UK Policing and the Revanchist State

Roy Coleman and Beka Mullin-McCandlish discuss the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill made public in March 2021.

The recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading in March has been an issue of contention for opposition parties, activists and academics alike. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has claimed that an increase in police powers was necessary to “deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly” but have an “intent to bring policing to its knees”.  Neil Smith described the Conservativism of governments that was consolidated in the 1980s and 1990s as revanchist. This form of state speaks the language of revenge and, as Smith notes, sets in motion a series of practices whereby “blaming the victim has been raised from a common political tactic to a matter of establish policy”. The victims of free market political-economy – most recently evident in failure to protect poor, BAME and frontline workers generated by the PPE fiasco during the pandemic – join those failed by continuing denial of institutional racism and sexist violence. Revanchism reasserts itself as “a white middle class ….birth right” but also speaks of a melancholia of the powerful as their privilege is challenged on a number of fronts. In this sense, we argue the current Bill – and policing in general – becomes the ultimate “morbid symptom” (to use Gramsci’s phrase), in its response to the crisis of authority now embroiling the state.  

It is no accident the Bill comes after several high-profile protests in the last 4 years in the UK, including demonstrations from those associated with Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and the ‘anti-vaxx’ movement, as well as anti-lockdown protests, anti-Brexit protests and, more recently, the Reclaim the Streets protests including the vigil for Sarah Everard. This Bill will only reinforce policing against black people, against women and against those seeking to redress forms of state violence including tat of austerity policies. The Tory government and policing narrative conflates protests as troublesome regardless of the cause that drives them. The Bill is, therefore, generalized and extensive, and is controversial in a number of ways.

First, it gives the State more power to prevent and break up protests, including static protests and single-person protests which have previously been differentiated from marches in law. Second, the Bill also extends powers to include restricting protest to prevent “impact”, a vague term which is yet to be suitably defined. It also gives powers to the police to intervene when protests become too noisy or cause “serious annoyance or inconvenience”. Under the new legislation, being a “public nuisance” would become a statutory offence, and would hold a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, 5 years longer than the minimum sentence for rape despite the government insisting this Bill is focused on protecting women and girls from violence. Third, in addition to these already broad and vague measures, under the Bill the Home Secretary would also have the power to define ‘serious disruption’ at their discretion and would not need parliamentary approval to cancel or disperse any protest they believe fits this definition. This of course is problematic, as many protests directly call into question the efficacy of the uses and abuses of state power on issues of economic inequality, failure to tackle racism and its negligence over male violence and gender discrimination.

Progressive critics of the Bill have highlighted that it consolidates criminalisation of the powerless and an ideologically defined set of ‘enemies within’ to use Thatcher’s phrase. In this sense the Bill continues the Thatcherite onslaught using targeted policing against the most marginal in our society and those engaged in dissent. This, for example, goes back decades to the Public Order Act (1986) and the Criminal Justice and Public order Act (1994). Women in Prison argue it will further entrench pre-existing inequalities in the criminal justice system, which already see Black, Asian and ethnic minority women overpoliced, criminalised and disproportionately punished. Liberty Human Rights (2021) also highlight the ways in which the Bill would impact Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities by an extension in police powers which allows officers to remove these groups from land if they believe criminal activity is ‘likely to be caused’.

Denials and Blame: The official response to protests

Like the draconian legislation of previous decades associated with Tory ideological assaults on ‘enemies of the people’, the new Bill finds continuity with this post-colonial, patriarchal and revanchist brand of Toryism. Of course, this is buoyed by Brexit and the Johnson brand of ‘British common sense’. Like the Thatcherite disdain for public sector workers, British miners, protesting students, the protesting women at Greenham Common nuclear weapons base, the current Home Secretary Priti Patel has been vocal about her contempt for those involved in high profile demonstrations, claiming the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were “dreadful” and that she did not support taking the knee, despite this being a peaceful act of protest. More recently, Patel referred to the ‘Kill the Bill’ protestors as “thugs” who were “intent on causing trouble”. Similarly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the Black Lives Matter protests were “subverted by thuggery”, with the more recent protests being branded “disgraceful”. What the Tories of the past and present have in common is their denial of structural inequality, racism, sexual violence, and legitimate grievances of those engaged in public sector industrial action like nurses, doctors and firefighters.  Instead, we have melancholic and regressive appeals to an illusory past and a narrative that speaks of ‘common British culture’ under attack.

