Law of the Landed

A remarkable “mistake” by the police hints at who wields power in the UK.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 19th September 2013

Who runs this country? It’s a question every voter should ask themselves. Look at the revelations about the mass surveillance of citizens by GCHQ and the US National Security Agency; the exposure of the intimate relationships between Rupert Murdoch’s companies, the police and the government; the failure to rein in the excesses of the City; the unreformed political funding system and the freedom with which industrial lobbyists bend politicians to their will, and it becomes pretty clear that the government’s role has been reduced to that of a middleman.

Our elected representatives look increasingly marginalised. Unable or unwilling to assert themselves against corporate power, media magnates and spies, they have been reduced to a class of managers, doing as they are told by their sponsors and lobbyists, seeking to persuade their constituents that what is good for big business and unelected agencies is good for everyone.

I’ve been following these issues for much of my working life, and I thought I’d seen it all. But the recording of a conversation between police officers and a group called We Are Change Gloucestershire, which is campaigning against the badger cull, has amazed me.

As I’ve suggested in a couple of recent articles, the National Farmers’ Union, which tends to be dominated by big landowners, possesses an inordinate share of power in Britain. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Deathra) gives the NFU everything it asks for: resisting European attempts to cap the amount of subsidies a landowner can receive, scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board, trying to prevent a partial ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, commissioning a badger cull that flies in the face of scientific evidence.

Large landowners still throng the benches of the House of Lords and are over-represented in the Commons. They still tend to dominate local government in the countryside. But until now I hadn’t realised that the police might act at the NFU’s behest.

The conversation, recorded on 6th September, involves a number of officers from West Mercia police and a group of men and women monitoring the badger cull. By the time it begins, part of the group (but not the man who made the recording) have been detained by the police but not arrested, on suspicion of aggravated trespass. They deny the charge, insisting that they had stayed on a public footpath. Here are some excerpts from the recording. The man with the recorder asks the police why the cull monitors are being detained:

Officer: “The NFU are coming down to give them an official warning because them committed aggravated trespass.”

A few seconds later a different officer explains: “The suspicion is that you’ve committed aggravated trespass. It’s a suspicion at this stage and we’re detaining you under 117 of PACE [the Police and Criminal Evidence Act] … It’s suspicion, reasonable suspicion. OK? So what we’ve got to do, someone from the National Farmers’ Union is coming down -“

Questioner: “So are you acting on their behalf? Are you acting on behalf of the National Farmers’ Union?

Officer: “No, I’m acting on behalf of our Silver Commander.”

Various other issues are raised, then the police return to the point:

Officer: “Someone from the NFU could speak to them, OK, ascertain what’s happening, take the details – ” …

Questioner: “Will they be allowed to move on when the NFU have spoken with them?

Officer: “That’s up to whatever the NFU’s got to say.”

Questioner: “So it’s up to the NFU whether they get arrested or not?”

Officer: “No, it’s up to what the NFU – [drowned out by other voices]”

Again there are various distractions, then the conversation resumes:

Officer: “We’re waiting for somebody to come along to give you an official warning – ”
Questioner: “To give THEM.”

Officer: “OK, them. An official warning -”

Questioner: “From the NFU.”

Officer: “From the NFU. Yeah.”

Eventually, after arguing with the police for a while, the people were released before the National Farmers’ Union arrived.

I’ve checked the relevant acts, and can find nothing in them that empowers the NFU, or any other such body, to issue official warnings and to decide whether or not people detained by the police can be released.

Though the detention took place in Gloucestershire, the officers involved appeared to belong to the West Mercia police, so I wrote to that force. I asked:

– what the legal grounds might be for detaining people until the members of a trade body can come and speak to them.

– what legal standing the National Farmers’ Union has to issue people with an official warning.

– whether this was the only occasion on which activists have been detained pending a warning from the NFU and

– who is responsible for the policy of referring detained activists to the NFU.

Here’s what they said:

“In order to establish if the offence had taken place, police engaged not only with the group concerned but also with the NFU – who are acting on behalf of the landowner.

“We accept that communication between our officers and the group could have been clearer and that there was some confusion articulated over the role of the NFU. What officers were seeking to achieve was confirmation from the NFU as to whether lawful culling was taking place at the time that the group had been seen in the area.

“The short period in which the group were engaged allowed us to quickly establish the facts and the group soon went on their way.

“Specifically in relation to your questions, there is no policy of referring activists to the NFU, who have no powers to issue ‘official warnings’. Officers cannot detain people for this purpose and this is the only incident of this nature we have been made aware of.”

Hmm. “Some confusion articulated over the role of the NFU.” That looks like something of an understatement. It is hard to understand how police could have made a mistake of this magnitude, unless they had come, subconsciously perhaps, to see the National Farmers’ Union as the authority to whom they deferred.

This hints, I think, at a wider problem with policing in the United Kingdom. As both a journalist and a protester, I’ve been struck by the way in which the police often appear to ally themselves with those who possess power, regardless of what the law says.

For example, while protesting against a road being built through the flank of Solsbury Hill in 1994, I was attacked by two security guards working for the construction company, who threw me onto a staggered pile of spiked fencing panels. One of the spikes missed my jugular vein by a few millimetres; another went through the top of my foot, shattering the middle bone. I was one of 11 protesters hospitalised by the guards that day.

The operation to reconstruct the bone was delayed, so, while I waited, I asked some friends to carry me into the local police station. I told the desk sergeant what had happened and asked to make a statement. He looked straight through me as if I didn’t exist, then returned to his paperwork. I kept trying, but he kept working as if no one was speaking to him.

After an hour of being ignored, I did the only thing I could think of: I removed the bandage and then the dressings. Blood started pouring over the floor, at which point he leapt up and said, “all right, we’ll take your fucking statement.” Even then, no investigation began until Amnesty International became involved.

It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeatedly, and my perception of partial, pro-corporate policing has been horribly reinforced by the Guardian’s revelations about the undercover police officers used to penetrate the lives – and bodies – of law-abiding protesters, while perverting the course of justice, acting as agents provocateurs and destroying the trust and happiness of innocent people.

Too often in this country, policing appears to be conducted for the benefit of in-groups at the expense of out-groups: victims of racism, the homeless, gypsies and travellers, activists and protesters.

While I can, perhaps, accept that the officers involved in the incident on September 6th were confused, their deference to the National Farmers’ Union is part of a pattern that long pre-dates the establishment of formal police forces in this country. For most of our history, the law has been both made and enforced by local or national strongmen, who have used it as an instrument for imposing and sustaining their power, against the common interest. Policing was conducted by their own thugs, who sometimes sported various kinds of fancy dress and fancy titles.

The establishment of official police forces, whose purpose was to enforce laws passed by parliament, was supposed to have replaced the doctrine of might with the doctrine of right. But the psychological legacy persists. The police often appear to work for those with money and power, protecting commercial interests from peaceful and legitimate protests, while failing to investigate crimes committed by corporations, executives and landowners.

Becoming a police officer does not protect you from the urge to appease, to take the side of the powerful against the powerless, to defer to those who possess great fortunes even if they acquired them through great crimes. Becoming a senior police officer places you among the elite, and it must be difficult not to absorb the demands and perspectives of other people of that class.

The only defence the rest of us possess is to be perpetually vigilant in reporting and confronting such abuses, and to demand that the police who are supposed to defend all of us, impartially, are held to account.

*This article was amended at 15.42, 19th September after West Mercia police wrote to say that all the officers were theirs. (I had stated that they came from two or possibly three forces).