Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

From George Orwell to Priti Patel: How Britain Brought its Colonial Policing Home

As the Metropolitan Police is judged to be institutionally corrupt, Hardeep Matharu and Peter Jukes explore how some of the biggest problems still plaguing British policing are embedded in the soil of British colonialism

A British police inspector and an Indian constable in British India in 1922. Photo: TopFoto

From George Orwell to Priti PatelHow Britain Brought its Colonial Policing Home

As the Metropolitan Police is judged to be institutionally corrupt, Hardeep Matharu and Peter Jukes explore how some of the biggest problems still plaguing British policing are embedded in the soil of British colonialism

The day after the recent independent panel report into the murder of Daniel Morgan concluded that “institutional corruption” – a tendency towards cover-up – in the Metropolitan Police over 34 years has prevented his brother’s murderers from being brought to justice, Alastair Morgan told Byline TV that he believes “the police’s actions in this case are of an imperialist type”. 

“I remember hearing a black QC talking about this at a meeting I went to several years ago and he was saying that, because Britain doesn’t have any colonies anymore, we are now the subjects of an imperial mindset – ‘oh, we can’t let the natives know that, that would be bad’,” he explained. “Any kind of misdeeds by the imperial state, or crimes, ‘it wouldn’t be good for them to know about this’. I think that mentality is still there.”

But how does Britain’s imperial past connect to the axe murder of a private detective in a pub car park in south-east London in 1987? 

According to Alastair’s partner, Kirsteen Knight, who has spent the past 25 years joining his campaign for justice, the sense of British – or English – exceptionalism is key to the cover-up, and the failures of the authorities to dig deeper into the allegations of police corruption around the murder. Obsessed with a grandiose, but fragile, sense of national greatness, the British state is very bad at reflecting accurately on itself. 

“There is this sense among the police and Government that somehow the country would collapse if we admitted that not all of our institutions were perfect and that mistakes were made,” she told Byline TV. “A lot of this is about the state not being able to look at its own image honestly. This sense of British police, the greatest police in the world – I’m not saying [the Met is] a bad police force, but there’s this illusion that it’s the greatest and an inability to question when things go wrong.” 

For both Alastair Morgan and Kirsteen Knight, the current ‘culture wars’ and flag-waving is a further sign, not of patriotic strength, but of nationalist hubris and vulnerability.

“That kind of propaganda image of Britain, we’ve had it recently,” Alastair observed. “‘World-beating’. And Britain is very, very good at certain things. But this idea that we’re the best in the world at everything, ‘Global Britain’, is deceptive.”

Kirsteen agreed that this failure to take a calmer, more measured view was a “failure to confront reality” itself. 

And that hidden reality not only pertains to Britain’s history of policing its colonies – but its post-colonial history of policing itself. 

Colonial Policing in the Empire

Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829, established the tradition of ‘policing by consent’; that there must be public support for the police’s actions if it is to be effective – the core tenet that still underpins modern British policing. This is the celebrated root of the constabulary principle – contrasted with the Prussian model, characterised by secrecy, espionage and coercion. In its colonies, however, Britain was clearly not policing by consent.

In 1936, a sub-divisional English police officer in a town in Burma observed the dehumanisation of both the colonised and the coloniser at the heart of Empire.

“I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better,” he wrote. “Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.”

The police officer detested the extreme behaviour the colonial dynamic demanded of him, including by its subjects. He “was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible”. 

“With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny… with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism.”

When George Orwell wrote this account in Shooting An Elephant he encapsulated the unaccountable power handed to British colonial policemen in charge of populations with utterly different cultures and societies, very often in faraway countries that they knew nothing about.

George Orwell’s passport photograph during his time in Burma (1922 to 1927). Photo: Pictures From History/TopFoto

Law and justice is frequently trotted out as a ‘pro’ in our culture war debates about the good and bad of the British Empire. But such a balance-sheet approach misses that policing and criminal justice was a key tool of control for colonial rule – without it, Britain could not have maintained such a vast empire for as long as it did. As the Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has observed, “the colonial ‘rule of law’ generally worked in favour of white settlers, elites and men. Racial discrimination was legal”.

The lawlessness and extremism in the British approach to its colonies – and the reframing of brutality as ‘morality’ that this made necessary – can be seen from the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India (“it was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it – I thought it would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realise that they were not to be wicked”, was how General Dyer described presiding over the deaths of hundreds of Indians) to the setting up of detention camps in 1950s Kenya to crush the Mau Mau rebellion.

To facilitate the British Empire’s ends, a culture of impunity went hand-in-hand with a policy of state-sanctioned secrecy – or ‘cover-up’, as Alastair Morgan would put it. The best example of this dual approach is perhaps found in what the British did next when the sun finally set on an empire which once covered a quarter of the world’s map.

