OVER recent days, we’ve seen horrible images of disorder in our streets. While we should be careful not to exaggerate the scale of the issue, you’ve probably seen the photos of injured police officers and of protesters desecrating national monuments.
The picture of someone trying to set fire to a Union Jack draped on the Cenotaph is especially horrible.
Perhaps the images that are the most worrying are of the police pulling back or standing by while criminal actions are taking place.
Of course, the police have to make difficult decisions on how to deal with volatile and dangerous situations. Withdrawals can be necessary to ensure the safety of outnumbered officers, an essential priority for their commanders. But retreat or inaction should only ever be temporary.
Last year, police at the most senior level showed an appalling lack of resolution in dealing with the antics of Extinction Rebellion. Green zealots exploited their rights of protest physically to interfere with the freedoms of others, causing all sorts of difficulties to the public.
Now we have examples of police inaction at Black Lives Matter protests, as anarchists and various thugs use them as cover for disorder and violence. To be clear, I’m not accusing the majority of protesters of such behaviour, but there is more than enough of it to be a real concern.
How can anyone be allowed to climb on to the Cenotaph when police officers are standing little more than an arm’s length away? Let alone try to set fire to a flag that hangs from it? The issue is not whether they were arrested or not (as it happens, I don’t know) but simply that someone was able to do it in the first place.
A lack of initial firmness – tempered where possible with courtesy and good humour – by the police is almost always a mistake. The police should never have to cede control or back down in confrontations because they are worried that carrying out their duties will aggravate the anti-social element.
Certainly, diplomacy and prevention are better than batons and handcuffs. But whether it’s at a demonstration, a football match or some petty backstreet standoff, the ability of the police to keep control in the face of any threat is the guarantee of our freedom. It should never be surrendered.
When the police pull back, the laws that protect us all are pulled back. Asking the police to assert their authority isn’t to call for authoritarianism. Quite the opposite; it’s a call for the protection of the democratic rights of the majority.
We all have the ability to express and share our opinions. We can vote, join parties, stand for office, lobby legislators or write to newspapers. We can march, sing, send emails, organise petitions or post on social media. Vote as we wish and propound, preach or believe what we like. And very definitely, take part in peaceful demonstrations.
That’s democracy. It’s glorious. But we don’t have the right to smash statues or paint slogans on memorials. And although free speech demands that you should be allowed to burn this country’s flag if you are sufficiently ignorant and puerile to want to (just as long as it’s one you’ve legally acquired), you don’t have the right to burn publicly-owned ones that fly from our monuments. The police should have no lack of confidence in making sure of that should they be present; such things can’t be allowed to happen.
Front-line police officers should always know that their commanders, and our politicians, will support them to defend us against those who think force is a substitute for argument.
The police should never feel afraid to enforce the law. What’s more (although I can cite no hard evidence) I’m convinced that the majority of ordinary people actively want a more rigorous, determined approach to keeping order in our public spaces and protecting the legitimate freedoms of us all.