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Policing and Class Struggle in Late Twentieth-Century Britain

Britain could be described as a class-bound society in the late twentieth-century. Karl Marx stated that all existing society is rooted to the class struggle. The 1981 Home Office report on the Brixton riots stated that there is a serious gap between the police and certain important sections of the community. This indicates that the police have a limited representation of the society in general, which further indicates the prevalence of classism in the police system. In this context, this essay will analyse whether or not the police serve a certain section of the society belonging to higher economic class. This essay proposes that they do to a large extent serve the interests of higher economic ranking class.

The question in hand can be reviewed from whether the police serve only a minority elite or whether they are the protector of the public order. The late modern societies have been characterized by a widespread inequality that places structurally marginal underclass prominently. Ironically, the issue of class had not remained as a main interest in social thought and political practice. Identity politics have taken center stage, which has also shifted the focus of policing on diverse minority communities. However, there is a class-based policing demonstrated by the economic exclusion and division. For example, it is taken for granted the outright class contempt found in police judgment based on behavioural and personal qualities of the poor.

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The UK has a complex class position comprising numerous and different types of capital formed based on economic, cultural and social elements unlike the traditional variable of occupation. For example, as Hey and Grimaldi (2019) in their article on class division provided, the class based on capital distribution could be the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, the new affluent workers, the traditional working class, the emergent service workers and the precariat class. The first three have high economic capital. The fourth has moderate economic capital. The fifth and the sixth are moderately poor. The last has poor economic capital. Historically, referring to the nineteenth century, on one hand the police are considered as the agent of the minority elite considering the surveillance and control of the majority population; and on the other hand, the police are considered as the protector of the public order. In its role of maintaining urban discipline, the police was responsible for daily monitoring of public places and life, which is mostly dominated by the working class. On that aspect, this role could be seen as an extension of the elite’s control over the general public in order to align the working-class population to workplace disciple. Further elaborating on this aspect, France and Roberts (2017) observed that the 1981 Scarman Report, mentioned earlier, made a connection between the resentment and anger of young black people in terms of social and economic deprivations and their relationship with the police. The Brixton riots, because of which the report was prepared, was found to have arose due to factors associated with policing, social inequality, and racial discrimination. They further observed that the people involved in the riots were from economically marginalised section of the population and living alongside with white working-class youth.

  1. David Cannadine, Class in Britain (1st ed., Penguin Books Limited 2000), xi-xii.
  2. The UK Parliament, “Brixton Disorders: The Scarman Report” HL Deb 04 February 1982 Vol 426 CC1396-474 .
  3. Bethan Loftus, Police Culture in a Changing World (1st ed., Oxford University Press 2012) 1953.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid, 1955.
  6. Ana Paula Hey and Anna Isabella Grimaldi, ‘New class divisions? Elites and the precariat at the extremes of social class in the UK’ (2019) 34 (100) Rev. bras. Ci. Soc.

The performing of police duties and functions, as the above discussion suggests, is associated with economic classism. This is supported by the findings of the study conducted by Wu, Sun and Triplett (2009) focused on the relative effects of race and class on public satisfaction with police. Their individual‐level analysis suggested that race and class equally served as key predictors where the African Americans and lower‐class people were less satisfied with the police. At the neighborhood‐level analysis, they found that the effects of race and class disappeared. For example, in the predominantly White and racially mixed neighborhoods, they have more favorable attitudes than those in the predominately African American communities. In terms of satisfaction with the police, they also found that the African Americans residing in the economically advantaged neighborhoods were less likely than the Whites in the same kind of neighborhoods. However, in disadvantaged communities, the African Americans and Whites held similar levels of satisfaction with police.

  1. D Taylor, The new police in nineteenth-century England: Crime, conflict and control (Manchester University Press 1997); R.D. Storch, ‘The policeman as domestic missionary: Urban discipline and popular culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’ (1976) Journal of social history 481-509.
  2. R.D. Storch, ‘The policeman as domestic missionary: Urban discipline and popular culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’ (1976) Journal of social history 481-509.
  3. Alan France and Steven Roberts, Youth and Social Class: Enduring Inequality in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2017) 110.
  4. Yuning Wu, Ivan Y. Sun and Ruth A. Triplett, ‘Race, class or neighborhood context: which matters more in measuring satisfaction with police?’ (2009) 26(1) Justice quarterly 125-156.

The findings above suggest that neighborhood class status plays a key role in determining public satisfaction with the police. This also means that the police follow classism serving a certain section of the society more favourably than the rest. This view is supported by the views of Black (1976) when he suggested that the police responses to incidents vary subject to the location determined by social class, race, sex and age of the parties in the incidents. Parties from lower ranks will be more likely than those in higher ranks to be arrested and less likely to be dealt with in mediation, separation, or counseling. He also suggested that parties from a high socioeconomic tier will have a close relationship with police and they rely on the police to serve their interests. In this respect, Hay and Snyder (1989) rightly stated that elitism was reflected in the policing as well as in the criminal justice system as was found in the use of royal pardons, prosecution discretion or jury verdicts to protect the elites from prosecution. Thus, the social elites used the criminal law or the police to protect their interest or reinforce their social status.

Ogborn (1993) pointed out that it cannot be appropriate to see policing only from an economic perspective. Policing has become more surveillance oriented due to growing state power rather than serving the interest of the elite minorities. This, however, cannot ignore the existence of a different set of policing based on economic grouping of the population. For example, community policing is reserved for the economically higher-ranking white population and the paramilitary policy is deployed in the lower ranking neighbourhoods. London is argued to have authoritarian policing in the inner-city areas from where over-policing has been reported frequently. Reports of oppressive police tactics such as mass stop and search activities, use of riot squads, co-ordinated raids are frequent. In this light, the police could be stated to have a lack of understanding of criminological knowledge and policy expertise. Newburn and McLaughlin (2010) observed that there has been a limited success of criminologists in shaping the public discussion of the use of criminology and of influencing decision making and public policy. Criminologists are remotely placed from the late modern political culture as crime policy has become crime politics with policing, crime and punishment becoming key electoral issues.

  1. Ibid.
  2. Roger G. Dunham and Geoffrey P. Alpert, ‘Neighborhood differences in attitudes toward policing: Evidence for a mixed-strategy model of policing in a multi-ethnic setting’ (1988) 79 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 504–523.
  3. Donald Black, The behavior of law (Emerald Group Publishing 2010).
  4. D Hay and F.G Snyder, Policing and prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850 (Clarendon Press 1989).
  5. M Ogborn, ‘Ordering the city: surveillance, public space and the reform of urban policing in England 1835–56’ (1993) 12(6) Political Geography 505-521.

A new article dated 19 September 2013 raised a question of whether “the police act at the behest of the UK’s rich and the powerful?” The article states that the elected representatives are subjugated to the corporate houses and media magnates. The article specifically reported on the campaign against the badger cull. It reported about the political power willed by the National Farm Union, which is dominated by big landowners and having a large share of power in the UK. It reported that the police are allegedly allying with the landowners and people in power. Another news article in the Guardian, dated 2 November 2018 also raised the issue of a “broken police force” to benefit only the super-rich. The article stated that the security minister, Ben Wallace was aware that for years the government has been luring rich criminals. On the other hand, the news article states that the crime enforcement agencies are limited in budget with no capability to take actions against the super-rich individuals with illicit money. However, they act against the most obvious cases involving individuals who are not that rich. These reports bring justification to the question of whether or not policing represented the minority elites and not the general masses. They also reflect the historically representation of the police as serving the elites who used them to reinforce their power. The use of the police reflects, as what Taylor (1997) suggested, their representation in the nineteenth century as agents of the state for combating of crime and to manage the ‘rough’ communities of working poor. Further, police reforms were not done if the elites opposed them.

  1. Benjamin Bowling, Coretta Phillips, Alexandra Campbell and Maria Docking, ‘Policing and Human Rights Eliminating Discrimination, Xenophobia, Intolerance and the Abuse of Power from Policework’ (2001) United Nations Research Institute for Social Development; Marian FitzGerald and Rae Sibbitt, ‘Ethnic monitoring in police forces: A beginning’ A Home Office Research Study 173.
  2. Eugene McLaughlin and Tim Newburn, The SAGE Handbook of Criminological Theory (SAGE Publications 2010) 5.
  3. Ibid.
  4. George Monbiot, ‘Do the police act at the behest of the UK's rich and powerful?’ accessed 23 October 2021 .
  5. Nick Hopkins, ‘A broken police force is great for the super-rich. But not for the rest of us’ accessed 23 October 2021 .

A modern state has a centrally administered criminal justice system organised uniformly on bureaucratic lines. The system is based on a social and political consensus that is approved by social groups sharing power. Marsh, Cochrane, and Melville (2004) observed that historians of the criminal justice system see a direct connection between the increase in crime and perception of its threat by the elites and propertied classes and the social upheaval, economic instability and depression. Further showing the influence of the elite and the properties class is the use of punishment as a mechanism, which is deeply the implicated within the class struggle. The police have often been represented as the representative of the economic elites, who desire to control the masses in view of enforcing their power relations. The police have been used to maintain class segregation. However, at the same time, it is also argued that there is a lack of evidence to show the existence of a coherent, identifiable elite class that is acting to extend the police control over the general population to serve their own interests. In support of this view, Marsh, Cochrane, and Melville (2004) stated that there was widespread resistance in many provincial areas by the middle and professional classes against police despotism. In addition, the rise of the state power also centralised the administration of the police force in the twentieth century. For example, the Prison Act 1877 transferred the control of the prison service to the central government. The criminal was seen as an individual who was freely deciding to adopt criminality, which means that criminality was seen separate from social or economic cause.

