Lessons from Ladybird?

Professor Mike Rowe. Professor of Criminology at Northumbria University. 

A grim picture of policing in England and Wales emerged from the end-of-year reviews provided by much of the media in recent weeks. The ‘pleb-gate’ row was reignited as an officer was arrested shortly before Christmas and several newspapers carried prominent stories suggesting that the former Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, may have been the victim of a set-up. Allegations of police corruption had featured in a number of cases reported in 2012: several senior officers continue to be under investigation in relation to inappropriate behaviour. The Leveson inquiry revealed details of widespread financial relationships between officers and journalists prepared to trade cash for information about investigations and individuals of public interest. Newspapers also pointed to the expose of police malpractice in relation to the Hillsborough disaster and the clashes at Orgreave during the 1984-85 miners’ strike as further evidence that the police service had reached a new low point. Coupled with budget cuts that have already led to a reduction in police numbers, looming changes to officers’ pay and conditions, and the continuing prospect that aspects of policing a ripe for privatisation it seems reasonable to suggest that the policeman’s lot is not a happy one and that 2012 has been an especially fraught year for the police service.

After reading a number of doom-laden newspaper pieces along these lines it was by odd coincidence that – while clearing out a relative’s attic – I came across an old Ladybird Easy Reading Book, from a series called ‘People at Work’, entitled: ‘The Policeman’. The style and content of the book will be readily familiar to many people over the age of 40; highly didactic in tone it is a part of a series that explains to children the function of key workers. Others in the collection include ‘The Fireman’, ‘The Nurse’, and ‘The Builder’: indicative of its age the series includes books explaining the role of ‘The Miner’ and ‘The Pottery Makers’. Accompanied by watercolour illustrations the book outlines the nature of the role of the policeman. Clearly the book is aimed at a young audience and a critical edge is not to be expected.  Certainly none is found; the reader is told that ‘the policeman on his beat is always willing to help children across the road’, ‘he will only use his truncheon if he is attacked’ and, reassuringly, that ‘in end detectives usually find the criminals’.

Anyone seeking to understand the cultural context of the Golden Age of British Policing would do well to start with this short volume. Curiously it was published in 1962: a convenient half-century before the apparent annus horribilis that has recently ended. It presents an image of the police officer, and the relation of the police to the public, that is as rosy and comforting as contemporary journalistic perspectives tarnish and disturb. The date of publication is also interesting, of course, as it was the year in which the Royal Commission on Policing published its findings. The Commission report instigated, among other things, the 1964 Police Act and is often seen as the starting point for contemporary policing. The key point is, though, that the Royal Commission was established following a prolonged period of concern about police corruption and accountability, officer remuneration, and perceived inefficiency. Between 1952 and 1965 seven chief constables were subject to corruption inquiries – and in two cases were subsequently imprisoned. Tensions between local watch committees, Chief Constables and the Home Office called into question arrangements for police accountability and various controversies erupted over apparent use of excessive force by police officers. These coupled with concerns over the policing of public order events such as the urban riots in Nottingham and in London, and political protests such as the CND Aldermaston march. The idyllic representation of the Ladybird book may have been highly unrealistic – even in the Golden Age.

Although more recent scandals and allegations need to be taken seriously, their potential impact is not easy to discern. A key obstacle continues to be the myth of the Golden Age: a settled past when the police officer enjoyed the automatic and unquestioning confidence of the public. Judged against that standard then the contemporary police service is clearly found wanting. Crucially, though, many the issues properly of concern in the 21st century also applied to the boys in blue depicted in the dusty Ladybird book in front of me. This is not to suggest that nothing changes, that history simply repeats itself or that nothing can be done to tackle contemporary problems. However, a more realistic historical perspective on the state of policing, which recognises that relations with the public have often been strained, would be a useful corrective to current debates.


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