The Convention on Modern Liberty held earlier this month was an attempt to counter the State using the threat of terrorism to restrict civil liberties.

Early in March meetings took place in London and seven other cities across the United Kingdom, launching the largest ever campaign against the erosion of civil rights and the dangers of increasing surveillance techniques. The main gathering was the Convention on Modern Liberty, in London. It was linked by video to the parallel events in the other cities. Speakers were from a wide range of backgrounds, including politicians from different parties, lawyers, authors and journalists.

The strength of support for the Convention was a significant indication of increasing concern about a threat to civil liberties, driven by what Helena Kennedy, a leading human rights lawyer, described as a climate of fear of terrorism. There was strong criticism of government policy, and a claim by David Davis, a leading Conservative Member of Parliament, that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary in Gordon Brown’s government, was leading a “piecemeal and casual erosion” of freedom.

Growing concerns

In assessing that comment one must obviously take into account the fact that Mr. Davis and Mr. Straw are on opposite sides of the political fence. The fact nevertheless remains that concerns about civil liberties, and about the increasing intrusion of the State, have been growing, and that those expressing them are not just politicians who might be accused of having axes to grind. The speakers at the Convention, for example, included Lord Bingham, a retired senior judge, and Mr. Ken Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions. A few weeks ago, Dame Stella Rimington, a former head of the Security Service, M I 5, accused the Government of exploiting people’s fear of terrorism to restrict civil rights. Last month, there was much criticism of the fact that police have been given the power to hack into personal computers without a court warrant.

Against this background, a report by the independent think tank Reform, published at about the same time, is of considerable interest. It argues that police forces in England and Wales are failing to deliver results against the most serious crimes. It claims that the structure of the police — 43 forces operated as “fiefdoms” run by Chief Constables who were only accountable to “weak” police authorities — is obsolete, and suggests a reorganisation into about 95 smaller forces. A major point in this argument is that smaller forces could “properly reflect their local communities”.

For those of us with fairly long memories, the Reform report induces a sense of déja vu. Until the 1960s, there were, in fact, many small police forces. A policy of amalgamations took place essentially for two reasons — greater efficiency deriving from greater resources, and a move away from cosy, in-bred units. The dangers from this in-breeding were highlighted in a famous case in 1958, (which I covered as a reporter on The Times). The chief constable and two other officers of the then, small, Brighton police force were accused of conspiracy to defeat justice. (The chief constable was acquitted, but held by the judge to be unfit to run a police force. The other two officers were convicted.)

One problem at that time was that it was possible for a police officer’s whole career to be in one force and for him (it was then always “him”) to reach the top job without moving outside the force. Clearly, there was a real possibility for close relations to develop with local criminals.

The amalgamations of the 1960s made the procedure for selecting senior officers more professional. (It was a procedure in which I was involved for 10 years). It also made it impossible for anyone to serve as assistant, deputy and chief constable in one force without moving to another as part of that promotion progress.

Retrograde move

It would, I believe, be a deeply retrograde step simply to return to a galaxy of very small police forces. That is not to say, however, that the Reform proposals should not be taken seriously. In assessing them, careful thought would need to be given to the minimum size of an effective force, and to appropriate arrangements for ensuring wide and varied experience for senior police officers (for example by movement between forces, as at present).

The strongly attractive feature of the Reform proposals lies in “proper reflection of local communities”. Clearly, it would be important to ensure that the police did not become the tools of local politicians, but greater local accountability would do something to reduce central political influence. It is that — the “police State” fear — which is at the heart of the concerns reflected by the Convention on Modern Liberty.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: