Hart of the Matter
In past centuries, when someone had a flash of
inspiration, they often used to attribute it to the Voice of God speaking to
them, either directly or via an angel (viz Jon of Arc, or Bernadette).
The trouble was that it was difficult to tell whether
this really was divine guidance or just someone who was bonkers. A group of
people who collected together in one such claimant’s back garden during the 18thcentury to witness the Second Coming of Christ - which he had confidently
predicted for that evening - were disappointed when nothing happened. He wasn’t
thrown, but just said Christ had returned but had remained invisible.
In this secular age most of us no longer believe in
the Voice of God in that sense. Instead, we now believe equally passionately in
the Voice of the People. Indeed, it has become the height of blasphemy to
suggest that the Voice of the People should be in any degree disregarded by
The trouble is, as with the Voice of God, it all
depends on interpretation. And, just as ages ago there were priests who alone
were thought to have the skill and/or the right to interpret, so now there are
politicians and public employees.
The very idea that someone should decide that the
People were misguided, deceived, ignorant or just plain wrong cannot be
acceptable in a democratic society – or can it?
The Polar Exploration team who have just launched
their latest vessel have done just that. They wanted a name for the ship so
they asked the People to vote online. They have just named their vessel the Sir
David Attenborough, which seems eminently sensible and suitable – so much so
that you might think it had been the People’s choice.
Not a bit of it. The People voted overwhelmingly for
the ship to be named Boaty McBoatface. Someone (low be it spoken) decided the
People were wrong.
Closer to home, our highly respected Constabulary have
done much the same. Having, for several years, asked for the People to vote on
what they should be doing, they have now changed their policy and will decide
such things for themselves, because the People kept getting it wrong.
Over and over again the public voted for the police to
do something about illegal parking, speeding, driving in the High Street at
prohibited times and so on. The police don’t like to address these things too
much because they make them unpopular with the rest of the population who
actually commit these infringements on a daily basis.
Oh, and also because they have a huge challenge at
present in reducing the amount of drugs flowing into Haverhill from
The worst of it is that we want bodies like the police
to be accountable, but if the People keep asking them to do things which, in
their professional judgment seem wrong, inefficient or dangerous, what are they
supposed to do?
Michael Gove may be happy to do away with all experts,
but we train the police to know enough to make judgments based on their
expertise, so that they can make them on our behalf.
We all know, of course, that, thanks to the Internet,
everyone is now an expert in every field and can take out his own brain if
necessary without requiring anyone to advise him on whether or not this is a
sensible procedure, or whether or not he has a brain to find.
Nevertheless, a good number of us would rather that
the police dealt with drug-dealers, than that we had to personally confront
It’s a strong argument and one which the police should
easily be able to win, except that, at the moment, they are rather shooting
themselves in both feet by retreating from public debate.
Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner Tim Passmore
and chief constable Gareth Wilson met with the Haverhill public last week. It
was a surprisingly easy ride for them, considering the roasting they had had a
few weeks previously (in absentia) at a town council meeting.
They defended their failure to appear at parish and
town council meetings since the latest round of re-organisation (or cuts, as
some call it) in April, by saying, basically, that they have better things to
That is almost certainly true, but it misses the
point. Lord Robens thought he had better things to do than to whizz directly to
Aberfan 50 years ago on hearing of the tragedy. As he said, he wasn’t an expert
in rescue work. HM The Queen felt looking after William and Harry was more
important in the wake of Diana’s death than whizzing down to Buckingham Palace
to look at flowers. Again, that was probably true.
But the point is about accountability. In cases where
people govern, manage, or safeguard in the public domain, and therefore by
consent, the public expect to see them, and hear them report on matters of
public interest. If they don’t, consequences can ensue.
The newsletter which now replaces the police
appearance at parish and town councils has been described, not just here but in
other parts of the county, as wholly inadequate.
That was manifest at this week’s town council meeting
when, because it deals with the previous month’s statistics, councillors were
left in ignorance of the current spate of tool thefts from Transit vans,
committed by a gang who apparently have a device for unlocking the vans
remotely, which makes it much easier, and leaves no traces at the scene of the
crime for the police to find.
Councillors may know this if they read their newspapers,
but the established procedure is that they should be informed at their monthly
meeting. Hopefully, if there was a serial killer on the loose, or a
child-abducter, the police would attend and report on progress (they have said
This means the police are setting the agenda, which is
not exactly how accountability works. It is unquestionable that senior officers
could be doing other work, rather than giving up an hour to attend a meeting.
But whether that work will, in the long run, prove to have been more important
than instilling public confidence, is a different question.