This isn’t ‘The Wire’: The price of peace is the rule of law

The Wire, a depressing depiction of the dystopian world of US law enforcement

Despite their serious flaws, in the UK the police still provide an essential public service


By Phil Hall


This may not be the right moment to defend the police, at the moment when the police service needs to be overhauled, and yet let’s not lose sight of the fact that the police in the UK are an essential public service. They are public servants just like teachers, firefighters and nurses. Recently a senior police officer stated that technically, the police are not public servants; they are ‘crown servants’. Most people disagree with that. I hope most of the police do, too. The police must serve the public.


All of the people who say they hate the police also rely on them absolutely. They are grateful to the police in person when they receive help after dialing 999. We ask the police questions nicely in the street and, generally speaking, they answer back politely. Though it is also true that BAME people, most of them young, are stopped and searched far too often and without cause. Darcus Howe explained, in great distress, how upset he was that his innocent young grandson was constantly accosted – clearly because of the colour of his skin.

But let’s put it simply. Without the rule of law the UK would be hell.


But let’s put it simply. Without the rule of law the UK would be hell. It would be the world of the Wire. It would be downtown Sao Paulo. It would be Burma, Russia or China. It would be Bangladesh. It would be South Africa, Mexico, almost every other country apart from a select few. If there is one thing that marks out the UK from all other countries it is the rule of law. The rule of law is the price we pay for peace. Even in the more socially advanced European countries the police wear automatic pistols strapped to their belts. Not here.


There may be a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of work to be done. But I suggest you go to a country without the rule of law before you go overboard in attacking our judicial system and its enforcers.

Even in the more socially advanced European countries the police wear automatic pistols strapped to their belts. Not here!


Do I like and agree with the actions of Priti Patel? Certainly not. Did she create the British legal system? No she didn’t. Home Secretaries come and go. The obvious conclusion to draw is that, in great part the prime objective of our legal system is to maintain law and order and enforce the status quo. The status quo is an unbalanced, toppling, social democracy that favours the rich and powerful minority. To that extent, we should all oppose the state and its legal system and enforcers, to the extent that it works primarily in the interests of the rich and powerful.


But, at the same time, the legal system and its effective enforcement are essential to the smooth running of society. You need law and enforcement as much as you need nurses and doctors. Many of the laws were implemented because of pressure from below. If we want better law enforcement and better laws and a better legal system, we shouldn’t exaggerate its shortcomings. We should be coldly objective about how to improve it and on think strategically about the question of what to militate for – or against.

Should we attack those who defend us from petty crime, abuse, harassment, exploitation and worse?

With a very strong democracy, a socialist government, a republic, key sectors of the economy in the hands of the state, or run cooperatively, it is certain that we could pass some excellent new laws and the police would probably be a better reflection of that more enlightened incarnation of British society. They would act more on behalf of the many, and less on behalf of the few.


But that is all a long way ahead in the future. I have lived in countries where you cannot drive down an ordinary highway without the risk of being robbed by men with AK47s. Get a grip! Should we attack those who defend us from petty crime, abuse, harassment, exploitation and worse?

Petty criminals are not revolutionaries, they are the reactionary lumpen proletariat.

Petty criminals are not revolutionaries, they are the reactionary lumpen proletariat. Still, if those who defend us cannot all be trusted to act without prejudice or to behave properly, then we have to confront the issue head on and demand that they be addressed; issues of misogyny and racism, for example.


Well, what would Tony Benn say and do?


Let’s see things from the imaginary perspective of a good Christian socialist, Tony Benn. There was someone I knew who said. Whenever I don’t know how to behave, I think of Debbie Harry from the group Blondie, and I ask myself: What would Debby Harry say and do?


Am I gaslighting Tony Benn when I say this? I hope not. I think Benn would be angry about institutionalised racism and misogyny and do his best to root it out. He would also recognise that the police were the first line of defence for the capitalist status quo. But don’t you think that Tony Benn would also see the police as valuable public servants – as providing a valuable service to the public? I do. After all, this isn’t America.

If the police came to defend you or your family from an attacker or someone abusing you, wouldn’t you thank them, as public servants, from the bottom of your heart? Who knows, you might even want to bang a tin pot with a spoon for them.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.