Britain’s police forces: forever removed from democratic control?

Williams, Chris (2003). Britain’s police forces: forever removed from democratic control? History and Policy



Throughout the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth, police power was largely seen as a responsibility of local government, and police were controlled by the appropriate local institution.
After its failed attempt to bring the borough police forces under its control in the 1850s, the Home Office left them alone until the twentieth century, and in this period they enjoyed total autonomy from the centre, and were subject to a high degree of local democratic control, even over 'operational' decisions.
The Home Office has consistently aimed to remove policing from local control, exhibiting a lack of faith in the basic principles of local democracy, and a fear of potential influence from left-wingers.
During the twentieth century, war brought central government into the day-to-day business of managing forces, and accelerated its efforts to create a homogenous and national profession of senior police officers.
Simultaneously, the legitimacy of local variation of any kind was eroded by a growing sense of 'one size fits all' professionalism, alongside which the financial and political position of urban government grew weaker.
Between 1919 and 1964 the state tried using 'efficiency', 'economy', and 'national security' as reasons to centralise control, before successfully employing 'corruption' to achieve this.
The 1960 Royal Commission was actively steered by the Home Office along its own centralist agenda, resulting in the 1964 Police Act, subsuming city forces into counties, and so replicating the weak systems of local accountability found in the county police forces.
Current proposals to increase the local accountability of the police force do not appear to appreciate the previous durability and effectiveness of the history of direct and unlimited democratic control over local forces in British cities, which existed until very recently.

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