In his book, The History Thieves, Ian Cobain explains how ‘Operation Legacy’ – the Government-authorised destruction and concealing of thousands of documents relating to Britain’s colonial rule as former colonies gained their independence – intended to obliterate any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s Government, members of the police, military forces, public servants or others”. “On the partition of India in August 1947, one Colonial Office official noted that ‘the press regularly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi during the mass destruction of documents’,” Cobain writes.

But this toxic mix of brutality, guilt and cover-up did not end with the withdrawal of Britain from colonial rule. For colonialism was not only a reality on the ground but a mindset to be played out – one which was brought home to the UK, both by former colonisers and the colonised, even as its grand imperial era was ending.

This trend was evident in the militarised policing of the Troubles from the late 1960s in Northern Ireland – which was part of the UK but was not a part of ‘Great Britain’, seen as ‘other’ and treated as such. Many of the counter-insurgency tactics deployed in Kenya and Malaysia were deployed on the streets of Derry and Belfast. 

And that ethos of superiority and domination of restive natives also infected many of the greatest policing scandals of the late 20th Century in Britain.

Post-Colonial Policing in Britain: Restless Natives

The police’s use as an arm of the state – to carry out its dirty work – from the 1970s embodied a political climate in which corruption within the ranks could flourish. 

In return for removing the “enemy within”, sounding the definitive death knell for traditional industries, and breaking the collective activism of unions, Margaret Thatcher rewarded the police with a good degree of impunity. Although ‘operationally independent’ in theory, policing has always been vulnerable to this political corruption because of the importance of ‘law and order’ as a key pillar of the state – one which politicians do not want to come crashing down on themselves.

The colonial legacy of the profiling of ethnic groups could be seen from the 1970s in the use of the ‘Sus’ law against them and, together with discrimination and police brutality, gave way to race riots in St Pauls, Brixton, Toxteth, Liverpool, Handsworth, Birmingham and elsewhere during the 1980s. But the colonial mentality in policing was not only applied to working-class black and ethnic minority people.

In 1984, South Yorkshire Police violently beat striking miners – with Michael Mansfield QC, who represented three of the arrested miners, denouncing the police evidence in the case as “the biggest frame-up ever”. Two years later, the same police overreach was seen at strikes by Murdoch print workers in Wapping.

Then came Hillsborough. 

Empowered by its actions at Orgreave five years earlier, South Yorkshire Police engaged in an elaborate cover-up of its wrongdoing at the football match at which 96 people lost their lives due to negligent mismanagement of extreme overcrowding. The force’s chief constable, Peter Wright, absolved his policemen of responsibility almost immediately, branding the Liverpool football supporters on the day as “animalistic”.

While an initial inquest into the deaths recorded the cause as ‘accidental death’, evidence emerged of a review and alteration process of the police statements of the day, in which police officers’ handwriting was crossed out and changed. West Midlands Police, the force charged with investigating South Yorkshire’s actions, joined the cover-up. Professor Phil Scraton, the lead author of the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report, has called this the “sanitisation of Hillsborough” by the police. 

In 2016 – 27 years after the disaster – a second inquest finally recorded that the 96 had been ‘unlawfully killed’. It lasted much longer than expected as the police were still trying the same narratives of blaming the football fans.

But it was a narrative that went beyond the police and was backed-up by both the then Prime Minister Thatcher (her press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham referred to the fans as a “tanked-up mob” the very next day) and the tabloid press. Under its infamous headline, ‘The Truth’, the Sun newspaper published lies about Liverpool fans urinating on police officers giving CPR, beating them while they were giving mouth-to-mouth, and pickpocketing the dead. Another newspaper headline from the time read ‘Yobs in Sex Jibes Over Girl’s Corpse’. Liverpool came to be known as “self-pity city”, depicted as a feckless, moaning community which just couldn’t let it lie.

The colonial dehumanisation; the insinuated savagery, the fear of barbarism, and ‘othering’ was clear to see. As was the creation of the story that the victims were, in effect, responsible for their own deaths. The colonial myth of the natives inciting their own punishment had been imported back to the UK. 

But this message came from a wider culture. Many of these institutional scandals in policing had a clear media element, which helped advance the propaganda and false narratives. They were also about politics and class. Alongside working-class ethnic minorities, white working-class people were also demonised – the very group our current Prime Minister claims to speak to, in recognition of their consistent marginalisation.

When New Labour arrived on the scene, it attempted to move Britain out of the shadows of its imperial past. Great Britain was rebranded into ‘Cool Britannia’, Oasis came to Number 10, and the country projected progressiveness, openness and tolerance on the world stage and within itself. Tony Blair ordered the Macpherson Inquiry into the Met Police’s investigation of the racist 1993 killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Its finding – that there was “institutional racism” within Britain’s biggest police force – was a landmark moment for the country. 

