Real Things

Barbara Wootton

  • McNee’s Law: The Memoirs of Sir David McNee by David McNee
    Collins, 256 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 217007 8
  • Police and People in London. Vol. I: A Survey of Londoners by David Smith
    Policy Studies Institute, 386 pp, £7.40, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 223 5
  • Police and People in London. Vol. II: A Group of Young Black People by Stephen Small
    Policy Studies Institute, 192 pp, £4.60, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 224 3
  • Police and People in London. Vol. III: A Survey of Police Officers by David Smith
    Policy Studies Institute, 216 pp, £6.20, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 225 1
  • Police and People in London. Vol. IV: The Police in Action by David Smith and Jeremy Gray
    Policy Studies Institute, 368 pp, £7.40, November 1983, ISBN 0 85374 226 X

Fifty-eight years ago the man we now know as Sir David McNee was born in dire poverty in a Glasgow tenement. His father was a railwayman, and a staunch tradeunionist who rose ‘through a variety of jobs’ to be driver of many famous trains, including the ‘Royal Scot’. His mother was the daughter of a railwayman. In this book Sir David reports how he has often had occasion to refer with pride to these facts in later life, in face of suggestions that, as Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, he had no real insight into the problems of working-class life with which that office so often brought him into contact: ‘the lessons learned in Glasgow streets and tenements ... taught me a lot about human nature which a more affluent and protected childhood might not have done.’

At the age of 11 the boy David gained entry by competitive examination into a local secondary school; but, against parental protests, he insisted on leaving at the age of 15 as a ‘headstrong youngster seeking only to get ... as quickly as possible into the outside world’, where he thought ‘real things’ were to be found. His first contact with those ‘real things’ was a job at a bank for which he had to lick stamps and run errands for 15s a week. Those, he says, were happy days; but they came to an end when, in March 1943, he was called up to join the Royal Navy. He served in several ships and travelled widely, in the course of which at some stage he must have made up his mind that, when peace had been restored, he would like to be a policeman. How this choice was related to his unwavering faith in the Christian religion, which he shared with the wife whom he married in 1952, is not mentioned. What we do know is that during his most impressionable years that faith had been fostered by the many religious institutions and missions in which Glasgow abounded, and that throughout his life he has claimed that for him the Christian religion ‘has set standards of living based on truth, integrity and peace’.

On demobilisation McNee applied for two police jobs, one in London and one in Glasgow. London did not reply, but Glasgow accepted him. The next chapters in the story are somewhat confused, as the author does not adhere to strict chronological order. In Chapter One (‘Early Life’), we find McNee attending a reception at Scotland Yard arranged by the then retiring Commissioner in order to introduce him as the new ‘Commissioner designate’ to some of his future colleagues. On this occasion McNee is said to have met the late Lord Mountbatten for the first time, and Mountbatten is quoted as claiming that he himself had ‘got the job’ of Metropolitan Commissioner for McNee. Chapter Two (‘From Coppering to Command’) then takes us back to Glasgow, giving some account of McNee’s progress up the police ladder there. In the course of this, he observes that the ‘apprehensive solitude’ of a ‘large city beat’ at night is ‘an abiding memory that a policeman never loses – no matter how senior he becomes’. Meanwhile the reader may be somewhat puzzled to know, first, how Mountbatten came to believe that the post of Commissioner of police for London was in his personal gift, and secondly why, if so, he decided to bestow it on a man whom he had never previously met.

In fact, McNee did not go directly from Glasgow to London. In 1973 the Glasgow City Police together with half a dozen others was amalgamated into a single force at Strathclyde, which thereafter became the next largest in the UK after the Metropolitan Police. McNee had successfully applied for the post of Chief Constable of this now greatly enlarged Strathclyde force. Within a few days of this appointment, Roy Jenkins, the then Home Secretary, accompanied by the Home Office Permanent Secretary, descended upon Strathclyde. McNee immediately spotted that they had not come for ‘any ordinary piece of police business’. Their real purpose was to form an opinion as to McNee’s suitability for the post of Metropolitan Commissioner. Although they apparently went away satisfied, a long period of uncertainty followed. First, Roy Jenkins was succeeded as Home Secretary by Merlyn Rees. Next, it was decided that other candidates should be considered. Eventually McNee won the day and took up the post to which Mountbatten had supposedly assigned him many months before.

