Police Powers and the UK Government in the 1980s

I found this great paragraph in this article on the future of privacy in the UK:

One of the few home secretaries who dominated his department rather than be cowed by it was Lord Whitelaw in the 1980s. He boasted how after any security lapse, the police would come to beg for new and draconian powers. He laughed and sent them packing, saying only a bunch of softies would erode British liberty to give themselves an easier job. He said they laughed in return and remarked that “it was worth a try”.

Posted on April 8, 2009 at 1:25 PM21 Comments


sehlat April 8, 2009 1:44 PM

I’m not sure where I ran into the comment, but it’s surely valid: “A policeman’s job is easy only in a police state.”

gopi April 8, 2009 2:00 PM

I’m not even convinced that a police state is better for the police. I’m sure it’s less frustrating when they think they’ve caught somebody, but…

Let’s say you want to wiretap somebody. I think it’s safe to say that most people’s conversations are primarily boring – only a small percentage of them are going to be related to the criminal activity you suspect them of. Surveillance resources are limited. If you jump to surveillance on your first subject, you’re going to be spending lots of resources on that, and fewer on searching for other people. You’ll be very unlikely to be digging up more evidence of the guilt or innocence of the person being surveilled – which means the time it takes to determine that it was a mistake will be much higher.

If you can get a search warrant easily, there’s a risk that you will be much less practiced at deeper digging and analysis. You will be used to finding people who look superficially guilty, and will have trouble when you encounter somebody who can hide well.

I guess what I’m saying is: the work needed to put together a good case for a warrant is more than just paperwork to preserve civil liberties. It has a high likelihood of actually helping the investigation itself. The more complex the investigation, the more skilled the criminal, the more that real investigations will help.

Jason April 8, 2009 2:25 PM

A police state is only good for the police as long as they tow the line. The moment one of those officers questions his or her directives, that officer becomes one of the unwashed masses, beaten down by the same fellows he or she used to call friends.

Franky B. April 8, 2009 2:34 PM

“I’m not even convinced that a police state is better for the police. … the work needed to put together a good case for a warrant is more than just paperwork to preserve civil liberties. It has a high likelihood of actually helping the investigation itself.”

Not only that, but in a country where it is known that the authorities can and do wiretap phones randomly, it is unlikely that true criminals and terrorists will use those communication methods, therefore making it unlikely that you’ll ever find anything of importance using those wiretaps.

bob April 8, 2009 3:05 PM

The seeds that caused the death of liberty in the US were planted back in WWII when congress authorized direct payroll deduction of income tax.

Most people today could not tell you how much tax they paid to the feds the year before (if you ask, they’ll say something stupid like “Oh, I got a refund of $x”) because their life’s blood is sucked quietly out before they ever get to see it.

If taxpayers had to write a check every April for their entire tax bill government would be a ->LOT<- leaner and more responsive, and we wouldn’t have 17,452 unrelated federal agencies that all feel the need to spy on us in order to “protect” us.

clem April 8, 2009 3:08 PM


Think of it as a full-employment state for police. And since it’s a police-state, objections to the taxation and spending on police, eavesdroppers, informants, etc. would be suppressed by the police.

In engineering we call this a positive feedback loop.

tim April 8, 2009 3:09 PM

Well, that’s what Whitelaw claimed. There’s no guarantee he was telling the truth, and it seems hard to believe that the exchanges between himself and the police went as described on several successive occasions.

Nostromo April 8, 2009 3:10 PM

You seem to hold the naive view that the goal of all police is to detect people who do bad things (“crimes” in the natural meaning of the word – actions that harm others).
Unfortunately, that is not reality. Firstly, part of the erosion of civil liberties is the criminalization of victimless activities – the mere possession, for example, of prohibited substances or objects.
Secondly, the goal of the police is not really to solve a crime, it is to “get a conviction”. Hence the large number of convicted people who are now being shown by DNA evidence to have been wrongly convicted. They’re the tip of a very sordid iceberg, because it’s rare to be able to prove a negative – that someone is not guilty.

someone April 8, 2009 4:05 PM

I think the point behind these new laws is not entirely an honourable one.

First the more things that are illegal the easier the job of the police. Consider what happens when they raid some address looking for drugs… but they do not find any. This creates an embarrassing situation for the police, as they have to admit they were wrong. However if they can find something else – even if it is relatively small – then the media will concentrate on that, and not the botched operation.

Secondly I do not think that what is monitored is actually watched. It is recorded, to be used later. This way if somebody creates too much trouble the government can look back several years to find something – anything – that person has done wrong, and silence them with it.

Paul Renault April 8, 2009 4:28 PM

Watching Terry Gilliam’s brilliant movie Brazil should be mandatory for anyone in any position of making decision about how justice is handled.

In Nova Scotia a few years ago, the Minister of Justice was floating the idea of invoicing some miscreants for their time in jail. I called up the Halifax CBC Newsroom and asked the reporter if, the next time there was a news conference, he could ask the Minister whether he got all his ideas from this movie…

Aj April 8, 2009 5:51 PM

Did you ever listen to Sir Ian Blair when he was the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?????

Did you read the recent news from Devon? where the Police are now actively encouraging you to report on your neighbour if they appear to be living beyond their means?


We have undergone the largest change on the rule of law since 1066 and no-one noticed! originally the police had to have probable cause to investigate you and a judge had to be a part of process to provide the correct checks and balances.

