Why I'm proud to be British: policing by consent and the rule of law

There are lots of things that make me proud to be British, at least there were until yesterday. I feel pretty ashamed at seeing yobs and hoodlums looting and rioting, laying waste to people's homes and businesses for nothing more than a shiny pair of trainers or an iPod. It's particularly depressing when seen alongside the recent protests across the middle east.

In the coming days, weeks and months there will be a lot of soul searching about how and why this happened and a lot of hand wringing about how our society is morally bankrupt. Britain will be compared, unfavourably, with just about everywhere and, in some cases, the comparison will be justified. But there is still at least one thing that makes me proud of my country, 'policing by consent', and I hope this isn't a casualty of the shocking behaviour of the last three days.

The principle of policing by consent has not gone down terribly well this morning.  Theresa May has been widely lambasted for trotting it out in response to questions about how the police have handled the riots. She has been derided as being out of touch and out of her depth, although, all credit to her, at least she had the decency to cut short her holiday while the PM was still wondering if he could get away with another day on the sun lounger.

It certainly wasn't the best response from a home secretary and has done nothing to reassure residents whose homes and businesses have been destroyed.  But as the calls to bring in the army and the water cannons get louder, it is worth pausing to think about what policing by consent actually means.  Policing by consent is the basis on which our society has been policed since the days of Robert Peel and is what sets us apart from our European neighbours.  The nine principles of good policing, as set out in 1956 by police historian Charles Reith, specifically include:

To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

Put simply, we allow the police to police.  I am thankful of this.  I am thankful we don't have a national police force or paramilitary policing based on fear.  I am thankful we don't automatically bring out the water cannons and rubber bullets.  And I am thankful the government is so far resisting calls to bring the army onto the streets.

That doesn't mean our policing is perfect or that there aren't questions to answer about the police shooting of Mark Duggan that sparked the riots. But as a principle I think policing by consent is important and we need to ask why it wasn't enough to prevent or stop the rioting.

It pains me to say it, but what we are seeing is the breakdown of society in certain parts of the country.  Or rather, a society that has already broken down.  I am not going to speculate as to how or when this started to happen, but the riots demonstrate how society is a fragile thing that requires all of us to feel we belong to it and have a stake in its success.  Society works because we consent to abide by its norms.  But if, as many of our young people surely feel, it offered us nothing, make no mistake, any one of us could resort to violence (for a fare more eloquent analysis of young people's alienation from society, read this in the Independent by Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of the charities The Place to Be and Kids Company, who is one person qualified to speculate).

If policing by consent is what sets us apart, the rule of law, by which we avoid dictatorship, theocracy and despotism, is something we share with all democracies and we undermine it at our peril.  It would be disingenuous of me to make a direct link between the riots and legal aid cuts.  But just as policing by consent is under threat from a detached underclass who have no fear of the consequences of their actions, so the rule of law'will be threatened by the savage cuts to legal aid that will severely curb access to justice.

The very concept of the rule of law, much as policing by consent, relies on the fact 'that individuals, persons and government shall submit to, obey and be regulated by law, and not arbitrary action by an individual or a group of individuals'.  But if vast swathes of the population feel they have no access to justice through established means then what will happen? Rather than take their case to court they are increasingly likely to take justice into their own hands.

There are warnings that a third of law centres will close, 18 out of the 56 across the country, creating substantial advice deserts across the country.  By removing welfare advice and most debt, employment and housing advice from the scope of legal aid the government will slash the number of claimants receiving help from law centres from 120,000 to just 40,000.  Where will the 80,000 go for advice?  And if they can't get advice, what will they do, just lie down and take it?  What would you do?

The justice system works because no-one is above the law.  Anyone, regardless of their social, economic or political status, is subject to the rule of law and everyone is equal before it.  But what if only the wealthy can afford a lawyer? What if politicians, newspaper editors and city bankers can buy their way out of trouble but the rest of us can be punished for our crimes or are unable to get redress when we've been abused? Where does that leave the rule of law?

I hope that the 'riot cleanup' response to the disturbances is a more accurate reflection of our society and our national character than the rioters.  I hope that we will respond to the violence much as Norway responded to the devastating rampage of one madman with a gun, by calling for more social democracy and not less.  I hope the government will think again about cutting legal aid and undermining the rule of law.  And I hope we continue to 'police by consent' and don't resort to jackboots and tanks.  Then we will have something to be proud of.

Expert legal advice you can rely on,
get in touch today

Please let us know you are not a robot