Short Cuts

Inigo Thomas

The Ladbroke Arms is a pub in Notting Hill known for years as the policemen’s pub. The explanation is obvious: over the road is the local police station. Two decades ago, if you went for a drink near closing time you could count on running into heavy-set men who liked to tell their tales of riot and violence – theirs, other people’s. This was the overwhelming reason for not going to the Ladbroke Arms to have a drink. Now, there are few policemen in the pub, and those that do go aren’t the same as those menacing types of another time. Soon there will be even fewer policemen: the Edwardian station is about to be abandoned as a result of further cuts to police budgets, and because fewer people have reason to call in in person on the police. The footprint of the state is in retreat. The station’s detectives have already moved south to new headquarters on Earls Court Road in advance of the uniformed officers, although one or two occasionally return for an evening at their old bar.

The consequences of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union can make themselves apparent soon enough almost anywhere. The clientele of the Ladbroke Arms is mostly European – Jacob Rees-Mogg would label such people ‘economic migrants’, the term he favours for anyone from the European Union who isn’t British and who lives and works in Britain. In the Brexit lexicon, anything migrant is suspect – illegal immigration is criminal. As for the Britons who live overseas – 200,000 leave every year – they remain ‘British’, for Rees-Mogg, because of their superior wealth and self-sufficiency. ‘It is the Florida effect,’ he said in a House of Commons speech. ‘People want to go to southern European countries, but they take their wealth with them, which would be welcomed even if we were not members of the EU because poor countries always want to attract rich migrants.’ Which isn’t true: thousands of Britons move abroad to work. Most of the people at the Ladbroke Arms would be amused by this distinction; if self-sufficiency and superior wealth define what it is to be British, then they might claim the same status for themselves.

The pub has become as much a restaurant as it is a place to have a drink. It is owned by Greene King, the brewing company, and run by a Polish woman who lives upstairs. It is full most evenings: customers smoking cigarettes stand on the pavement. One of the barmen is from Stettin – ‘Paris of the Baltic’, as he likes to say – and studied politics at university. Now he is considering becoming a policeman. ‘Where?’ I asked. ‘Here,’ he replied. What happens to ambitions such as his after 2019 I don’t know, though without the Europeans and the policemen, would the Ladbroke Arms survive?

I went to the pub one evening at the beginning of February. I took with me the 1967 edition of the treaty setting up the European Economic Community drawn up in Rome in March 1957 – a document which in Rees-Mogg’s eyes must look as if it were a printed version of the end of the world, now averted as a result of the 2016 referendum. The cover of this HM Stationery Office volume carries a note of warning: ‘This revised translation has been prepared by the Foreign Office for the convenience of Parliament and the public. It must not be treated as an official or an authentic text.’ Britain was not then part of the EEC, English yet to become the language of Europe.

Article 2: The Community shall have as its task, by setting up a common market and progressively approximating [sic] the economic policies of member states, to promote throughout the Community harmonious development of economic activities, a continuous and balanced expansion, an increase in stability, an accelerated raising of the standard of living and closer relations between member states.

I didn’t read much of the treaty that evening; instead I talked at the bar to a detective I first met at the Ladbroke Arms last summer. The man from Stettin introduced me to him in the days leading up to the Notting Hill Carnival, when he seemed harried by the police preparations for the bank holiday weekend festival. ‘Committed historians’ was a phrase Richard Cobb used in The Police and the People to describe the police in France at the time of the Revolution. Their reports on crime and violence, in Cobb’s view, made them reliable witnesses, able to state what they had seen and heard, and to form an idea of what might happen next. The Notting Hill detective is gruff but he gives the impression he has been that type of committed historian for many years: he speaks about the police station less as a place of work than as a repository of historical knowledge. The cells, he says, breathe the stuff. Some of men who incited the riots in Notting Hill in 1958 were placed in them – those young white men known as Teddy Boys. The riots were the inspiration for Oswald Mosley to run as a candidate for North Kensington in the 1959 general election, and he spoke during the campaign about the repatriation of the West Indians living in Notting Hill. He lost his deposit. Jacob Rees-Mogg isn’t a fascist, and Mosley liked the European idea – so long as it was white. Yet it is a peculiarity of both men that they should be members of the elite, yet popular among people who think the rest of that class or caste contemptible, and whose hatred for any establishment defines their politics. Nor are there many contemporary politicians, other than Rees-Mogg, who wear double-breasted suits with lapels as large as Mosley’s.

