Tuesday, 28 August 2007

No time for heroes

Think tank ippr are arguing for a new national bank holiday for Britain, 'which would act as a national ‘thank you’ for community heroes and as a national ‘ask’ for people to give back to their communities'.

I have nothing against another day off work, but this endless flailing around after a post-nationalist national day for Britain seems doomed to fail (I'll leave Northern Ireland out of this for the moment).

We are not like other countries: for nearly 1,000 years, we have consistently failed to be invaded (hence giving us the opportunity to liberate ourselves), to stage any proper revolutions or to execute our aristocracy. Other countries can celebrate these bloody triumphs, or equally arcane religious festivals, saved from guilt by the power of tradition.

Instituting a new festival is a lot more complicated: it's not easy to find an uncontroversial historical event that fits the bill since 1066 (and it's not clear whether 'we' won or lost then, or even who 'we' were). Waterloo? Trafalgar? Too bellicose. Patron saints? We have three of them, and there are other religions (and Richard Dawkins), you know. Welfare State Day? Too lefty. Diana Day? God help us.

So, we are left with the lowest common denominator, a fuzzily inclusive 'community day'. Do you live in a community? The word is weasel-y, often used as a euphemism for 'poor people', as a hollow claim of legitimacy or as a vacuous affirmation - an attempt to create unity through its application to a disparate group of people. It is hard to imagine what depths of telethon schmaltz such a celebration would sink to.

The interesting thing about ippr's proposal is their choice of date: the Monday after Remembrance Sunday. Remembrance Sunday already serves as a curiously sombre national day, lent diversity by the contribution of the Commonwealth to the wars of the last century. It's a poignant, autumnal event, a mournful memory of individual and national loss. Rather British, when you come to think about it...

Monday, 6 August 2007

Siren songs

I live on a busy road near Brixton Police Station, so I get to see – and hear – plenty of policing in action. From morning to night, police cars and vans rush past in a blur of sirens and blue lights, sometimes zipping past each other in opposite directions.

But you rarely see police officers out of their vehicles. Friday night was an exception. Emerging from Stockwell tube station, I was confronted by ten or so police officers in the ticket hall, with dogs nosing at passengers’ briefcases and shopping bags. What was this all about, I asked? ‘Public reassurance’, I was told, then (when I insisted that I was not feeling re-assured), ‘drugs’.

It made me think of another incident a few weeks earlier. A crowd of school kids had gathered opposite my flat at about 4pm, and were argy-bargying about. The man from Brixton Cycles, who keeps a close eye on the street, came out and told them to calm down, which they did.

A few moments later, a police car screeched to a halt, and two officers leapt out. As the crowd began to scatter and slink away, two more vehicles appeared: an unmarked car with two plain-clothes officers, and a minibus with several more. It’s worth noting in passing that all the kids were black, and all the officers white.

Meanwhile, within the past ten days, two black teenagers have been shot dead within half a mile of my flat: Nathan Foster near Brixton tube on Friday night, and Abukar Mahamud a week earlier in Stockwell. The lack of volume control shown by the police – their inability to deploy anything less than full force – is thrown into sharp relief by this horrific backdrop.

The police can’t be everywhere, of course, and cannot be expected to anticipate where crimes may take place, but this style of policing seems to have no sense of proportion, to allow for no half-measures. Police charge around in their vehicles, either chasing after crimes that have already taken place, or swarming over every infraction, however minor, as if facing the combined force of Osama Bin Laden and the Kray Twins

I know that many police officers deem the ‘bobby on the beat’ to be a public relations strategy that does nothing to prevent crime or catch criminals, but this approach - it would be tempting to call it the 'Hot Fuzz School of Community Policing' if it wasn't so serious - does not look efficient or effective. A few policemen and women patrolling on foot, particularly at night, might even deter the impression that our streets are war zones requiring personal protection, sirens and high speed driving skills to stay alive.

It’s hard to say whether a more visible presence on the streets might have saved two young lives, but we need to try something different. Whatever is happening now – however much it is presented as ‘scientific’ or ‘evidence-based’ – is clearly not working.