Now??? Any government department can just look at vast amounts of your private data on a whim (including surfing habits, email, txt msgs, phone records). Gov Depts can (and have) invoked terrorism laws to implement pervasive surveillance, because you put the wrong rubbish in your bins. The UK Gov (not the police) are even demanding access to our heath records (recently defeated, but already stated its going to be re-introduced), completely ignoring 1000’s of years of medical ethics.

What is going to happen when this hits the courts I have no idea… Regardless its going to be very painful.

Haj April 8, 2009 5:59 PM

Police are inherently conservative and authoritarian. It won’t matter what evidence you give them, they will believe in a police state.

Clive Robinson April 8, 2009 9:19 PM

@ Aj,

“Did you ever listen to Sir Ian Blair when he was the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?????”

Even though he has gone the rot is still in London all be it with the “City Police”.

In todays newspapers it has been revealed that the man that died in the G20 disturbance the other day was a 47 year old man who having finished work was on his way home via his usual route.

The pictures taken show him walking along with his hands in his pockets minding his own business when he is effectivly jumped on from behind by an officer in full riot gear hitting him with a batton then pushing him to the ground.

From what was said at the time by the Police it sounded odd (they claimed the crowd attacked them when they where giving first aid…).

If you look at the pictures you will see that one of the Police Officers involved is a dog handler from the City Police as are some of the other officers (That is they are Not the Met Police, the Met’s hat bands are not red and white checked where as the City Police one’s are…).

And guess who the Independent Police Complaints Authority have selected to “independently investigate” the case…

Stand up the City of London Police…

So that’s all right then, they just have to have a cosy little chat in the canteen to sort it all out…

Clive Robinson April 8, 2009 9:38 PM

@ Aj,

“The UK Gov (not the police) are even demanding access to our heath records (recently defeated, but already stated its going to be re-introduced)”

You give a slightly wrong impression with “recently defeated”.

What hapened was a court case from another country ended up in “Europe” (European Courts of Justice under EU Treaty have supremacy for “any person legal or natural” in an EU member nation).

The EU Court ruled that access to the persons medical records for other than medical reasons had been a breach of her rights.

The UK Government as usuall under the current incumbrents has found that it’s legislation is effectivly illegal under EU law.

So what the UK Gov is doing is going back looking for loop holes in the judgment etc and working out how to get what they want by other means…

Oh and just to make it clear the access to your medical records is not just by the named parties in RIPA but also under other legislation the likes of your “bank”.

You know those honest upright citizens who are (supposadly) responsable for “accidently” causing the world wide credit crunch etc whilst trading contary (read technically illegaly) to UK company law.

Worse they have actually lied in court about their financial status. A person had had a “winding up” order against one of the UK banks granted by a court (over illegal bank charges the bank had refused to repay).

The bank appealed and had the decision over turned on the argument that it was rediculous to argue a bank of such reputation and assets could be in a position to “not meet it’s debts”.

Well less than a year later all can see what an out right lie that was…

Clive Robinson April 8, 2009 10:22 PM

@ Bruce,

You forgot to mention that in the 1980’s the UK where under the Thatcher Government.

I sugest you look back at what happened with the “miners strike” the “Spy Catcher” incidents, the other failed “Official Secrets Acts” cases.

Then look back a little further to the Labour Government before them and what on “Jack Straw” was up to (yes the same Jack Straw who is papering over the cracks of doggy legislation under the current encumberants).

There was a fairly famous case about “rent boys”, “murdered dogs” and a “senior liberal” politician with a “male friend”.

Turns out Jack Straw was a “very busy boy” pulling tax and national insurance records of some of those involved to be used for political reasons… (you can check all of this out with the bods over at the UK’s Gaurdian Newspaper you occasionaly write for).

So when you want examples of Politicians with “Previous” (as the Police are want to call it) for abusing the privercy rights of UK citizens you can start with Jack Straw, then go onto Ken Livingston (Ex London Mayor responsable for Transport for Londons DB policy which amongst other things got him) put up for a “Privacy International” “Big Brother” award. Simon Davies of Privacy International has some interesting things to say about “Uncle (red) Ken”.

Sufficet to say that Labour Politicians have always (acording to them) had an uneasy relationship with the UK Security forces. However Labour are “so in awe” of the various UK Security Forces that they are more than willing to “gift them” legislation (that invariably the Security Forces either do not ned or do not want). Usually just to be seen to “Be Tough on Crime” and almost invariably it backfires on them…

uk visa lawyer April 9, 2009 4:28 AM

One of the great levellers in terms of balance between people and state has been technology – namely the video camera, now available to many people on their mobile. Rodney King and now the unfortunate man at G20 are testament to this.
I suspect that sometimes politicians in the government have encouraged the police to seek to extend their powers just so the government can appear to be tough on law. Anybody who has had direct involvement with politicians will have experience of the Machiavellian nature of the beasts.
Like most people in Britain I would trust our police before trusting our politicians – Willy Whitelaw included.

cdmiller April 10, 2009 9:50 AM

@uk visa lawyer
Unfortunately cameras don’t have teeth. Since the UK populace is disarmed, the police state holds all the cards…

Alex April 10, 2009 6:43 PM

Willie Whitelaw did not have these concerns when using the police force and the secret services on the miners’ strike. He may have discovered them in retirement; output, only, counts.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.