  1. M Mann, ‘The sources of social power revisited: a response to criticism’ (2006) An Anatomy of Power 343.
  2. D Taylor, D., The new police in nineteenth-century England: Crime, conflict and control (Manchester University Press 1997).
  3. Ian Marsh, John Cochrane, and Gaynor Melville, Criminal Justice: An Introduction to Philosophies, Theories and Practice (Taylor & Francis 2004) 74.
  4. Ibid, 65.
  5. Ibid, 43.
  6. Ibid, 73.
  7. Ibid, 76.

The above views thus present a mixed perspective. One can state that the 1960s and the early 1970s saw the police were more likely to invoke their authority against the lower-class section of the society. This may not be so in recent times as for example the likelihood of arrest is not affected by the social class of the suspects. At the same time, as seen earlier too, social class could be stated as having a significant effect on the use of the police force. To support this view, it is argued that middle class citizens are more likely to be comforted than the lower-class citizens. Such social class differentiation could be said so for when in a complaint by a middle-class citizen, the police would be more likely to invoke the law than the complaint by a lower-class citizen. The evidence of classism in how the police function concerning the criminal justice system is found in the way police officers develop their understanding of people and neighbourhoods through the demographic data, crime statistics, and maps. Such an understanding determines the subjects and areas to govern.

To conclude, there is no doubt that a direct connection between social class and how police function exists. Discussions so far have suggested that a person’s social status impact the manner the police treat them. People with lower socioeconomic status have less favourable attitudes toward the police than the wealthy class. It is the economic status that determines whether a person has a favourable attitude towards the police. The fact that a neighbourhood class matters while evaluating satisfaction with police shows that economic factors serve as a key indicator to determine police alliance with those in power.

  1. Wesley Skogen, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence (National Academies Press 2004) 120.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sinan Çankaya, ‘Geopolicing race, gender, and class: How the police immobilise urban allochthones’ (2020) 52(3) Antipode 702-721.
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Bibliography

Books

Black D, The behavior of law (Emerald Group Publishing 2010).

Cannadine D, Class in Britain (1st ed., Penguin Books Limited 2000)

Hay D and F.G Snyder, Policing and prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850 (Clarendon Press 1989)

Loftus B, Police Culture in a Changing World (1st ed., Oxford University Press 2012)

Marsh I, John Cochrane, and Gaynor Melville, Criminal Justice: An Introduction to Philosophies, Theories and Practice (Taylor & Francis 2004)

McLaughlin E and Tim Newburn, The SAGE Handbook of Criminological Theory (SAGE Publications 2010)

Skogen W, Fairness and Effectiveness in Policing: The Evidence (National Academies Press 2004)

Taylor D, The new police in nineteenth-century England: Crime, conflict and control (Manchester University Press 1997)

Journals

Çankaya S, ‘Geopolicing race, gender, and class: How the police immobilise urban allochthones’ (2020) 52(3) Antipode 702-721.

Dunham RG and Geoffrey P. Alpert, ‘Neighborhood differences in attitudes toward policing: Evidence for a mixed-strategy model of policing in a multi-ethnic setting’ (1988) 79 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 504–523.

France A and Steven Roberts, Youth and Social Class: Enduring Inequality in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2017)

Hey AP and Anna Isabella Grimaldi, ‘New class divisions? Elites and the precariat at the extremes of social class in the UK’ (2019) 34 (100) Rev. bras. Ci. Soc.

Mann M, ‘The sources of social power revisited: a response to criticism’ (2006) An Anatomy of Power 343

Ogborn M, ‘Ordering the city: surveillance, public space and the reform of urban policing in England 1835–56’ (1993) 12(6) Political Geography 505-521.

Storch RD, ‘The policeman as domestic missionary: Urban discipline and popular culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’ (1976) Journal of social history 481-509.

Wu Y, Ivan Y. Sun and Ruth A. Triplett, ‘Race, class or neighborhood context: which matters more in measuring satisfaction with police?’ (2009) 26(1) Justice quarterly 125-156

Reports

Bowling B, Coretta Phillips, Alexandra Campbell and Maria Docking, ‘Policing and Human Rights Eliminating Discrimination, Xenophobia, Intolerance and the Abuse of Power from Policework’ (2001) United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

FitzGerald M and Rae Sibbitt, ‘Ethnic monitoring in police forces: A beginning’ A Home Office Research Study 173.

The UK Parliament, ‘Brixton Disorders: The Scarman Report’ HL Deb 04 February 1982 Vol 426 CC1396-474

Websites

Monbiot G, ‘Do the police act at the behest of the UK's rich and powerful?’ accessed 23 October 2021 .

Hopkins N, ‘A broken police force is great for the super-rich. But not for the rest of us’ accessed 23 October 2021 .


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