This year's St George's Day protest in London (Peter Nicholls/Getty Images)

April 24, 2024   6 mins

Even in supposedly secular and tolerant London, the safety of Jews has recently come to seem an unnervingly fragile thing. Last week, a London police officer was filmed threatening to arrest a man for being “openly Jewish”, and there have been calls for the Met chief Mark Rowley to resign following his force’s litany of failures on this front.

But is it fair to castigate the police? A closer look at the Met’s history reveals that the officer in question was less displaying prejudice, than applying principles the force has upheld since its formation in 1829. The decisions taken by the Met officer in the controversial clip appear, in this context, less evidence of Met bias or leadership failure, than the logical consequences of shifts in the capital for which the Met bears no responsibility, and the way these changes mesh with the Met’s longstanding model of policing.

The origin-story of this model, which still largely governs London’s Metropolitan Police, lies back in 1829. Then, Sir Robert Peel’s Act for Improving the Police in and near the Metropolis replaced the older patchwork of night-watchmen, constables, magistrates’ enforcers and freelance “thief-takers” (themselves often also criminals) that previously maintained some semblance of order amid London’s rapidly-growing and notoriously violent, gang-ridden streets.

The “Blue Devils” of this new body were initially treated with suspicion. Citizens feared the “bobbies”, named for Peel’s forename, would swiftly become a militarised enforcement wing of the government. Peel sought to combat this adversarial attitude with three core ideas aimed at ensuring alignment to, and cooperation with, law-enforcement officers and the public.

Policing, he insisted, should be preventive; this presupposed community support, and support required winning the trust of the community. To this end, Peel imposed strict new rules. “Bobbies” were almost always unarmed. They were held to high behavioural standards: half of Peel’s initial recruits were sacked and replaced for alcohol-related offences within two years. They were paid a salary rather than a bonus for arrests, to minimise the risk of corruption. And they were discouraged from forming relationships in the underworld: the Met’s official history describes how (unlike previous enforcers) bobbies were prohibited from entering pubs, speaking to prostitutes or cultivating informants among known criminals.

Peel’s approach was a success: crime fell continuously for a century after 1829, and his model swiftly spread to other parts of Britain. But the Britain of Peel’s era reached considerably beyond these shores — while the Peel policing model emphatically did not. Across Britain’s colonies, a far more militaristic model of policing prevailed: a pragmatic adjustment to the reality that you’re unlikely to have the same success with “community policing” among resentfully subjugated foreigners than your fellow countrymen.

The standard template for this approach to colonial policing was founded less than a decade after the Met: the Royal Irish Constabulary. As historian Georgina Sinclair shows, colonial Ireland was “the official and unofficial training ground for colonial police officers”. Such forces tended to take a more top-down and coercive approach than the Met, with armed officers in military-style uniforms, and typically adopting a two-tier, hierarchical and racially stratified structure, with gazetted English officers commanding local rank-and-file police. This adaptation to “divided-society policing”, as Sinclair calls it, reflected the reality that such forces were “involved more in dealing with political protest than the prevention and detection of crime”.

Initiated in Ireland, this model swiftly propagated among African and Indian police forces under the British Empire. Ireland became a key training-hub for imperial police officers, and Irish officers often later took up policing posts elsewhere in the empire. After the First World War, the colonial model was also exported to Mandatory Palestine; as the RIC was disbanded in 1922, the year Britain gained the Mandate for Palestine from the UN, several senior RIC officers took up posts in Palestine.

Over the century since that date, Britain’s empire has disintegrated. In more recent decades, though, succeeding domestic governments have embraced a vision of Britain as still somehow encompassing that imperial reach — but in microcosm, via the embrace of “multiculturalism” and, latterly, escalating mass inward migration. The justifications for this vary considerably, but include economic expediency and (for some) post-colonial guilt or payback.

