Can We Stop Britain Becoming a Police State?

31 March 2021

Small-group action is not enough. We need a mass movement. Neil Faulkner writes on strategies for the defence of democracy.

It really is that serious. Take the latest development: a body the mainstream media calls ‘the police watchdog’ has just announced that officers at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard acted ‘appropriately’. Apparently, they ‘did their best to peacefully disperse the crowd; police officers remained calm and professional when subjected to abuse, and police officers did not act inappropriately or in a heavy-handed manner’.

I was there. I know this is a lie. I saw what happened. At around 6.30 pm, police barged through the crowd onto the bandstand to stop people speaking and start making arrests. When the crowd – several thousand strong, the great majority young women – became angry, they sent in more police. Then they sent in snatch squads and formed phalanxes to haul arrestees across the Common to waiting police vans.

The chants said it all: ‘Police stand down’, ‘You do not protect us’, ‘You are the problem’, and ‘This is a vigil: we do not need your services’.

Why were the police there at all? Why did they choose to attack the vigil? Why did they turn a peaceful, respectful, dignified event to remember a young woman murdered by a cop into a confrontation?

The chants said it all: ‘Police stand down’, ‘You do not protect us’, ‘You are the problem’, and ‘This is a vigil: we do not need your services’.

Because they were ordered to by Home Secretary Priti Patel and Met Chief Cressida Dick, or so we are led to believe, for the report is that Patel was on the phone to Dick on the night, and Dick, in turn, was in contact with her commanders on the ground.

By the end, there were thousands of young women chanting anti-police slogans – including ‘Fascist police’ and ‘Fuck the police’ – and giving clenched fist salutes.

It was a public-relations disaster for the police. Patel – a thoroughly nasty piece of work who is not only an anti-migrant racist and workplace bully but also a serial liar – immediately dumped on Dick by questioning the very police tactics she had ordered.

The state’s crass mishandling of the vigil has given birth to a wider movement against police power, with local protests in dozens of towns, and, most notably, a series of clashes between militarised police and young people on the streets of Bristol, where the cops have used batons, shields, pepper spray, dogs, horses, and vehicles on unarmed crowds protesting the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, the Tory blueprint for a police state.

Enter the grandly titled Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) – what the press dubs ‘the police watchdog’. It is no such thing. It is an arm of the bourgeois state. It is run by safe pro-Establishment figures appointed by the Prime Minister and Home Secretary. Its website proclaims its role to be ‘promoting improvements in policing and fire & rescue services to make everyone safer’. This is false. Its remit is not ‘to make everyone safer’. Its remit is to ensure the smooth running of the state in its primary role of repression.

We can leave fire & rescue to one side. We are all in favour of efficient fire & rescue services: they are an unqualified social good. But the bourgeois state brackets fire & rescue with a very different kind of ‘service’: the police.

The role of the state

Marx and Engels, writing in the 19th century, defined the state as ‘armed bodies of men’ (and nowadays some women). Lenin, at the time of the Russian Revolution, revived the classical Marxist theory in his State and Revolution, proclaiming the necessity for the existing repressive state apparatus to be overthrown and a new kind of state-created, a popular state, based on mass participatory democracy, controlled from the bottom by ordinary people.

The core role of the existing state remains unchanged. It is a repressive mechanism – an infrastructure of police, courts, prisons, detention-centres, fortified borders, and back-up military forces – always on standby to deal with any form of dissent, protest, or resistance that threatens the system. And by the system, I mean the capitalist system that, on the one hand, enriches a tiny corporate elite, and on the other, visits social and ecological devastation on the mass of humanity.

Stripped to its bare essentials, the role of the police is to defend the interests of the few against the demands of the many. And because they are few, and we are many, they deploy to the streets as a militarised force, as organised violence, as a machine designed, equipped, and trained for physical repression.

But naked repression is liable to provoke opposition. The attack on the Sarah Everard vigil has backfired, and the HMICFRS attempt to whitewash the police violence has missed the mood. An opinion poll last week showed that 45% of UK adults feel the police are not properly held to account when they do wrong (against 21% who thought they were).

Now, this is a long way from majority support for popular resistance to police attacks, but it is also a long way from a full-throated endorsement of Tory plans to create a police state. That is why the former head of Durham police, supported by some other senior police figures, has questioned the need for a new bill and the associated shift to more paramilitary forms of policing.

It is why many mainstream politicians are not giving the police unequivocal support – like the Green Party candidate for Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner in the upcoming May elections, who says, ‘It’s easy to blame the rioters, but in our hearts we know the situation is more complex, and Bristol has often been at the forefront of these movements, with a strong history of protest and dissent.’

