From Socialist Review, No. 208, May 1997
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The New Police in 19th Century England
Manchester University Press £12.99
The history of 19th century policing is not the simple story of a modern police force being introduced by Robert Peel to reduce crime in a disorderly society. This Whig view of police history is contrasted with the Marxist view that the new police were instruments of class rule or the hired thugs of the ruling class. David Taylor flounders between the two and concludes the story is complex.
Vacillating, he states first that ‘the notion of the policeman as a crime fighter is something of a myth,’ but then contradicts himself: ‘The police did combat crime.’ He does good research and then shies away from his findings that much police activity had little to do with serious crime. Intriguing ideas are presented and not developed – ‘the awareness of crime as a problem doesn’t really occur until the late 18th century.’
Some of his information is fascinating. For example, ‘By 1911 there were 643 statutes relating to street economies and reaction.’ But he fails to make the link between police clearing the streets and the forcing of workers into wage labour.
Taylor refers to the use of police by employers in strikes and the ‘clear identification of interest between colliery owners and the police in the early 1890s.’ He gives details of how the police precipitated riots during the 1911 transport strikes during which two people were killed in Liverpool stating that ‘public order considerations bulked large in the thinking of the propertied elite. Working class "mobs" that destroyed property in town and country as much as working class radicals who advocated the end of a property based social and police order, had to be kept under control.’
Working class hostility to the new police is indicated by good descriptions of violent opposition to early county forces in places such as Colne in Lancashire, Leeds and Northampton. But variations in attitudes towards the police are not looked at in connection with changes in the intensity of the class struggle and police involvement in confrontations.
This lack of analysis makes intriguing detail boring. When violent confrontation is likely then police get bribes in the form of extra wages or improved conditions to ensure their loyalty. This is the key to understanding changes in police pay. Taylor does mention that at one point ‘the police were aided by a dispute in the local cotton trade and were able to gain a wage increase’. But he doesn’t develop this analysis so that the information on police wages just becomes fact piled on fact.
More importantly Taylor fails to stress the crucial point that the police were from the outset a violent force and therefore fails to see them as an addition to, or substitution for, the army which had previously been used to put down popular unrest.
Vivid examples and statistics are given of the police racism against the Irish. For example, ‘In England and Wales, Irish born offenders accounted for 12-15 percent of all committals between 1861 and 1891, a fivefold overrepresentation of the Irish.’ He doesn’t link this with modern day police racism nor does he point to the role of the police in reinforcing divisions within the working class.
Taylor rejects a Marxist view of the police as the thugs of the ruling class on the grounds that there was no agreement either amongst workers or the upper class about the nature of the police and their function. But sections of the ruling class opposed formation of the police as an infringement on individual liberty but accepted them when threatened by the organised muscle of the urban working class.
A massive fraud has been perpetrated about the real function of the police to convince workers that the police are a neutral protective force. Taylor half rejects the crucial point that the police are a force trained in violence to protect the property, persons and interests of the rich and powerful. Much of Taylor’s research reinforces this Marxist view of the police but he cannot bring himself to accept his own findings. What a pity, because there is a lot of interesting material in the book.
Last updated: 30.11.2010