Home Page How dangerous can it be to ignore the Voice of the People? 20/10/16

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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 anyone.

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 London-based gangs.

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 them.

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 do.

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 as much).

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.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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