Four Nations or One? Arguing for a British Historiography

Four Nations or One? Arguing for a British Historiography

This week, PhD student Ben Taylor (King’s College London) considers how the history of policing might be enriched by the adoption of a ‘British’ approach. 

In one sense, the vast majority of police historiography in Britain over the past fifty years has been written from a ‘four nations’ perspective; police history has been dominated by the fractured, individual accounts of policing, eschewing a unified British approach. For most police historians, I suspect there comes the (slightly horrifying) realisation early on in their careers when they discovered that writing this British history simply isn’t possible. Not only do England and Wales have a distinctly different legal history from their northward neighbour, but their history of law enforcement also cannot be easily aligned, given their differing traditions, institutions and debates (although Wales is invariably and unfortunately folded into England). Ireland again seems to scupper any hopes for a common story, offering a paramilitary contrast to their avowedly unarmed, civilian counterparts across the sea.

The picture this has produced is of three or four trajectories of policing across the British Isles with few points of unity, and a tendency to focus on English and Welsh experience at the expense of the rest. This has been challenged recently by historians such as Louis Jackson, who has shed welcome light on the Scottish experience in the twentieth century and by Chris Williams and Georgina Sinclair, who have shown just how many connections there were between systems of policing, not only within Britain but with empire and the wider world as well.[1]

Yet given that models of policing across the British Isles had far more in common with one another at the start of the twenty-first century than they did at the start of the twentieth, I contend that we may need in fact need to start thinking in terms of a ‘British’, or at least a far more unified model emerging over that period.

Arguments in favour of greater unity were being made in the early 1960s, when the Royal Commission on Policing, considering the future of policing in Britain, briefly considered the creation of ‘national’ police forces – a Royal English and Welsh force, and a Royal Scottish force.[2] Ultimately relegated to A.L. Goodhart’s dissenting memorandum, in favour of large regional forces, opponents of the proposals conceded that while they might lead to the more efficient administration of the police, they could also pave the way to authoritarianism and fascism. Goodhart disagreed – not only would national forces allow the more effective deployment of science and technology, they would also more honestly represent the growing alignment between forces in Britain.

Post-Commission, the Home Office encouraged the adoption of a technological pattern of policing – best exemplified by the adoption of patrolling by panda car, in a scheme known as Unit Beat Policing – across the country. It also encouraged a move towards greater technological uniformity, particularly in radio and wireless frequencies, to enable police forces to more effectively communicate with each other. Finally, it developed large-scale national technologies like the Police National Computer – supposedly hastily renamed from the ‘National Police Computer’ when it was pointed out that no ‘national police’ in fact existed. It pursued these agendas in large part through the Home Office Research and Planning Branch (PRPB). Formed in 1963 under Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, it unusually had a remit covering not just England and Wales, but also, extending beyond that of its parent, Scotland as well. That the jurisdiction of the PRPB was so much larger than the forces it served enabled it shape local policies by picking and choose which it would bestow funding and equipment, a process mirrored in the US by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to help it control local forces with a great deal of autonomy from the central state.[3] These top-down unifying forces were being met with various levels of opposition both within the police, as chief constables sought to sustain their traditional operational independence, and from local government who also wanted to retain control over what they saw as “their” police forces.

These debates over the national and local in police history offer a window into understanding the benefits and problems of the four nations approach. While some processes can be productively understood within a regional or indeed a four nations approach, the scale of policing doesn’t map onto this, and to insist on such a mapping glosses over both the scale and speed with which policing changed its relationship to region, nation and the state over the twentieth and twenty first centuries.  The establishment of Police Scotland in 2013 may appear the most obvious realisation of Goodhart’s plans for ‘national’ policing, but de facto nationalisation had been occurring for decades without the need for any such formal recognition.

The potential pitfalls of the four nations approach, in this context at least, are now clear – Goodhart had wished for national forces on the grounds of efficiency, and in particular, the more efficient and ambitious use of science and technology across British policing. But he feared that while this was to some extent inevitable, its acknowledgement by central government was not. Much more dangerous in his view was a situation where the Home Office could claim to have maintained the operational, administrative and democratic independence of a local system of policing, while in fact a de facto national force, with an increasingly professional and homogenous senior officer class and efficient arrangements for mutual aid, both existed and performed that asked of it by the Home Office. These arguments – being made in the 1960s, and with increasing relevance and salience from the Miners’ Strike through to today – require a different historical lens. While the four nations approach has, and will doubtless continue to be, productively deployed in police history, there are many issues that require painting with a broader, ‘British’ brush.

[1] Louise A. Jackson and Angela Bartie, Policing Youth: Britain, 1945–70 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014); Georgina Sinclair, Globalising British Policing (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); Georgina Sinclair and Chris A. Williams, “‘Home and Away’: The Cross-Fertilisation between ‘Colonial’ and ‘British’ Policing, 1921–85,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 35, no. 2 (June 2007): 221–38.

[2] Royal Commission on the Police 1962: Final Report (London: H.M.S.O, 1962).

[3] Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’ Police Forces (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 65.

Ben Taylor is a fourth year PhD student at King’s College London, studying the emergence of electronic mass surveillance in the context of twentieth-century British policing. His thesis demonstrates how technologies like CCTV have been used in Britain since the 1950s, and charts how Britain became a world leader in electronic mass surveillance technologies by the 1970s.

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