Chortling with the cops

There’s a really nasty tone creeping into the press right now, with tabloids and local press following the police’s lead and giving ordinary people a kicking. We’re not quite at Two Minutes Hate just yet, but the trickle of “look at these stupid bastards” stories is starting to become a stream.

A lot of those stories are being fed to them by the police, who are clearly enjoying their new powers: before they’d even come into play, some forces were posting on Twitter with obvious excitement about the new ways in which they’d be able to throw their weight around.

Inevitably, they are now throwing their weight around in ever more inventive ways: spending thousands of pounds on helicopters to see if anybody’s meeting their pals in the park, flying drones around to intimidate people in the street, shaming people on social media for taking a walk in uninhabited areas, and deciding what is and isn’t acceptable shopping.

[Update: less than an hour after I wrote this, the BBC reported that the police were harassing corner shop owners for selling Easter Eggs. The Prime Minister’s office has clarified that if a shop is allowed to be open, it’s allowed to sell anything it has in stock. But the episode underlines the wider problem, which is that some police are overzealous – and some of them are particularly overzealous towards members of minority groups.]

This story, from Plymouth Live, caught my eye.

Oasis might have thought cigarettes and alcohol were the only things worth living for, but police in Plymouth disagree – especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown.

It’s the tone of it that really gets to me. Welcome to “let’s chortle along with the cops”.

And you’ll need to be as rich as the bickering brothers Gallagher to keep puffing away… because just 15 packets of fags could theoretically land you with nearly £2m in fines – because the fines can double each time you flout the rules.

The story is based on social media posts by the local cops, who are happily stopping traffic and demanding to know where people are going – and then declaring whether their journey really is essential based on no law whatsoever.

you cannot just go for a drive, you cannot drive to a destination for exercise, going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential.

They’re pretty essential if you’re a smoker or dependent on alcohol. And it’s not illegal to go to the shop.

It’s important that people follow the government guidelines, but this denouncing of ordinary people as villains when they are not breaking any law really disturbs me. We’re already seeing people calling the cops about their neighbours’ behaviour, often without foundation. There’s a narrative developing in the press where blame is increasingly being put on ordinary people, not those in power.

As commentator David Allen Green wrote on Twitter and later blogged, this is an extraordinary legal situation: overnight, freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship have been made illegal by a law that MPs didn’t vote on. And the police are already exceeding the powers they have been given:

Under Regulation 6(1), it is even now a criminal offence to leave your own home, unless (in effect) the police are satisfied you have a reasonable excuse.

The whole country is thereby (in effect) under house arrest.

The police, in turn, have been given wide powers to enforce these regulations, including the use of coercive force.

And in turn, again, the police are interpreting these wide powers even more widely, with roadblocks, drones, and a made-up restriction on “essential travel”.

The police are also encouraging people to snitch on each other.

On social media there are accusation and counter-accusation, as neighbours turn on each other.

People are afraid of the police, and increasingly of each other.

We all know that power corrupts, that people in authority often overreach and that powers granted in an emergency are often kept long after the emergency is over.


If it were not for this public health emergency, this situation would be the legal dream of the worst modern tyrant.

Everybody under control, every social movement or association prohibited, every electronic communication subject to surveillance.

This would be an unthinkable legal situation for any free society.

Of course, the public health emergency takes absolute priority.

But we also should not be blind to the costs.