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Socialist Review, June 1994

George Coombs


The will of conquerors


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In 1650, in his pamphlet Fire in the Bush, Gerrard Winstanley described the law as ‘... the decorative will of conquerors, how they will have their subjects to be ruled’. This, like much of Winstanley’s thought, seems applicable to contemporary society. Recently there has been a sense of outrage over a female prisoner being forced to give birth while handcuffed (a situation from which she’s hardly likely to do a bunk, let’s face it!) and also continuing concerns relating to the conduct and credibilty of the police.

Racism is endemic among law enforcement officers and intimidation of witnesses and suspects is by no means unusual. Searchlight magazine carried a report in May 1991 that:

‘Racist police officers are escaping disciplinary action. At the same time the Metropolitan Police have been systematically under reporting complaints for the last three years. No police officer in London has been disciplined as a result of 599 complaints of racist behaviour made since 1987.’

On 2 April Socialist Worker reported on Lord McAlpine’s encounter with the police which had been originally reported in the previous week’s Sunday Express. McAlpine gave an anguished account of being held in Tottenham Court Road Police Station for nearly two hours in a room that was ‘... extremely hot, very stuffy and smelt of a mixture of vomit and disinfectant’. Some of McAlpine’s further comments are worth quoting:

‘I felt relentless hostility. The whole experience was horrifying. I know I am innocent. I began to feel guilty ... I felt a great urge to please these policemen ... The body language of the police was very threatening ... the atmosphere fraught with personal danger ... After my experience I am convinced that the atmosphere and environment of a police interview under caution are likely to produce evidence that will convict an innocent man.’

The item concludes that ‘it is amazing what a taste of real life can do’. It is indeed. I know this, having myself been questioned at a police station following allegations having been made against me.

I was able to cope in such a way as to portray the accusations as the pernicious lies they were. I am not easily intimidated.

Three police officers have been charged over the death of Joy Gardner. The leader of the Police Federation is, I believe, very angry about this. I wonder to what giddy heights his anger would soar if the proposed new offence of ‘intimidating witnesses’ was brought in. The cells would surely overflow with policemen and policewomen.

The police have never been good at deduction or detective work as such. Neither are they adept at upholding any remotely credible notions of fairness and justice.

Police protect fascists and intimidate anti-fascist demonstrators. This fact is, of course, reminiscent of the 1930s when Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were allowed to march in London while the Communist Party demonstrating against unemployment was not.

Kenneth Leech’s book Struggle in Babylon mentions a 1984 front page headline in the Guardian which read ‘Blackest Day For Pit Violence’. The editor received a letter from Leech asking if this was a subtle way of making the point that the miners were experiencing the kind of police violence that black people had known for some time and which was largely responsible for the 1981 uprisings. Was black being used in its classical racist meaning of worst? His letter was never published.

We must be aware that the law is not impartial or sacred. It is a weapon wielded in the class struggle. How right Winstanley was when commenting in his own time. How right he is now. Fascism failed to get a grip in the 1930s because the law was defied. Suffragettes defied the law to win voting rights for women. The Tolpuddle Martyrs defied the law, as did so many others. The law has been challenged in the past by organised, collective action. It can still be challenged, now and in the future.

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