Why Britain's policing by consent model is the envy of many

Every new police officer is told to “maintain at all times a relationship with the public" that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police

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Reuters file
Reuters file

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 20 Nov 2022, 8:50 PM

What makes news in one country may not make it to print in another. It has been a busy newsy time in Britain in recent weeks and months – politics and economy hogging most of the headlines – but buried in the inside pages the other day was a news item that perplexed some visitors, mostly from Commonwealth countries; it became the subject of much discussion at an informal gathering in west London last week. The news was about a Home Office minister being banned from driving for six months after being caught driving with his mobile phone in his hand, even though he was not using the phone at the time, just holding it.

The minister in the dock was former army officer Tom Tugendhat, who was more in the news as one of the candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and prime minister. He was eliminated in early polling rounds and emerged as the Minister for Security in the Home Office in the Rishi Sunak government, responsible for several sensitive portfolios.

The visitors could not make sense of the news: how could such a high profile minister be banned from driving and fined by the police, admit it and receive the penalties associated with the offence? And the news is not even on the front page? It is not something in the realm of possibility in several jurisdictions, but the ban on Tugendhat is the latest example of top British politicians being fined for traffic offences and accepting the penalties in recent years; others include Chris Huhne, Harriet Harman, Ed Balls, Simon Burns, Nicholas Soames and Eric Joyce.

It is also another example of the concept of ‘policing by consent’, the idea that the public as a whole consent that some members of the community are trusted to have and exercise the powers required to keep the peace and implement the rule of law on behalf of the community.

Policing historically evolved in Britain along different lines compared to other European countries. While countries such as Italy, France and Spain created a more militarised model of policing – as ‘gens d’armes’, or armed people – Home secretary Robert Peel in the early nineteenth century argued for the creation of a police force that would seek to use minimum force to maintain law and order. He set out nine principles of policing in 1829; seven of them emphasise the need for the public to approve of and co-operate with the police for them to successfully carry out their mission.

Peel’s idea of ‘policing by consent’ denotes that the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public is based upon a general consensus of support that follows from transparency about their powers, demonstrating integrity in exercising those powers and their accountability for doing so. The idea of public consent and the Peelian principles continue to form the bedrock of modern policing in Britain as well as in countries that adopted the model, such as New Zealand.

The idea of public consent stands in sharp contrast to the model of policing in several countries, many largely continuing with the approach and structure that was put in place during colonial times, which was reflected in the way the visitors reacted to the news.

The nine principles include the idea to “seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life”.

Every new police officer is told to “maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence”.

As the historian Charles Reith noted in his ‘New Study of Police History’ in 1956, it was a philosophy of policing “unique in history and throughout the world because it derived not from fear but almost exclusively from public co-operation with the police, induced by them designedly by behaviour which secures and maintains for them the approval, respect and affection of the public”. It is seen to refer to the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state.

In the Tugendhat case, a police officer saw him holding the mobile phone in his left hand for 20 seconds and stopped him in the London suburb of Wandsworth. The minister later admitted the offence but claimed he had not been using the phone at the time. In a written guilty plea, he said: “I was holding my phone, not using it. After the incident, I took a course to refresh and correct my driving. I have included the result of the course. Please accept the course report. I accept my responsibility and recognise my culpability”. Tugendhat attended a court hearing, where he received a £1,000 fine and was ordered to pay a surcharge of £100 and costs of £110. The judge, Jack McGarva, told him: “Using a mobile phone in any way is a distraction. Without any doubt it impairs people’s ability to drive. I would expect you to set a good example for the rest of us.”

Britons usually have a lot to complain about their country, and often do so unreservedly, but their policing and the philosophy behind it is something most are quietly proud of, even though the police have lately been in the news for all the wrong reasons. - The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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