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British police are not natural authoritarians. Their new role will not come easily to them

Coronavirus in Britain, London, United Kingdom - 24 Mar 2020 
British police commissioner Cressida Dick (L) patrols Old Bond street in London, Britain, 24 March 2020.  Credit: Shutterstock

Our senior officers belong to a long tradition of consensual policing

When asked at Sunday’s press conference whether the time had come to increase police powers, the prime minister repeated the word ‘police’ with a mixture of shock and dismay. But the pressure was already mounting to turn us into a police state and by 8.30 the following evening he was announcing restrictions on movement enforced by officers.

Elements within the BBC continue to press for the declaration of something resembling martial law. Nick Robinson asked health secretary Matt Hancock on Monday morning whether the time had come for the police to tell people what to do rather than merely to advise them. The BBC had filmed people who had gone out on Sunday afternoon and sat at picnic tables within two metres of each other. Matt Hancock said that they had been selfish. On Tuesday Mishal Husain highlighted crowded tube trains in an interview with Michael Gove. And at the Tuesday afternoon briefing another journalist criticised people for going to work in packed underground carriages.

Instead of siding with those who have been calling for the transport police to demand that travellers prove their work is essential, Matt Hancock revealed his own liberal sentiments. Trains were packed because Transport For London has reduced the timetable2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been denouncing  employees for loyally turning up at their workplace when he should have been pressing Transport For London to meet all necessary demand.

Much is being made of remaining two metres away from people. Is this number derived from ‘science’? Apparently not. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advice is to "Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing." And it explains why. When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets.

So WHO advice is not to stay even one metre away from everyone at all times, just those who are coughing or sneezing. All those people who snatched an hour or two in the sunshine, at the end of drab winter, were being human. They were not in the least bit selfish. And if the criterion had been the WHO rule rather than the British Government’s, the vast majority were well within it.

There are always a certain number of people in society who are authoritarian by nature. They are quick to identify scapegoats who can be blamed, such as people sitting too close at picnic tables or going to work on a crowded tube. The vast majority of us are instinctively liberal and even in wartime there was no martial law. We don’t want the police to become aggressive authoritarians who stop people at random and demand to see their ‘papers’. It will bring out the worst in the police, possibly with lasting effects.

The Government has got itself hooked on the ‘two-metres’ rule without good reason. Public ‘non-compliance’ is no excuse for declaring what is euphemistically being called a lock-down.

Most of us are being prudent and following the advice. We respect people who are public spirited but our literature, drama and humour also celebrate individuals who are non-conformists, even outside the law, so long as they only cross the line a little bit. Private Walker in Dad’s Army2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程 is typical of the kind of person whose behaviour we condemn but admire. He can get rare wartime items such as whisky, petrol, chocolate and oranges for cash in hand. Nearly everyone takes advantage from time, including Captain Mainwaring and the local magistrates.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Boris appears to share these entrenched national sentiments and seemed uncomfortable issuing commands from on high followed by threats of police action for non-compliance.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程His original instinct that we are a land of liberty was surely right and the sooner the real Boris returns, the better it will be for all of us. Britain’s police leaders also seem reluctant to take on the role now being enthusiastically embraced by the French police. Our senior officers belong to a long tradition of consensual policing, which sees constables as citizens in uniform, not gendarmes, the enforcement arm of the state.

David Green is Director of Civitas