The Notting Hill serial murderer John Christie was put in one of the police cells after his arrest in March 1953, the detective said. Four months later, after he was tried and sentenced, he was executed at Pentonville Prison in Islington. According to the detective, the gallows equipment was kept until 1998 even though the death penalty for murder had been abolished in 1965. Execution for treason remained on the statute books. Only when Blair signed the European Convention on Human Rights was it finally destroyed. The detective wondered what would happen in Britain post-Brexit; what next for justice? Would a newspaper or a politician campaign to reintroduce the death penalty? If there was a referendum on it he was sure it would be reinstated. In his autobiography, Kind of Blue, Kenneth Clarke says the prison population of Britain has doubled in the last two decades: the short explanation for such growth, in his view, is Rebekah Brooks, and the tabloid journalism of News International. You can wonder whether one reason for Britain remaining a part of the EU is to save it from itself, or from the worst instincts of its increasingly reactionary politicians.

‘Pro-EU people are trying to frighten and bully the British people into mistrusting their own instincts and common sense,’ Enoch Powell said before the referendum in 1975 – he remains the founding father of Conservative anti-Europeans. Not that he was afraid to be bullying or frightening.

This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate expressed by its own Parliament, or whether it will become one province in a new Europe superstate under institutions which know nothing of political rights and liberties that we have so long taken for granted.

Taking political liberties himself, Powell chose to betray his own party and plot with Harold Wilson to defeat Edward Heath.

I visited Pentonville Prison in December, on a tour to mark the jail’s 175th anniversary. No phones, no laptops – instant isolation and unease. Pentonville was considered a model new prison when it was built in the 1840s – the idea that each prisoner should have their own cell was borrowed from a jail in Pennsylvania. Dostoevsky went to inspect it: he was less persuaded that it was so humane. A prisoner may have had their own space, but that meant they lived in semi-solitary confinement.

Pentonville was a holding pen: prisoners would soon be sent to other prisons or shipped to the other side of the world to see out their incarceration. I saw a form for a prisoner convicted of stealing sheep in Sussex in 1851. James Mill’s sentence was ten years in Australia. The character of the convict since his arrest and prior to his departure was said to be ‘Good’. He left behind his wife and five children. The harshness of British justice was often what defined it; the long history of taking liberties and rights for granted was a Powell myth.

The execution chamber at Pentonville was in a shed of its own before it was moved inside and placed at a central point within the prison. It extended over three floors – depending on their weight and height, prisoners had to fall as far as ten feet for their necks to break instantly. Roger Casement was hanged in 1916. The chamber is now an office. Outside, next to one of the prison walls, is a patch of grass; beneath it are the unmarked graves of the prisoners executed at the jail. Casement’s body was exhumed in 1965 and sent to Ireland; a former governor said he had witnessed the removal as a young prison officer. ‘I love Pentonville Prison,’ he said in his speech. Me, I can’t say I loved Pentonville Prison. It is in Islington, in central London, yet within its corridors and walls the city ceases to exist. Every door has a lock, and a sense of despair isn’t easy to ignore. But I realised what the former governor was getting at: in his way, he was proud to have served as an officer of the state. The guards at Pentonville seem to spend most of their working lives there – they rarely move on. The prison population itself varies: prisoners are dispersed to other jails around the country. Pentonville was built to house 860 people; currently there are about 1200. The number of guards has been cut and prisoners are more often locked in their cells.

The detective voted for Brexit, not because he is pro or anti-Europe, more to throw a spanner into the works. He said he rents his home. The younger officers he works with own theirs, and in his view they will vote Labour at the next general election. That would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, when the Metropolitan Police was considered solidly Conservative.

‘Take back control’ was the slogan that the head of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, came up with in the spring of 2016. Cummings is a libertarian of the Robert Nozick variety – he believes in rolling back all government, not simply Brussels. Two years later, and you might ask: take back control of what? It’s not just that the Conservative Party appears structurally, congenitally – however you want to put it – divided over Europe. Rees-Mogg and the other members of his party’s European Research Group – he is the leader of this party within the Conservative Party – sound increasingly shrill and spoiled. Nothing is ever good enough for them. Meantime, the rest of the Conservative government goes about shredding the state, treating whole departments as pockets of untapped economic activity whose potential they plan to unlock. ‘I am a politician,’ Enoch Powell told an audience in Wichita, ‘that is my profession and I am not ashamed of it. My race of man is employed by society to carry the blame for what goes wrong. As a very great deal does go wrong in my country there is a lot of blame. In return for taking the blame for what is not our fault, we have learned how not to take the blame for what is our fault.’ He did know that.