sector is aimed at totally transforming the way the force currently does business – improving the service provided to the public". Needless to say Home Secretary Teresa May is an enthusiastic promoter of this scheme, which she hopes to have in place by next spring.

The third event was Prime Minister David Cameron's admission that he had indeed repeatedly ridden a horse loaned to former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks by the Metropolitan Police.

Now to anyone with a modicum of political nous it should come as no surprise to learn that the so-called "ruling class" is nothing of the sort - it is not a class, nor is it singular, nor does it "rule" in any straightforward way. Complex social democracies like that of the UK are ruled by a collection of powerful institutions that pass around power and funds between them, not with much sense of solidarity but more like a Darwinian struggle for dominance. These three events shine a spotlight on three of the most powerful of the institutions, two public (the Tory government and the Metropolitan police) and one private (News International), but other equally powerful ones like parliament and the judiciary are currently involved in a titanic struggle that almost amounts to coup and counter-coup.

That News International has had a baleful influence on British politics for the last 30 years is scarcely news to any but a blinkered few. During its 18 wilderness years the Labour party developed such a debilitating fear of the Sun's power over its natural voter base that NI in effect controlled the mainfesto of New Labour, dictating a continuance of Thatcherite economics and a hands-off policy on the media regulation that might have set them free. However it is somewhat newsworthy to learn that Cameron's "detoxified" Tory party too is almost completely integrated with News International, socially as well as politically.

It appeared for a while that News International's hubris had actually brought it down - the flagrancy of its illegal and anti-democratic behaviour over phone hacking lead to public revulsion and a revolt by parliament and the judiciary: to the Leveson inquiry, the closing of News of the World and the downfall of both Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch. Last week Sue Akers testimony suggested that the Metropolitan Police, feeling the strength of the gale that's blowing, had changed sides in this struggle and decided to clean out the corruption, sever links with News International and start doing its job again. And then, POW!, we learn that the power of the police nationwide is to be dissipated by hiving off many of its activites to private sector security firms already known to be rapacious, inefficient and mired in corruption. What a coincidence.

I had a foretaste of what's to come when my motorbike was stolen a couple of years ago. The police found it, damaged and immobile, just outside London, but the officer who came to my door explained they could no longer return it themselves: instead it was being held by a private recovery company in Stevenage who charged £150 storage for every day I didn't reclaim it. On contacting my insurance company they were unfazed by this and having assessed my claim eventually paid some £900 storage fees (though of course I and everyone else ultimately pay in increased premiums). The bike was written-off rather than repaired as a result. This is the thoroughly British way of corruption, an insurance claim (whiplash, a "burned hearthrug", a privately-stored motorbike) rather than a handful of banknotes as in India or Latin America, or a newspaper parcel of home-grown cucumbers in the old Soviet Union.

This campaign poses the biggest threat to rule of law since Robert Peel first established a public police force. Combined with the concurrent assault on the NHS, it threatens to change entirely the nature of British society, driving it in the same dysfunctional and collapsing direction as the USA. Business interests will ensure News International eventually wriggles off the hook. Corruption will dominate everyday life as people strive to pay for their health-care and protection from crime. Private security firms will effectively become warlords in the poorer parts of the country. And all this is from the Detoxified Party of Law and Order. I think I preferred the toxic version, at least you knew where you were.


  1. Mark - I think comments are working, but in this new interface the box is off the bottom of the screen - you have to scroll down.


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