But the spectre of imperialist mindsets and tendencies still lurked.

The Met Police’s main response to the accusation to this day is to increase diversity within police forces. Not only are they still under-representative of the communities they serve, such an exercise often acts as a smokescreen not a solution. As recently as 2013, Surrey’s then Police and Crime Commissioner described the Macpherson Inquiry’s findings as an act of “post-colonial guilt”.

Baroness Doreen Lawrence summed up the dark heart of corruption when she told Byline Times, after the publication of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report, that “the police are supposed to protect you; in cases like this they allow the perpetrators to go free”. No one has ever been convicted of Daniel’s murder and his brother still believes that police were involved in his death.

Hardeep Matharu explains why Priti Patel, the daughter of immigrants, has a hardline approach to immigration on Byline TV

The Johnson Years: A Phantom Imperial State

In many ways, in terms of his Conservative support and his post-Brexit branding of ‘Empire 2.0’, Boris Johnson has reverted back to the reactionary, defensive post-colonialism expressed by Enoch Powell, especially in his notorious and inflammatory ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Birmingham in 1968. 

Powell was disowned by the Conservative leadership, and his imperial mindset of segregation and racial separation was buried under the surface of mainstream politics. But xenophobia and English exceptionalism were resurrected by Brexit half a century later, and underpin many of the assumptions of Johnson’s ‘Vote Leave’ Government.

With its ‘war on woke’, denial of structural problems – showcased in the widely condemned Sewell report into racial and ethnic disparities –  and extirpation of academics and historians willing to explore the horrors of Britain’s colonial past, the ideology of Johnson’s administration seems to be very close to that of the Metropolitan Police when confronted with examples of corruption. 

“I don’t accept that the Met Police is institutionally corrupt in the broadest sense… it doesn’t reflect what I see every day,” said Nick Ephgrave, its Assistant Commissioner, in a press conference on the day the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report made its thunderous judgment – finding that “the historical intelligence examined does not reflect a ‘rotten apple’ model of corruption. It is indicative of systemic failings, including the existence of a corrupt culture”. 

Likewise, when it comes to Empire, the British tendency is to say ‘I don’t accept that the Empire was institutionally corrupt’ and then cite examples of the Indian railways or the export of ‘parliamentary democracy’ – as if any admission to the contrary is a threat to the country’s very existence.

Admitting wrongdoing is the only way of establishing what could be right. Despite his horrific experience of 34 years of lying, obfuscation, bullying and denials from the Met, Alastair Morgan is at pains to say that he does not believe that all police officers in London are corrupt. 

Admitting the horrors of Empire also means identifying the cultural and political exports which were less malign and might be worth protecting – such as the free press now being closed down in Hong Kong; or the right to abode which gave Ugandan Asians a lifeline back to the UK when Idi Amin targeted them in his dark populist drive to power. 

The current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who has articulated her belief in the more positive legacy of the British overseas, seems to have fallen into the ‘all or nothing’ Empire state of mind when she celebrates her family’s asylum in the UK, but refuses to continue that long British tradition of providing refuge – from Zola and Marx to Freud – for those persecuted at home. 

She vaunts the liberal strain in politics when it suits her, and then crushes it when it does not – as witnessed by her draconian proposals for handing the police greater powers to curb the right to protest, and the recent ‘pre-crime’ raid by the Met Police on Extinction Rebellion activists. Earlier this month, a court heard how the phone records of two police chiefs were deleted in an “IT glitch” after they were contacted by Patel during Extinction Rebellion’s blockade of her friend Rupert Murdoch’s printing works last year. Like her political hero, Thatcher, Patel seems to be using the police as an arm of the state, backed up – once again – with media owners who will characterise the restless natives as deserving of punishment. 

Whether it’s protecting the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square or debating whether the one of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from an Oxford University college – the conversation gets waylaid around the particular fruits of our past, and portrays the cult of history as a procession of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, rather than looking at the environments they occupy; their niches in the wider structures we have built. We ignore the more abiding constitutional framework. We look for good apples or bad apples. We forget to look at the tree.

For Britain to progress beyond becoming ever more of a colony of itself; preoccupied by defending past glories and psychologically wracked by past defeats, we need root and branch reform of our institutions. And where best to start than with the Metropolitan Police which, with its structural ambiguity – part Peelite London constabulary policing by consent, part Prussian-style security police for the entire country at the beck and call of the Home Office – is an example of a tree which will continue to produce bad apples if the rot is left to fester in its roots.

This article was filed under
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,