The photo on the left is lifted from a 1973 copy of the Radio Times, part of a feature promoting ‘The Burke Special’, James Burke’s memorable series in which he tended to take burning issues of the day and examined them in a uniquely enlightening manner, usually involving audience interaction. This particular edition of the programme saw Burke gazing into his crystal ball and predicting the future, which in 1973 was 1993. Although I’ve never seen the edition profiled, I’ve read the article, and some of the predictions are surprisingly accurate, such as the belief that the children beginning school in 1973 (I’d done just that the previous year) will become the first generation to access computer technology and master it to the point whereby it’ll be second nature. I’ve written this on here and you’re reading it on here, so he got that one right.
Interestingly, some highly prescient subjects are discussed, with much talk of ‘citizen’s dossiers, identity cards and restrictions on the individual’. The topic of ‘data banks storing personal information’ is raised – something Burke believes will be accepted rather than resented, though mainly by the young. He speaks of data banks containing ‘fingerprints and medical information, perhaps even the results of psychological testing as well as credit-rating and basic census details’, and says that 1993 will hold different ideas about personal liberty. He may have been 20 years out, but looking at the society of 2016, one whose population seem happy for any amount of intimate information to be given away and retained on file, James Burke certainly had something of the Nostradamus about him. Granted, he wasn’t quite as accurate when he predicted shorter working hours, compulsory retirement at 50 or cities being traffic-free; though one other area of contemporary interest he touches upon is that of armed police.
The caption beneath the photo imagining a Bobby-on-the-beat clutching a pistol quotes Surrey’s Chief Constable of the time, PJ Matthews (Funny how initials were still freely used in the archaic style of cricketers back then). Chief Constable Matthews says ‘I can’t foresee the ordinary policeman carrying arms in this or any other century’. I’d hazard a guess that a man old enough to have been a Chief Constable 43 years ago is probably now residing in the great police retirement home in the sky, though I can’t but wonder if he was looking down yesterday when the Met’s current top dog, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, acted as emcee for a fashion parade of this season’s chic designs for the armed policeman.
Of course, few police officers wear the old familiar helmets we all grew up with these days (Do any at all? Answers on a postcard); and I must confess those awful luminous ‘body-warmers’ are a sartorial no-no for me. But the PCs on parade toting their boy’s toys in London yesterday – a small sample of an apparently extra 600 threatened to be let loose on the capital with handguns, semi-automatic weapons and Tasers – don’t even look like policemen. What they resemble more than anything is soldiers; and one of the major objections to the introduction of a police force in the early nineteenth century was that they would merely be a military wing of the government, an army in all-but name, no different from the previous yeomanry called upon to maintain order in the event of civil unrest, ones who had no qualms over opening fire on the public.
Met founder and Home Secretary Robert Peel allayed such fears in two significant ways. Firstly, with the exception of Sergeant, he ensured police ranks didn’t share the same as those in the army; secondly, he didn’t allow them to carry arms, a necessary tactic when the aim was for the police to earn the community’s trust, policing by consent. The latter was something foreign visitors – especially those from countries such as the US – always found astonishing; but it was something Brits tended to have a small degree of pride in. Issuing firearms to specially-trained officers was an emergency measure used in exceptional circumstances. An episode of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ from the same year as ‘The Burke Special’ has a storyline in which an individual is shot dead by an armed police officer, and the procedure for handing out the weapons beforehand is based on standard practice of the time. The viewer is left in no doubt as to how the police didn’t dispense weaponry lightly and were extremely conscious of the potential dangers of doing so. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was a special case, but armed officers on the British mainland were a rare sight indeed.
The thought that there will be 600 of them patrolling London (and, one presumes, other major cities in the country eventually) is one that is supposed to serve as reassurance to the public; but I personally don’t feel reassured by the sight at all. There is a definite ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ vibe to high visibility coppers clutching firearms that throws up images of testosterone-fuelled, trigger-happy cops of the kind that America seems incurably afflicted by. Hogan-Howe claimed the aim of yesterday’s macho show was ‘to reassure the public and deter the terrorists’. The RUC carrying weapons hardly prevented thirty bloody years on the streets of Northern Ireland, and anyone whose faith in the police force is already shaky will not feel comfortable with more guns being put in the hands of those who regularly show themselves incapable of making rational judgement when their fingers are on the triggers. The Met’s record is not a good one in this area. They get carried away enough as it is when they’ve only got Tasers.
It’s hard to see how making the capital city resemble an occupied territory will win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of those who are unconvinced by the probity of the police when only armed with truncheons. James Burke’s own 1973 opinion of future armed police is as follows: ‘It is certainly a possibility,’ he says. ‘But I know the police themselves are against the idea. I suspect our Britishness means that we will resist arms for the police – just as we’ll probably resist identity cards; but it will become important for information to be held about us.’ Welcome to 1993.
© The Editor