Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Are we there yet?

Anyone who has ever had to take children anywhere is familiar with that constantly recurring question. The answer is usually: nearly there or just a little way to go.

The question has been in my mind on the subject of policing. Like many other people I remember the Paris police some years ago, with the flics sitting in their mobile cages, waiting for a chance to take their resentments out on those who passed them with disdain. I also remember the militiamen (or millymen, as we called them) in Moscow in the last months of the Soviet Union.

Friends and colleagues who have worked in the European Parliament have told me of the unreality of entering a building, which was cut off from the rest of the city mentally and surrounded by barbed wire and armoured vehicles physically.

Through all this I, like so many, smirked in a superior fashion and thought of our own friendly police. Not very efficient, to be sure, but superlative in crowd control and, above all, not a breed apart. Well, I smirk no longer. Are we there yet? Nearly there.

On Monday I had to walk through the corridors of Parliament in pursuit of some amendments to a piece of legislation that is going through the House of Lords and other matters. To my shock I encountered one or two armed or, at least, heavily encumbered with hardware police officers at every single door. These were not the usual friendly security officers but definitely the British equivalent of les flics. Together with the armed police inside and outside the entrances they gave the place an air of a mini-police state. As I told friends in a shocked tone, I had not encountered anything like this since those weeks in Moscow a year or so before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Are we there yet? Nearly there.

Yesterday I found that Parliament Square was completely closed off, with large numbers of police officers milling all round it. Rather wildly I thought of a plan of running tours for Londoners in the area, so they can see real live police officers in action: chatting to people, preventing them from crossing roads, telling them the time, all the things we have forgotten.

Why were they doing this? Because the Hunting Bill was having its Second Reading in the House of Lords and, who knows, there might have been a demonstration. In fact, there was not a single demonstrator. Why would there be? The House of Lords was going to have a serious debate (again) and the Countryside Alliance adopted a different strategy: that of letter writing and sending out political briefs. It seems nobody bothered to tell the police. So they poured their forces there and closed off Parliament Square for the benefit of half a dozen opponents of hunting who stood outside the Treasury, peaceably carrying placards and stuffed animals. Hardly a danger to the realm.

In the evening I listened to a talk given by Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch and newspaper proprietor, a refugee from Putin’s Russia. In reply to a question about whether Russians are ready for democracy he said that in his opinion Russians were perfectly capable of living their own lives and running their own businesses but they had not reached the next stage, being able to fight for the right to do all those things. He compared that with Britain where nearly half a million people went out on the streets to protest against the banning of foxhunting. None of the glum audience present bothered to point out the obvious fact that it did them no good at all.

Berezovsky then added that actually, the differences between the two political systems were not so great. In the West riots were greeted with rubber bullets, in Russia with real ones. In the audience we looked at each other and found it impossible to dismiss such a wild allegation with a smirk.

Are we there yet? Just a little way to go.

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