It even appears, sometimes, as though a subset of our political elites feels (though they’d never admit it) a secret sadness at having missed out on the colonial adventure. Whose yearning for imperial status and cosmopolitan subjects is such that, in the absence of an empire to rule, they’ve set about recreating its pluralism and racialised hierarchy within the confines of the British Isles. Were this so, the epicentre of this model-railway replica of imperial diversity would indisputably be London. As of 2022, scarcely above a third of London’s population is white British — down from an estimated 97% in the Sixties. Data from the Trust for London indicate, meanwhile, that what’s left of that demographic in London overwhelmingly clusters in the wealthiest areas of the capital. In other words: London has become a replica of the former empire’s economic and racial stratification and segregation.

“London has become a replica of the former empire’s economic and racial stratification and segregation.”

It’s popular among London’s elite to view this pluralism as self-evidently a feature, rather than a bug, and such individuals regularly boast about how “diversity” is London’s “strength”. And this may well be true in many respects. But that diversity meshes uncomfortably with the Met’s longstanding policing model, as initially established by Peel. For the Met’s “bobbies” were always intended to serve by consent, as last-resort enforcement for a shared, culturally specific moral framework. And while it’s true that, as its proponents often remind us, ethnic pluralism means more varied restaurants, one inescapable consequence of multiculturalism is, well, multiple cultures. And this includes diversifying attitudes to the law, and diversifying willingness to be policed as per Peel’s approach.

What happens, then, when a policing tradition predicated on high baseline moral and cultural alignment is applied to a population so diverse that such alignment can no longer be taken for granted? The “openly Jewish” debacle highlights what this looks like in practice. For Peel’s insistence that policing should be community-based and representative has already politicised the force along identitarian lines, while driving ethnic hiring quotas in growing tension with other recruitment priorities. And against this breakdown of consensus on what policing should even mean, or who should be doing it, the Peel principle of preventive, community-based policing has mutated into a minimalist policy of containment.

Here, the priority is maintaining superficial peace. In practice, this means appeasing the most volatile “communities”, while the most law-abiding are also the most harshly constrained, simply because they offer the least resistance. And in this context, it’s easy to understand the officer’s rationale in seeking to keep Gideon Falter away from the Palestine march, however terrible it looked in the video clip. The officer correctly identified Falter as representative of one London “community”, and the protesters as a different, potentially hostile “community”. Tasked with preventive policing, he foresaw a potential breach of the peace should these come into collision. And he set out to forestall it, by applying pressure where it was most likely to be successful: a single individual, from a generally law-abiding demographic. The same happened a month ago, when Robert Jenrick accused the Met of “two-tier policing” after a counter-protestor was arrested at another Palestine protest.

Another version of the same pragmatic policing of “communities” was in evidence yesterday, when footage emerged of riot police laying into St George’s Day marchers — a head-on confrontation that would have been unimaginable at a Palestine protest but which here seemed perfectly consonant with “community policing”. But perhaps this makes sense, given the different demographic involved: one that, as noted, has long since moved out of the capital. Winning the trust of London’s communities, following the Peel principles, logically therefore means treating these outsiders more harshly than those for whom, numerically speaking, the city is now predominantly home.

But what about this evidently asymmetrical treatment of different groups? Didn’t Peel say the Met should be impartial? Certainly the skew is clear enough, and the overall picture is unlikely to make a positive contribution to our fraying national civic harmony. But faced with a pluralistic public in which no overall ideological alignment can be assumed, and that — as with the Palestine protests — sometimes advocates mutually exclusive political aims, it would be a brave bobby who ventured an opinion on what “impartial” even means, beyond maintaining order by any means necessary — however asymmetric the policing decisions required to do so.

Thanks to the policy choices of Britain’s (largely London-based) political leaders, the capital is now too diverse for the historic Met policing model. And given how proud Londoners generally seem to be of the city’s pluralism, the likelihood of its micro-colonial pluralism re-homogenising seems vanishingly low. But the same leaders have yet to update London’s policing model in line with their imperial forebears’ pragmatic approach to colonial law and order.

Instead, they prefer to castigate the Met for trying to keep the peace within a set of policing guidelines designed for an entirely different London. Rather than calling for heads to roll, our leaders should be supporting the Met in policing the London we have now.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.