We are presently witnessing the converging effects of three seminal achievements of the British government of 36 years ago. Taken together they point to a dystopian not-so-distant future the important elements of which are with us already. Regrettably, the time to try and avoid it would have been some point before 1984.
1984 was the year of the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act, which helped transform the police into a politically correct virtue signalling service, and destroyed any residual criminal deterrent capability that once kept the public safe. The PACE Codes of Practice released a flood of rules and restrictions on the police, ensuring that the bulk of their job would henceforth consist in filling out paperwork. The underlying motivation in imposing these regulations was a lack of trust in the police on the one hand, and on the other, a belief that all crime is a side effect of poverty, racism or oppression, which demands a solution via structural and social change, not preventative policing. The Act must not have gone far enough because its passage only increased the distrust of the police and presaged a rise in crime over the ensuing decades.
Prior to 1984 the police could act with a degree of independence as members of the public, paid to prevent crime, unarmed but in uniform. This position was entirely dependent on a relationship of trust between the police and the public. The only restriction on the police was the law — the same law to which we all are subject — and if a policeman broke the law he could be charged and prosecuted. But since 1984, police spend most of their time complying with the bureaucratic minutiae of the Act, bending over backwards to treat suspects well, while treating victims worse, trying to avoid any grounds for accusations of brutality or abuse of power. The police now invest more time and resources into convincing the rest of us how woke and inclusive they are than they do in catching bad guys. Seated at computers, they investigate ‘non-crime hate incidents’ with the efforts they once put into preventing crime by walking the beat. These days they only walk on eggshells.
1984 was also the year of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, which the current government has used to justify the most repressive action against the British public in modern history: the coronavirus ‘lockdown’. Leaving aside the as yet unanswered question of constitutionality, the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations are a piece of delegated legislation, imposed under the powers granted in the 1984 Act, that have kept the people of Britain under effective house arrest, unable to go outside without a ‘reasonable excuse’. The regulations have forced the closure of businesses and schools and removed the ancient freedoms of religion and assembly. With this 1984 statute as justification, we live in a new normal where the law, once seen as the property of the public, has become the enemy of the public. Liberty is now treated as something that can be granted or removed on a cabinet minister’s whim.
The police, in their keen enforcement of these regulations, have been given an opportunity to show the public that they have another side to the woke paper pushers described above. A tale of two protests reveals the two sides of the police. Both protests violated the regulations, and both resulted in arrests. But only the protest against the lockdown met with a police attempt at suppression. On this peaceful occasion the police, in numbers as great as the protesters, were deemed the good guys in doing the bidding of Big Brother. (One officer was filmed jumping on a black man with his knees during an arrest, to almost no subsequent outrage.) The other protest was against the police themselves, prompted by the killing of George Floyd. In the face of this protest the police did not try to disperse the illegal gathering or enforce any lockdown regulations, despite the fact that this illegal protest involved violence against the police as well as vandalism. Instead they merely tried harder to assure the insatiable protesters of their woke contrition by bending the knee in pathetic apology for their ‘white privilege’.
The significance of the change heralded by PACE was therefore two-pronged: the police shifted from being members and defenders of the public to enforcers of the executive’s will, and at the same time, devoted themselves to the futile placation of the woke Left and to ever-insufficient worship at the altar of political correctness. Faced with protests against the authoritarian lockdown brought about by the other 1984 Act, they are tough and draconian and somehow escape criticism; presented with protests against themselves, the police are penitent and pathetic but irredeemable.
It is hard to make sense of. But understood in light of the Marxist ideology that’s fuelling it, these two police identities can be reconciled as the consequence of a sort of revolutionary boomerang. We have thrown away the old police and are getting back a new sort of police with an entirely different function, composed of these two seemingly contradictory identities. The old police — whatever vestiges of them remain — are hated more than ever by the very people they are doing everything in their power to please. The more woke the police get, the more the radical Left despises them.
A recent article in the New York Times revealed the end game, advocating the abolition of the police (meaning the old kind) altogether. Perhaps the reason these protests are reaching fever pitch now is not police brutality or racism at all but the fact that these utopians are the closest they have ever been to burying traditional policing for good. In the progressive ideology crime, as mentioned, is a sickness, caused by oppression and economic disadvantage, certainly not by the malevolent or irresponsible decisions of free individuals. The old kind of police must therefore yield absolutely to social workers who will cure the sickness alongside necessary structural change. But these same Marxists also seek to assume control of the government, at which point they will require some sort of state force that is not publicly acknowledged — a secret police, if you will — to impose their agenda.
Although the erosion of trust in the police began much earlier, with the abolition of foot patrols, PACE codified and universalised that distrust, and has ensured that the police spend almost no time on old-fashioned police work. Meanwhile, the lockdown has given them a chance to show their potential as the state’s secret police. This is not something that’s going to happen; it’s already happening. The framework for this was prepared in 1984 and the transition is already mostly accomplished; the emphasis on ‘hate crime’ has resulted in the police investigating people at an alarming rate for saying supposedly hurtful things on the internet — what might be called thoughtcrime. Enforcing thought and speech is only necessary for ideological purposes. And this particular ideology appears to be transforming Britain into something more like the People’s Republic of China.
Funny I should mention China. 1984 was also the year of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, by which the UK transferred Hong Kong’s sovereignty over to the People’s Republic, to take effect in 1997. The ‘one country, two systems’ concept was intended to protect Hong Kong’s democratic independence for 50 years. Since then Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong has gradually tightened, but now Beijing has decided suddenly to assert its power early, imposing draconic subversion laws on Hong Kong and suppressing free speech. It was always unlikely that China would adhere to the treaty, and this was admitted by Lu Kang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2017: ‘the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover.’
Boris Johnson has announced a twelve-month ‘pathway to citizenship’ for the three million Hong Kongers who are eligible for British National (Overseas) passports. But emigration requires a ‘certificate of no criminal conviction’ issued by the Hong Kong Police. What happens when Hong Kongers are charged and convicted of the new laws imposed by Beijing? Will they be prevented from leaving? These new laws target actions related to subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference, and provide for the creation of new government agencies in Hong Kong — potentially even secret police to enforce these laws. It sounds remarkably similar to the future we’re building in Britain.
These three government actions from 1984 have, in one way or another, resulted in the restricting of freedom, the undermining of public safety, and the strengthening of state power for both the people of Britain and their brethren in Hong Kong. PACE signified the pivoting of the police force from defenders of the public peace to enforcers of state decree. Any residual commitment to public safety is gradually being destroyed by accusations of ‘systemic racism’, propelled by a horrifying groupthink across media, politics, academia, and the public. The Public Health Act was intended to protect the public from viral disease but has now been used to impose an unprecedented suppression of liberties. And the Sino-British Joint Declaration handed the free people of Hong Kong, for whom the British still bear ethical and legal responsibility, over to the Chinese communist dictatorship, one of the most oppressive governments in the world — which the British government is evidently trying to emulate.
These were achieved not by left-wing revolutionaries, nor even by the Labour Party, but by a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. And the present lockdown has been imposed not by the socialist Corbynite regime that might have been, but by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. In his offer of refuge to Hong Kong’s BNO passport holders, the Prime Minister’s response to China’s recent actions has been commendable, but it is only necessary because of 1984. And while the three million Hong Kongers eligible for Britain’s offer will certainly be better off under British than Chinese rule, it’s worth asking, given the other effects of 1984, whether the UK’s future is going to be all that different from China’s present. Perhaps it is not as bad as that, but even so, the year 1984 certainly marked a tectonic shift in Britain from the nation of liberty it once was to something rather more — what is the word? — Orwellian.
If only there had been some warning.