A bizarre hiring procedure came to light during the recent ugly spat between the Metropolitan Police and London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan. It was the fact that Cressida Dick, who recently resigned as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (better known as London’s Met Police), had not one boss but two. The Home Office and the Mayoral Office are dually responsible for the Met, meaning that Dick answered both to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
The problems associated with having multiple bosses hardly need spelling out. Google “two bosses” and the top articles on the subject have titles like “the miserable two bosses problem” and “how to handle multiple bosses & not lose your sanity”.
So why does the UK’s most important police force, which covers national crime (details below) and the security of the Royal Family, have such an objectionable structure? Let’s start at the beginning.
The night watchmen go gently…
No official police force existed until the 19th century; instead night watchmen and parish constables patrolled the streets. London’s population was around 1.5 million, its streets patrolled by a mere 450 constables and 4500 watchmen.
In the 1820s, mounting crime levels and increasing political and industrial disorder pushed some to call for reform. In response Sir Robert Peel, then Home Secretary and later prime minister, established the Metropolitan Police in1829. Hence his reputation as “the father of modern policing” and one of Britain’s more affectionate terms for its policemen (and now women), Bobbies. (Peel was also one of the founders of the Conservative Party)
The establishment of a police force was a highly controversial move at the time, although it was not an entirely new idea. The UK’s first professional police was formed in 1800 in the City of Glasgow, formed; in 1814 following the Peace Preservation Act Peel himself played a role in establishing the first centrally organised force, in Ireland.
Opponents of government-sanctioned police forces cited fears about a loss of citizens’ freedoms, and had nightmares about the creation of a “police state”. To convince his critics, Peel emphasised that the target would be “crime and not people”. He proposed an alternative view of freedom: “Liberty does not consist of having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves or leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women or vagabonds”.
Peel was convincing; the Metropolitan Police Force was a success. 10 years later, it absorbed other law enforcement entities within London. In the 1850s, policing was rolled out nationally. The principles Peel set out are taught to this day; his most-quoted line being about accountability: “the police are the public and the public are the police”.
Devolution and evolution
After over a century and a half of being run by national government, it was New Labour’s devolution agenda that complicated the police governance structure. According to Nick Bowe, CEO of the think tank the Centre for London, “The process we have today is the product of two decades of tug of war between the Home Office and City Hall”.
1998’s Greater London devolution referendum led to the first directly-elected mayor in the UK, Ken Livingstone, taking up his position in 2000. The original proposition was that the Mayor would be solely responsible for the Met and for the appointment and dismissal of the Commissioner. But a prolonged argument led to the fudge of dual accountability – in large part due to the Met’s national responsibilities, these being protection of public figures from the Royals to the leader of the opposition, and coordination of national counter-terror movements
For Bowe, the Met’s set-up “replicates many similar tales of how devolution and the desire to spin responsibilities away from central government come into conflict with the reluctance of Whitehall to release their grip on power”. In his view, sole accountability should be granted to the Mayor to make things simpler and make reform of the toxic culture that has permeated parts of the force more likely.
To put the Met in context, there are 45 territorial police forces in the UK. None are perfect and a common charge is that police forces are often out of touch with each other and fail to work in sync. But direct accountability is essential in any organisation. In 2020, an inspection found that Greater Manchester Police had failed to record 80,000 crimes. Andy Burnham, the city region’s mayor, sacked the Chief Constable Ian Hopkins.
The system has worked well in London previously. In 2008 Boris Johnson, while Mayor of London, forced the resignation of Ian Blair (now Lord Blair of Boughton) as Met Police commissioner. And – perhaps surprisingly – there has never been a disagreement over who to hire; when appointing the Commissioner in 2017, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd even involved Sadiq Khan in the interview process. As Bowe explains, “it is hardly in anyone’s interest to have a disagreement” – after all, tension only serves to weaken both parties.
But our political climate – and culture? – has changed. There has been growing distrust between City Hall and Whitehall, claims Bowe. In fact, nationwide there has been increasing friction between devolved administrations and the government – heightened by the pandemic, austerity and Number 10’s internal turbulence (most consistently with Andy Burnham, but also with Andy Street, and more recently with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Douglas Ross).
Inevitable party political tensions in London have arguably been amplified by the government’s preoccupation with “culture wars” and the “war on woke”, which appears to have made it more resistant to claims of institutional racism, homophobia and sexism – although Priti Patel did take a strong stand on the Sarah Everard case. Her tenure as Home Secretary has seen her adopt a more radical approach generally on policing than her Conservative predecessors. Her Police and Crimes Bill has been deemed anti-democratic by many due to its restrictions on the right to protest. Ministers’ own embroilment in police investigations has led to questions over its relationship with the police. Some have accused the government and the Met of mutual back-scratching (or arsecovering) over the so-called party-gate allegations. An Ipsos-Mori poll found that fewer than a third of Britons are confident that the Met’s investigation into Number 10’s parties during lockdown will be “independent or lead to disciplinary action”.
Undoubtedly, there is a crisis of trust in the Met. More Londoners have no faith than have faith in the force, according to an October 2021 YouGov poll. Sadiq Khan has asserted that he will only endorse a candidate whose firm telos is to rebuild the Met’s culture. However a Home Office source told The Times there are currently “no suitable candidates” and replacing Dick could take some time, adding that Patel is “said to be unimpressed with the UK’s other police leaders, several of whom she clashed with over the Black Lives Matter protests”. There have been rumours that she could look overseas.
This government is introducing new mayors as part of its levelling up agenda. Devolution is increasing. But if Whitehall fails or indeed refuses to grant these mayors clear and transparent authority, then disagreements like this one with the police will occur more regularly, arguably distracting from the fight against crime and making all sides seem weaker.