This piece was written about a decade ago. Readers may be interested to note how, even in the time that has elepsed since then, the situation described has dertioriated still further; and the minimal sense of civilisation implied in the final paragraphs has already all but collapsed.
I was just listening to jolly old Noël Coward singing “World Weary”, and was struck by the verse:
Just to watch the clouds go by
In a windy sky
But if I do it in the steet,
Every cop I meet
Simply hates me.
Mr. Coward, of course, is English; but there can be no question that the “cop” of this lyric is an American. He is not a British Bobby with a tall helmet and a courteous (though, when necessary, firm) manner; he is an burly Irish-American with a flat cap and a nightstick. We have a number of ways of knowing this. There is the word “cop”, very rarely used of a British “copper” except under extreme American influence (such as that which became general in the late 20th century). Then there is the voice of the singer. A crisp, tailored English voice. Can one really imagine an English Bobby (remember. we are in Trent) reacting with authoritarian disapproval to the eccentricities of the owner of such a voice? Had the perpetrator been a street-Arab or a costermonger, of course, it might have been different; but the British policeman understands the difference between different types of person.
Here we come upon one of the more striking illustrations of the often-stated kinship between dictatorship and equality. In a free society, the police are regarded as authority figures and potential antagonists only by the lower elements of society — unruly children, the less respectable elements of the lower classes, rowdy foreigners and such like.
Every one from the suburban middle class upward regards the policeman in the light of a servant. His job is to serve people like oneself and to keep the lower end in order. One might say that the level of freedom in a society is inversely proportionate to the social level at which people cease to see policemen as servants. In a People’s Republic, only the dictator and a few of his closest associates see the police as servants. Every one else sees them as authority figures and potential antagonists.
The American “cop” of Mr. Coward’s verse is an authority figure to all except government officials and millionaires, to whom alone he is a servant. This is a typically republican or egalitarian form of policing — not quite as strongly marked as the Bolshevist variety, but very different from the traditional British form, in which the largest possible number of people regard the police as servants. The difference is emphasised in various symbolic ways. The British constable wears a helmet to show that he is a foot soldier, while his American counterpart wears the flat cap of an officer, is addressed as “officer” rather than “constable” and does not routinely address all respectable-looking members of the public as “sir” or “madam”. It is noteworthy that all these Americanisms were increasingly adopted in Pit Britain.
In this matter, as in so many things, one can only reduce inequality by levelling down and never by levelling up. The lower orders always require a rather childish level of surveillance and authority, and the only way of treating the classes equally is to adopt the same approach in the case of the higher classes. In the nature of things, equality can never be perfect: there must always be a few people to whom the police are servants; but by reducing that number to the minimum, one obtains a maximum of social equality in this particular area.
It has often been accepted, even by those essentially hostile to socialism, that the fact that extreme socialist régimes have always been “police states” is something of an accident — even a perversion of their real ideals. This is not so. It is in fact an essential element in the genuine pursuit of social equality. The more egalitarian is the outlook of a society, the more authoritarian is the behaviour of its police toward a larger proportion of its population. The more it is agreed that we cannot and must not differentiate between different types and classes of person, the more do the police, and authorities in general, feel free to treat every one as a member of the lower orders. Mr. Auberon Waugh has referred to this phenomenon as “an N.C.O.s’ revolution”. It is a very apt metaphor. The more a society decides to pretend that there is no such thing as a officer class, the more do the N.C.O. class feel free to do what they have always wanted to do, but under normal circumstances have not dared to do — to treat virtually every one as a private soldier.
It is only proper, of course, that the law should be no respecter of persons; but in a free and civilised nation, the agents of the law must always be respecters of persons.
An interesting light was shed upon these matters some time ago, when a well-known London club, frequented by senior politicians of the then ruling party, was bombed by Fenian agitators. One does not have to be in close contact with the modern propagation services in order to be aware that whenever a bombing, an aeroplane crash or some other disaster (or “tragedy”, as they are Philistine enough to term it) occurs, there is an orchestrated outcry to the effect that “This Must Never Happen Again”, as if there could ever be a world without accident or disease.
The usual result is that new regulations — restrictions upon firearms, rules against drinking, time-consuming safety-checks, compulsory wearing of fluorescent dunces’caps or whatever the case might seem to call for — are debated and often instituted, in order that life may be made more troublesome and rule-bound 365 days a year for the sake of a disaster which may or may not ever occur again, and which if it does recur, will probably recur in some new way, so as to circumvent the regulations and necessitate the addition of new ones.
The curious thing about the bombing of this club was the quiet unanimity with which club members, officials and others, when questioned about methods of ensuring that Such A Thing Could Never Happen Again, replied that while, of course, security must be “looked at”, on the whole, any serious increase would be incompatible with the ease and gentlemanly style of a London Club. Here, at last, were people who regarded the Rules and the Authorities as servants rather than masters, and who were in a position to make sure that they behaved as such. But the social and political level at which this can happen in the Pit is now very high indeed.
Add a Comment for the Roof Garden
Return to the Penthouse Foyer