This stale response is not new, and after the 2011 protests following the killing of Mark Duggan, then Prime Minister David Cameron used similar vernacular in his speech. Using emotive language, he attributed the unrest to a breakdown in individual morality, and implied that in order to mend “our broken society” it was necessary to return – if we ever left – to a zero-tolerance approach to maintaining social order (Andrews, 2014). It can be argued the Bill represents a similar trajectory, presented as move ‘back’ to towards the values of ‘law and order’ and zero tolerance or a “war on the woke”. Like John Majors Back to Basics and Margaret Thatcher’s Victorian Values, this latest propulsion of conservatism wedded to free market common sense comes with its peculiar language and war on segments of the people. ‘Freedom loving marketeers’ have never been shy of mobilising the coercive arm of the state to police and punish the detritus and fallout from free market fundamentalism with a firm ideological focus on its ‘natural enemies’ – the poor, unruly women, anti-racist campaigners and public sector workers.  

The state and the crisis of authority

We would argue there is a dual process occurring here. Firstly, a reliance and continuation of the drift to ‘law and order solutions’ that attempt to further criminalise groups who are already overpoliced and receive disproportionate punitive treatment by the criminal justice system. Secondly, the crisis of the state is the crisis of crumbling authority (rooted in imaginaries of colonial greatness, gendered space and ‘a women’s place’, coupled with derision of public sector rights). The coercive capacity of the state is mobilized and runs parallel with the attempt to build consent (through ‘culture wars’ and the defence of a notion of Englishness) for a past imagined community when stability for privilege was thought to be untroubled.  

More broadly, government responses to the pandemic and its evident inequities, BLM, environmental campaigners and women’s rights are driven by denial and distraction. The Bill is a further attempt of the old order to project itself through strong arm tactics driven through institutions of state and civil society. The Bill is part of an authoritarian hegemonic project to govern a post pandemic world in which the latter has generated renewed visibility of the oppressed and marginal whose voice has questioned state authority, the lines of privilege and rampant social division opened up by government (non)responses to COVID-19. The government and its allies are showing how consent and coercion go hand in hand. Cultivating consent for the current streak of authoritarianism represented by the Bill is a tactic already underway through the construction of dissenters as ‘violent thugs’ or a ‘small minority’ who resort to putting the health of others at risk, attacks on police as symbols of authority and the destruction of property.

In this sense, the Bill signifies a continuation of the authoritarian state, with its attendant “authoritarian populism” that has its roots in Stuart Hall’s characterization of Thatcherism (1985). Indeed, he references the definition of ‘authoritarian statism’ given by Poulantzas as “‘intensive state control over every sphere of socio-economic life, combined with a radical decline of the institutions of political democracy and with draconian and multiform curtailment of so-called ‘formal’ liberties” (in Hall, 1985). Protest has historically been a means to achieve social justice and augment the cause of fairness and compassion in civil society. Of course this is not always the case, but to restrict the right to protest at the discretion of the Home Secretary is a dangerous move which not only impacts the civil liberties of UK citizens, but points to the anti-democratic and revanchist character in the direction of the state. This state builds on the anger of those who feel a ‘loss of entitlements’ (whether from the grievances that led to Brexit or buoyed by Trumpian/Johnson denials of racism). We are faced with a government comfortable with inflicting harms on its own people while stoking populism for a “soft fascism” in response to the divisive social antagonisms fuelled by its own omissive and violent policies.  

References (not linked)

Andrews, G. (2014) ‘Riots and disorder on the street’ in Clarke, J. and Woodward, K. (eds.) Understanding Social Lives 2, Milton Keynes: Open University, pp. 283-324

Hall, S. (1985), ‘Authoritarian Populism: A reply to Jessop et al’, New Left Review, Issue 151.

Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Tutor and Researcher at Open University, UK

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