The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Police Force

Category: 19th century

The modern police force in England was founded between the years 1829 and 1839. This development was the direct result of the upsurge of a militant work­ing class movement in the first decades of the 19th century. The old system of corrupt and incapable par­ish constables was clearly inadequate to protect the property of rich citizens in the rapidly growing towns against the activities of thieves. The propertied men were thoroughly alarmed at the growth of an orga­nized working class movement which engaged in bit­ter struggles for elementary democratic and trade union rights. The old police forces were quite inadequate to ensure social order.

The use of the troops for the purpose proved to be unsatisfactory for many reasons. First and foremost they could not always be relied upon to obey the mas­ter class at times of sharp class struggle. This was es­pecially true at the height of the Chartist movement from 1839 to 1841, when special precautions had to be taken to protect the troops from Chartist propaganda.

The reorganization of the police began with the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This deprived many local authorities in the metropolitan area of London of their control over their local police. They were replaced by a trained body of regular po­lice under the direct control of the Home Secretary.

Sir Robert Peel was the moving force behind the new police, drawing on his experience in creating a coercive police force in 1814 in Ireland to hold down the Irish people. Thus the democratically elected local authorities in London, although they must pay a big percentage towards the upkeep of the police, are de­nied to this day any share in the control of them.

Such sweeping centralization was not possible in the rest of the country where the traditions of local self-government were too strong. On the other hand the ancient municipal corporations had fallen into such a state of decay that they too were unable to organize a police force equal to the new situation. The Munici­pal Corporations Act of 1835 swept away the old cor­porations and established elected councils in their place. Its main object was to provide these towns with efficient police forces. The new councils were to appoint a Watch Committee to control the police.

As the Chartist movement gained strength, the need for a police force loyal to the propertied classes led to the passing of the Police Act in 1839. This estab­lished the country police forces, which were immedi­ately centralized to a great extent under the control of the Home Secretary. This Bill, giving the ruling class a centralized grip on the new police, was bitterly op­posed by the Chartists and their supporters.

But these were only the first attempts of the Home Office to concentrate control of the police in their own hands. The ruling class aimed to reduce to a minimum the control of the elected local councils (by that time the working class had won the right to take part in the election of these councils) over their police. This was mainly done through the weapon of finance.

It was difficult for many councils to find enough money to run an efficient police force, so the Home Office kindly gave them a grant. In recent years this grant has amounted to half of the money spent by each local authority on the police. If the Home Office is not satisfied with the way the police is run in a given area, it can cut the grant off.

In the case of the county police forces, the influ­ence of the elected county councillors is reduced al­most to vanishing point by the police being placed under the control of a Standing Joint Committee. Only half of the members of this committee are appointed by the county council, and it is not responsible to the county council for its actions.

Yet even this Standing Joint Committee itself has very limited powers. True, it appoints the chief con­stable; but the chief constable alone appoints all the other members of the force and he, not the committee, investigates all breaches of discipline. In a borough, the council has wider powers, appointing all the mem­bers of the Watch Committee, which in its turn has a large measure of control over the force. It has been a habitual trick of the Home Office, however, to liqui­date as many of the borough forces as possible and amalgamate them into the local county force where they can be more easily controlled.

Thus the British police have been welded into a single operational force under the supreme direction of the Home Secretary.

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