One of his first (and most disagreeable) tasks was to investigate charges of corruption in the higher ranks of the Metropolitan Police. These were of course inherited from events prior to his own appointment. A committee of investigators had already been set up under the chairmanship of Leonard Burt, then an Assistant Chief Constable of the Dorset Police. McNee was, however, greatly dissatisfied with the slow progress made by this committee. It was a matter of years before any prosecutions resulted, and even then only eight officers were brought to court, not one of whom was convicted. Two were subsequently dismissed under disciplinary proceedings within the Force, and one resigned. McNee contrasts this fiasco with another inquiry set up by himself to investigate later charges of corruption in the Metropolitan Police brought by one James Humphreys, described as a ‘notorious criminal’. McNee’s team was headed by one of his own officers, and eventually led to the prosecution of 15 officers, of whom 13 were convicted. From this single experience McNee disputes the prevailing orthodoxy that charges of improper conduct in any police force should always be investigated by senior officers from another force. An internal team, he claims, would have the advantage of knowing ‘which officers were of strong character, integrity and good repute’. It does not seem to have occurred to him that this approach would, on the face of it, hardly guarantee unbiased judgment.

For the most part McNee’s account of his stewardship is concerned with detailed descriptions of some of the more dramatic incidents with which, as Commissioner, he was called upon to deal, and for his handling of which he received either warm commendation or serious criticism. Typical of the former was the siege of the Iranian Embassy in the spring of 1980 and the subsequent assault in which London policemen, some of them by acts of almost incredible courage, secured the release of hostages taken by violent intruders.

The Brixton riots came as a ‘watershed’ to McNee. They convinced him that the traditional image of the unarmed, unprotected British bobby could not be maintained if it involved serious danger to policemen. Special equipment – both defensive and offensive – had become essential, and with this Lord Scarman, the government-appointed investigator into the riots, concurred. McNee does, however, raise one point of at least potential importance about the Scarman Report, towards whose findings he was himself generally sympathetic. The inquiry had been set up under the Police Act of 1964, not under any more general statute, such as the 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act. Did this not, McNee asked, carry a rather ominous implication that the police, rather than the rioters, ‘were in the dock’? Lord Scarman himself recognised this anomaly, and in a letter to the Times he tactfully explained that it was generally understood that the policing problem could only be solved if ‘studied in its social setting’.

At one point McNee observes that the media’s ‘all too common’ response to criticism was an ‘ultra-sensitive defensiveness’. Much of his own book is, however, devoted to equally natural reactions of self-justification on matters in which others believed him to be at fault, as in his personal attitude towards official and public reactions to Michael Fagan’s invasion of the Queen’s bedroom. Already, after Lord Mountbatten’s murder, McNee, with the approval of the Palace and the Home Secretary, had appointed a working party of his own senior officers to review current policy and practice for the protection of the Royal Family and their residences. This had produced a number of recommendations, some of which, though approved by McNee himself, were resisted by officials of the Home Office, the Royal Household or the relevant agency of the Department of the Environment. Not unreasonably, he raises the question of how, ‘if the Commissioner is not able, for good reason or otherwise, to improve what he regards as operational requirements, can he be regarded as having ultimate responsibility for the ... security of Buckingham Palace and other royal residences’. However, it soon became obvious that the system inside the Palace itself had broken down. In the public outcry that followed, both the Home Secretary and the Commissioner came under strong pressure from Parliament and from the press to resign from their offices. Neither did.

Actually, even before this catastrophe, McNee had been giving thought to possible resignation. Five years, he felt, was a long time to hold a job so exacting that, whether at home or in his office, whether away on holiday or on business, the Commissioner was never safe from a sudden call. Nevertheless the inevitable result of his eventual resignation in October 1982 was to provoke rumours that he had been dismissed in consequence of the Queen’s bedroom incident in the previous July.

Readers of McNee’s memoirs may be surprised that he has so little to say about the lower ranks of police – the more so, in view of the contrast between his own background and that of his predecessors. We are told that he made drastic changes in recruitment and training, but no details are given; and he reports with satisfaction how, quite early in his tenure of office, he succeeded in getting a substantial pay differential in favour of the Metropolitan Police. Otherwise we are left no wiser as to whether the policeman’s lot under McNee’s leadership was or was not a happy one.

Presumably this reticence is accounted for by the author’s having already, while writing this book, invited the Policy Studies Institute to undertake an independent review of the relations between the London Police and the community which they serve. Thus the PSI’s researches fill the blank in the Commissioner’s own picture. Four lines of investigation were followed. The first was a sample survey of Londoners, examining the extent and nature of the ordinary citizen’s contact with the police. The second was an intensive study of a group of young blacks whose attitudes were governed by the belief that they were under threat from the institutions of a predominantly white society. Third came a survey of 1770 police officers up to inspector rank, illustrating the deployment and activity of London police, and highlighting the part played by women and black officers in the Force. Finally two PSI researchers were allowed to accompany police officers wherever their duties might take them over a two-year period. Together the four volumes cover 1071 closely printed pages.

