Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

A Ministry of Police?

(December 1958)

From The Newsletter, 20 December 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Following the Home Secretary’s moves to prevent locally-bred policemen being appointed chief constables, we now have a demand by Earl Winterton, backed by the Daily Telegraph, for an inquiry into the autonomy of provincial police forces.

There are obvious advantages to the ruling class, in a period of increasing class conflict, in making control of the police as remote from popular control as possible.

But, R.A. Butler’s great-aunt would not have approved. Josephine Butler, a notable fighter for good causes in the latter part of the last century, was particularly alert to the danger to liberty from centralizing tendencies in relation to the police.

One of her numerous pamphlets was called Government by Police (1879); she warned against encroaching police powers and called for vigilance and counter-measures:– first and foremost ‘the placing of all police under municipal control’, not excluding the Metropolitan Police.

Not for Great-Aunt Jo

Awareness of the menace of police despotism was one of the reasons why Josephine Butler embarked on the campaign for which she is best remembered – against the Contagious Diseases Acts.

For over twenty years, in the reign of Victoria the Good, we had a regime of licensed prostitution in barrack and dockyard towns such as Colchester and Chatham.

The ‘morals police’ in those centres were empowered to detain, inspect, register and thereafter keep under supervision any woman they chose to regard as a ‘common prostitute’.

The indignities, abuses, tyranny and corruption that resulted can easily be imagined.

Daring many insults (for taking any interest in such matters) and occasional physical assaults, Mrs Butler – the sort of determined middle-class ‘do-gooder’ who in tsarist Russia shot Grand Dukes stone dead and who nowadays marches on rocket bases – waged a long battle with tongue and pen until she gained the satisfaction of seeing the Contagious Diseases Act repealed in 1886.

Geese and ganders

Discussion around the Spring case, when a worker brought an action to prevent himself being obliged to switch from the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers to the Transport and General Workers’ Union, brings up the general problem of how far one is justified in utilizing capitalist institutions and facilities to defend oneself in a conflict within the Labour movement. (In a different way this was, of course, the problem that confronted my colleague Peter Fryer when he found the Daily Worker refusing to publish his dispatches from Hungary.)

An interesting view on this point was given some years ago by a prominent figure in the movement, who in 1928 had been debarred from holding any official position in his trade union.

‘I took the best legal advice in the country on this ruling and was informed that if I cared to challenge it in a court of law there was no doubt that the executive committee would lose the case. I was strongly tempted to do this, but was reluctant to take my case into a capitalist law court.

‘I see now that I was mistaken. It is sometimes necessary to use any weapon that may be at hand to defeat such unscrupulous tactics as those which the mandarins of Lifton House (the headquarters of the [Boilermakers’] Society) had been guilty of.’

This quotation comes from Harry Pollitt’s Serving My Time (1940), p. 186.

Schools on strike

Teachers’ current discontent about salaries, and discussion about methods of enforcing better terms on their employers, are good reasons for recalling that it was only through strikes that they won their present negotiating system.

Under this system the scales of payment agreed centrally in the ‘Burnham Committee’ are binding upon local education authorities.

Mr Asher Tropp, in his history of the teaching profession (The School Teachers, 1957) writes:

‘Early in 1923, in consequence of attempts in several areas to lower teachers’ salaries the executive [of the National Union of Teachers] adopted the principle that no “cut” should be accepted which would bring any teacher below his correct position in the existing scale.

‘In fulfilment of this policy it was necessary to accept definite challenges in Southampton, Gateshead and Lowestoft. In Southampton the schools were closed for three, and a half months, in Gateshead for two and a half months and in Lowestoft 163 teachers were out for eleven months and over 1,600 children received special instruction from the “dismissed” teachers in welfare centres.’

The government intervened to bring the local authorities into line, when they saw that the teachers meant business; and early in 1926, when some local [authorities started] to implement Burnham decisions, and the NUT began moving into action, the government, which was preparing for the General Strike, formally laid it down that Burnham scales be compulsory everywhere throughout the country.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

With the New Year Honours’ List soon to be upon us, doubtless more than one trade union official is wondering what will be in it for him.

The delicate question of Tory honours for Labour leaders is discussed in V.L. Allen’s fascinating book Trade Union Leadership (1957), from which I take the following thought-provoking passage (pp. 38–9):

‘The attitude of some union executives is to treat an Honour to a general secretary as an honour to the union.

‘For example, when the general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation was knighted in 1935, his union, journal recorded that “we feel that our Chief Administrative Officer has enhanced the prestige of our great organization.”

‘This assumes that there is an identity between the ethical basis of the trade union and the society in which it operates; that the same conception of honour holds for both.’

A clarifying storm

The Press attack on the ‘Trotskyists’ will probably have a very healthy effect in some quarters. For many years, so long as they viewed the Communist Party as their main enemy, the ruling class saw fit to flirt mildly with some ‘Trotskyist’ ideas, or at least tolerate their dissemination.

The effect was to prejudice many workers and intellectuals against these ideas. The present onslaught will enable such people to look at ‘Trotskyism’ more objectively.

Similarly, the tsarist government tolerated Marxist writings because it bad got used to seeing the Narodnik terrorists as its only dangerous foe, and it welcomed any criticism of the latter.

Quite a time elapsed before the censors woke up and started cracking down on Marxism, realizing that it was a far more serious menace to the regime than the Narodism it combated! Lenin describes this in his What Is To Be Done? (1902), a little book relevant in numerous ways to current problems and tasks.

Last updated on 17.10.2011