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By P.A.J. Waddington

“‘Pleb’–gate” — as the altercation between Andrew Mitchell, MP, and police officers guarding Downing Street has become known — continues to rumble along. It seems to me that there is a huge unanswered question lurking therein. It is this: what on earth are police officers doing providing an armed guard for the Prime Minister?

One might say that they do it, because they always have. Certainly, for as long as I can remember there has been the figure of the police constable standing outside the door of Number 10. For many years, it was an icon: an apparently unarmed police officer guarding the civil head of government. What better image of democracy could one imagine? However, that is no longer the image. When officers stand at the door of Number 10, they do so wearing body armour and conspicuously carrying a sidearm, when they not pictured gripping a sub–machine gun or assault rifle. This is not a reassuring image. It looks awfully like an embattled state.

At a time when the government is telling the nation that it can no longer afford policing on the scale to which it has become accustomed, politicians show little inclination to deplete those who guard them, both at Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster. I suspect that victims of crime who are left waiting for officers to attend their personal calamity, will no longer consider that ‘we are all in this together’.

This is more important than mere equity. Guarding royalty, diplomats, and politicans is hardly compatible with the role of the police officer. In the Metropolitan Police the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG) is dismissed as ‘doors, posts and gates’. Standing for hours at a static post does not take much in the way of policing knowledge and skills, there are few members of the public to disturb officers and if a crime has been committed these officers are the least likely to rush to the scene.

There are ample discarded members of HM armed forces who could easily fulfil such a role with the minimum of training and probably a significantly less cost. After all, the armed tactics that the ‘civil’ police who guard these locations are taught have been copied from the military. So, former soldiers would provide just as secure protection from a terrorist attack as the ‘bobbies’ who now do the job.

However, ‘plebgate’ reveals much more. Mr Andrew Mitchell, does not dispute that he said something along the lines of ‘I thought you guys were here to help us?’ In other words, the officers in Downing Street are regarded by this minister as a mere servant of them. Since no other politician has disputed this remark, amongst everything that has been disputed, then I suspect it is a widely shared view. In Downing Street, the rebuke ‘Officer, I pay your wages’, seems actually appropriate. However, the police are not servants of any class of the population — motorists who park on double-yellow lines, local squires, or ministers of the crown. The officers in Downing Street should have replied to Mr Mitchell, that they do not serve him, or the government. They do what it says on the helmet: they serve the Crown. It is the ‘Queen’s Peace’ that they are sworn to protect, not the convenience of politicians.

So, let the axe fall where it should: return all those officers who now serve ‘the political class’ to the duties for which taxpayers imagine their taxes are levied: the protection of all citizens. Replace them, if our politicians feel uniquely vulnerable, with guards who explicitly serve the interests of this privileged elite.

Professor P.A.J. Waddington, BSc, MA, PhD is Professor of Social Policy, Director of the History and Governance Research Institute, The University of Wolverhampton. He is a general editor for Policing.

A leading policy and practice publication aimed at senior police officers, policy makers, and academics, Policing contains in-depth comment and critical analysis on a wide range of topics including current ACPO policy, police reform, political and legal developments, training and education, specialist operations, accountability, and human rights.

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Image credit: British Policeman, also known as a ‘Bobby’ observing London life. Photo by GP232, iStockphoto.

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