And the upshot? On the whole, the PSI’s summary of its own researches is complacent. From one survey they conclude that most Londoners ‘are satisfied with the service provided by the police’. That covers, of course, victims of crime, and people who have sought police help for any reason, not merely those under police suspicion. On the other hand, one in ten Londoners believes that the Police ‘often engage in serious misconduct’ – a view which is shared by more than half the young black population. Moreover, 20 per cent of persons arrested have subsequently claimed that force or unreasonable threats were used. By contrast, the PSI’s on-the-spot reporters recorded excessive force in only nine out of the hundred arrests that they witnessed: but might this not be a case where police behaviour was affected by the presence of an independent observer? Nor should the risk that excessive force may develop into sheer brutality be overlooked. What almost amounts to a pitched battle may, in the last resort, be fought in the charge-room of a police station between a policeman and a suspect who is much the worse for drink, and perhaps also mentally disordered.

So much for violence and arrests. There are of course similar complaints about police power to ‘stop and search’ persons or vehicles. Again there is evidence of discrimination against black youngsters, particularly in cases where the same individual is subjected to repeated searches. The PSI summary admits that the findings from all their sources imply that the legal requirement of ‘reasonable suspicion’ does ‘not act as an effective constraint on police officers in deciding whether to make a stop’. In one-third of the stops which the PSI reporters actually witnessed, they could see no ‘good reason’ for such action, and it is said to be clear from the way that officers talk about stops, that decisions to stop or not to stop are rarely governed by the restrictions which the law prescribes. When it comes to fabrication of evidence, the PSI is optimistic, largely, it would seem, because of the difficulty of establishing proof. In short, their surveys gave them little to go upon, and they cheerfully suggest that ‘departures from rules and procedure affecting evidence’ are more common and more damaging than outright fabrication.

Although I lived in London for over thirty years, I can remember only one personal contact with the police, which was when I was fined 10s for exceeding 20 m.p.h. in Regent’s Park. Since then, I have not acquired any further criminal convictions, but during 44 years’ service as a JP (much of it as Chairman or Deputy-Chairman in one or other of the Metropolitan magistrates’ courts) I have had the opportunity to observe a great many London policemen. Throughout these years (all prior to McNee’s London appointment) I have never been tempted to assume that a policeman’s evidence is by definition likely to be more reliable than that of a civilian. Indeed I have often had my suspicions, particularly when one constable was corroborating another, and the result looked remarkably like a previously agreed joint statement. But neither in my personal nor in my magisterial capacity have I had any first-hand experience which would justify me in accusing a police officer of fabricating evidence.

Quite recently, however, and months after McNee’s departure, I have been told by someone in whose reliability I have absolute confidence of one definite and very disturbing case of fabrication. My informant’s account of this reads as follows:

On a Saturday evening about a year ago my great-nephew and four of his friends were in Trafalgar Square, after attending a football match at Watford. They were sight-seeing while waiting for a coach to take them back to the West Country. Three of them were sitting on the steps of Nelson’s Column; the other two were walking around it. A police van drew up nearby and there emerged from it four policemen and a policewoman. Without explanation they called down the three on the steps and frisked them. When one of the young men (who had not been on the steps) asked why his friends were being searched, he was sworn at and searched himself. He was then arrested on a charge (as he was told later at the police station) of insulting behaviour, and taken to the van. When another of the young men asked why his friend had been taken to the van he was himself arrested – on a charge (as he also only discovered later) of having wilfully obstructed a police constable in the execution of his duty. At the police station, after their identities had been verified, both were bailed to appear at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court on the following Monday. The two young men, and their three friends, all denied that there had been any behaviour whatever to justify either of the charges, but if the case had resolved itself into a conflict of evidence between them and five police officers, their prospects would not have been bright. There was, however, on the Monday morning, minutes before they appeared in court, a remarkable intervention. The whole incident in Trafalgar Square had been observed by a casual onlooker. He had been so shocked by what he had seen that, after ascertaining where the two young men had been taken, he had telephoned the police station to find out what they had been charged with and where they were to be dealt with. He had then made the journey to Bow Street on the Monday morning to offer his testimony on their behalf. The case was adjourned for a week, legal representation was arranged, the public-spirited gentleman readily appeared to testify (refusing even the refund of his expenses) and the young men were acquitted.

That, of course, is only one case in thousands and a handful of policemen among thousands: but if it can happen once, the like can happen again, and who knows if or how often it has or will? The Policy Studies Institute may be right in supposing that fabrication of evidence is relatively rare. Nevertheless, it is a rarity that we cannot afford. Even the poison that it must have planted in those young minds is too high a price to be paid.