Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How a police state came to Britain

I am currently reading The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and invented modern crime by Judith Flanders.

It is a book that chimes with my belief that the 19th-century Britons were far more more exciting and exotic than it has long been fashionable to believe. Matthew Sweet's Inventing the Victorians is devoted to just this thesis.

On the train home this evening I came across a passage in Flanders' book that has an eerie contemporary resonance:
Before 1829, changes to the parish and watch systems had been blocked by a coalition of right-wing 'county' elements joined by their opposite numbers, the political Radicals. Both groups feared, for different reasons, that a professional force would destroy civil liberties, bringing in a system of secret-service spying to consolidate political power and introduce what was, in effect, a standing army. In short, they believed the new police would be 'expensive, tyrannical, and foreign', and most people felt they would 'rather be robb'd ... by wretches of desperate fortune than ministers'. 
Nonetheless the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, a political operator of brilliance, persuaded many that the rise in crime made some sort of solution imperative. There probably was no such rise - there was a rise in prosecutions, the consequence of a change in social expectations, and a growing intolerance of disorder; there were also more governmental surveys and early attempts at statistical analysis of crime figures.
Together these created an appearance of increasing crime. Peel may or may not have understood that this was a difference in perception, not reality; in either case he used this perception to promote his end.

1 comment:

Charlieman said...

Jonathan: "It is a book that chimes with my belief that the 19th-century Britons were far more more exciting and exotic..."

Indeed, the glories of drunken street prostitution and thuggery.

What also changed were newspaper taxes and increased literacy. They were forces for liberation -- what a wonderful world -- and for conservatism -- keep the beasts out.

If Sir Robert Peel lived today, who knows what he would have written for the Daily Mail.