Most notable is the way in which the youth revolt against the new bill has stalled the great-moving-right-show that is Starmer’s Labour Party. Starmer, who is now to the right of Blair, making him the most right-wing leader in the history of the party, was originally planning to have Labour MPs abstain on the bill. A bill, let us remind ourselves, that will allow the police to decide who can demonstrate, where, and when, and how, and which will enshrine draconian sentences for all effective protest – like, for example, pulling down the statue of a slave-trader, or blocking the road to stop the corporations destroying the planet.

Starmer, who is now to the right of Blair, making him the most right-wing leader in the history of the party, was originally planning to have Labour MPs abstain on the bill.

Now Starmer has suddenly decided that he is ‘opposed’ to the bill, and Labour MPs were instructed to vote against it on its first reading. The Tories, meantime, have decided to shelve the whole thing, for the time being, hoping the issue will go off the boil. That is the power of protest. That is the work of Sisters Uncut, of the young women who attending the Clapham vigil, and also of the Bristol activists who have stood their ground against the kind of police thuggery we can expect much more of if the Tories get their way.

How do we win?

We are facing a broad-front attack on protest and democracy, a qualitative shift towards a police state because the ruling class anticipates large-scale popular resistance as the social and ecological crisis deepens. We are facing a decade-long battle on a global scale. At stake is whether the capitalist system – the profit machine, the carbon machine, the military machine – will continue to devastate society and the planet, or whether it will be ended by mass, democratic, red-green revolution from below.

On the other hand, naked coercion can only deepen the system’s crisis of legitimacy. The drive towards what William I Robinson calls ‘the global police state’ is therefore paralleled by what we have called ‘creeping fascism’ – a cocktail of nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, militarism, and authoritarianism – designed to build and sustain a reactionary mass base for the politics of the corporate elites and the police states that defend them.

These are the two faces of the neoliberal ruling class in this epoch of crisis: police state and creeping fascism.

But they are few and we are many. More than 80% of the world’s population have no interest in the system – no interest in the enrichment of the 1%, no interest in growing corporate power, no interest in imperialism and war, no interest in the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. But this great mass of humanity – around 6 billion people – is a sleeping giant. It must be roused to revolutionary action. This is the work of fighting vanguards.

Politics works like a series of cogs, small cogs turning medium cogs, medium cogs turning larger cogs. The events of the last three weeks in Britain have provided a clear example in microcosm.

A new part of the prison-house of an embryonic police-state was due for construction. The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill was set for swift enactment. Then several thousand young women responded to Sisters Uncut’s defiance of a police ban on a memorial vigil for Sarah Everard. A tiny cog moving a slightly larger cog.

When the police attacked the vigil, they transformed the vigil into an anti-police demonstration, and that in turn triggered a wider youth revolt against the embryonic police state: a yet bigger cog was now in motion.

First is the deed. It is necessary to act. When a minority takes action, it becomes a vanguard: it exposes injustice and repression, it shows that resistance is possible, it sets an example to others, it triggers a mobilisation of wider forces; or can do.

And such a movement, a small flare-up at first, can sometimes swell into a mighty conflagration. So it was with Black Lives Matter last summer, which grew and grew, sending violent police racism to the top of the political agenda.

First is the deed. It is necessary to act. When a minority takes action, it becomes a vanguard: it exposes injustice and repression, it shows that resistance is possible, it sets an example to others, it triggers a mobilisation of wider forces; or can do.

When such a movement continues to grow, when it inspires others to organise and fight and come into the battle, when it reaches way beyond the vanguard and begins to draw in the mass forces of the entire working class and the oppressed, then we move towards a revolutionary situation, where the question ‘who rules?’ is posed.

That question was posed by the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong before its defeat by the Chinese Stalinist dictatorship. But what if that movement had spread to the mainland? What if the great sleeping giant of the Chinese working class had moved into action alongside the youth of Hong Kong? What then? This is the nightmare that preys on the minds of our rulers.

Can we win? Yes. But not by conspiracies and small-group actions; only by an open fight in the clear light of day, where the aim is to broaden and deepen the movement, to bring the widest possible range of forces, on the widest possible range of issues, into the battle.

Kill the Bill! Everyone to the streets! Maximum mobilisation, all-out resistance, to force the Tories to abandon their blueprint for a police state.

But then forwards, to smash the rest of their framework for a police state, including the anti-union laws, and to assert our right to organise and mobilise, to protest and strike and occupy and blockade and sabotage, just so long as their system threatens us with social and ecological devastation.

The defence of democracy could grow over into a revolutionary struggle for red-green transformation. The stakes are that high.

Neil Faulkner is the author of Creeping Fascism and System Crash. He will be speaking alongside Bristol Unison activist Josh Connor at the Democracy Unchained online event, The Battle for Democracy: Frontline Bristol, at 18.30 on Thursday 8 April (register here).

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