PCC Blog 41

‘Democracy is a fragile thing.’

So said Joe Biden at his inauguration as President of the United States. He had particular reason to speak about democracy’s fragility because only a few days before, protestors loyal to the former President had stormed the Capitol building and come within a whisker of a successful, if accidental, insurrection.

Security was lax. But at least the few law enforcement officers present seemed clear that their primary duty was not to the man who was trying to hang on as President but to the institutions of the democratic state, which some of his followers were trying to subvert. There are lessons to be learnt here.

The new President speaks of bringing people together and healing. This seems a mammoth task. Eighty one million people voted for Joe Biden – the biggest vote in American history – but seventy four million voted for Donald Trump (51% and 46%) – rather like our Brexit vote which was about much more than Brexit (52% for leave and 48% for remain). Each nation is left divided.

If you think about that, it means that whatever enables a democracy to hang together, it cannot be shared values. In the west, we live now in countries that are plural and we have to learn to live with difference. In the US, this is what many find difficult: unity for them means a common culture, a common religion, a common set of values, and for some, even a common ethnicity. In the UK, it is why the search for ‘Britishness’ or ‘British values’ of a few years ago was doomed to fail: we are plural. When we look back at that period it seems like another world.

Norman Tebbit thought that to be British was really to be English – it was about the cricket team you supported – England not Pakistan or India. John Major’s suggestion seems even more strange. Britishness was about ‘long shadows on country cricket grounds (What is it about cricket?), warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers …’ Gordon Brown insisted on the need for Britishness, but couldn’t define it.

These are all potentially dangerous projects. Enforcing ‘shared values’ is what dictators do.

It seems to me that in a plural democracy such as ours and the USA, if we are to hang together, it cannot be through shared or common values. We don’t have them, at least not wholly so. We will only hold together if we acquiesce in what I would call the ground rules of democracy. This then enables us to live together with our many differences – different values, ethnicities, religions, cultures, political beliefs – without which a plural state descends into chaos. The ground rules of democracy are:  respect for the rule of law; equality of all before the law; democratically elected government; freedom of speech, assembly and worship; the freedom to live as you would wish subject only to not interfering with the rights of others; and tolerance and respect for those who differ from us.

And the job of law enforcement is to uphold and defend those ground rules.

We see now why democracy is fragile. But also, as the new President said, why it is precious.

The devil is in the detail …

Government announcements – all governments – are like insurance policies: the killer clauses are always in the small print. We are promised 20,000 more officers nationally over the lifetime of this parliament – perhaps 487 for South Yorkshire. Good news! It goes a long way to restoring the 500 we lost between 2010 and 2019.

But when you read the small print it says: ‘… but only if you contribute towards the cost of them by raising council tax’. And again, ‘… but only if you send some of them to the Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU)’ which in our case is in Wakefield. (This coming financial year we lose seven of our projected 149 officers that way.)

At least unlike many of us with insurance policies, we have read the small print.

Dear Secretary of State ….

Last week I wrote a letter, not to the Home Secretary, but to the Secretary of State for Transport. I had just read the findings of the inquests into the very sad deaths of two men who had been killed on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire which is called a ‘smart motorway’. This is near Meadowhall where the number of lanes has been increased by bringing the hard shoulder into use as a permanent live lane. The men had been involved in a minor collision and had pulled into the nearside lane and stopped in order to exchange insurance details. They were struck by a lorry travelling in that lane, and died.

The coroner said that the lack of a hard shoulder had contributed to the deaths. This was an important moment because the coroner has looked at all the evidence and reached an unequivocal conclusion.

What has seemed odd to me throughout has been the stance of Highways England, who are responsible for the motorway. They reject the suggestion that smart motorways were built as a cheap way of increasing capacity where traffic was heavy. And they say that the safety record of smart motorways is no worse and may even be better than that of conventional motorways.

I don’t doubt this because conventional motorways don’t have gantries regulating speed according to traffic conditions as the smart motorways do. So the true comparison would not be between a smart and a conventional motorway, but between a smart motorway with gantries but no hard shoulder and one with gantries and a hard shoulder.

So, Dear Secretary of State …

I hope you are staying safe and well.