The good ol’ days 

6 March 2007

Life on Mars

Apart from the retro continuity, mucking about with Test Card F and other trivia of interest to us pres geeks, Life on Mars offers a fascinating look back to another world.

It’s actually quite an apt name. For those of us who recall with distaste the reports of police brutality and miscarriages of justice, the 1970s – when dinosaurs walked the earth – may as well be life on Mars.

Peter Hitchens, in his book The Abolition of Liberty: The Decline of Order in and Justice in England, argues that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), with its reams of regulations, procedures and rules of evidence, hamstrings the police, makes a mockery out of law-abiding citizens faced with the ne’er-do-well, and is a licence for the wrondoer, aided by his bent solicitors, to get away scott-free. In previous years, he continues, the police may have kept order using rough-and-ready methods, but they preserved order, kept the streets clean and respected the respectable of all classes.

I have a lot of time for many – but by no means all – of Mr Hitchens’ arguments, such as the return of preventative policing as typified by the bobby on the beat, but Life on Mars is enough both to highlight the ugly side of the halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s and to demonstrate once again, as if such evidence were needed, that reforms to the police were required. The Confait case helped ensure that PACE got on the statute book, and high-profile cases such as the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, et. al. reinforced the need for proper rules of evidence. I don’t know how typical Life on Mars is of police procedures as practiced day to day, or of social attitudes in general, but the blatant anti-Irish prejudices, macho posturing, assumptions that a dog once given a bad name should be hanged almost without the formality of a trial, and a tendency to view anyone showing concern with bad practice as a wimpish, bleeding-heart liberal are all facets of the police that, one hopes, are, if not gone for ever, then at least suppressed within the lower echelons of the rank and file, and voiced apologetically, if at all.

Although Mr Hitchens might demur, some areas have improved, and dramatically. Public, and official, attitudes, to homosexuality and soft drugs are far more relaxed now. That your work colleague shared a spliff with his boyfriend last night is now so passé as to pass almost without comment, and not before time too. People have far more freedom for self-expression; the internet provides hitherto unheard-of opportunities for social networking; the economy is on a stable footing. Industrial relations are more harmonious; the closed shop and wildcat strikes are things of the past; and unemployment is steady at an acceptably low level.

It’s all to easy to entertain an almost Shangri-La view of the distant past. Programmes such as Life on Mars provide a welcome antidote. This isn’t, of course, to say that everything is rosy now; far from it. The decision to abandon the teaching of grammar – a subject close to my own heart – in schools was ludicrous and the consequences are now clear to see for anyone who encouters others’ efforts with the written and printed word. Respect for one’s elders and for authority is in tatters. Violent crime – if the news reports are to be believed, in particular knifings and shootings, and especially in London’s black community – is worse than it was thirty or forty years ago. And although the unions arguably had, and abused, too much power in the past, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far the other way and needs a corrective push back to the middle.

The balance between rights and responsibilities is hard to get right. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. As I’ve argued in the occasional political digression on MHP-Chat, everyone should have both the freedom to do what they want, and the moral self-restraint, respect for others and judgement needed to exercise that freedom judiciously. Of course, as this isn’t a perfect world, laws are still needed. The police, or at least some sections thereof, lacked that self-restraint so PACE had to be introduced. Similarly, factors such as the Children Act 1989, and an increasing tendency by the police to treat the adult in any dispute with a minor with suspicion, have arguably resulted in the growth of a lack of respect shown by kids to teachers, parents and authority figures to such an extent that a correction will be required at some point down the line. Something is clearly wrong when a home-owner, in the isolated countryside, is repeatedly burgled and the police don’t want to know, but the moment he acts in self-defence the full weight of the criminal justice system is thrown at him. There was a case some time ago in which a respectable, middle-class wife was repeatedly harrassed by a gang of kids. Finally, driven to despair, she fired an air-rifle at the ground near their feet; guess who the police made out to be the guilty party? And a land-owner who, having caught some kids trespassing by a pond, made them repair the damage they’d caused to a fence was arrested on charges of kidnapping! It would be laughable if it wasn’t so lamentable.

Mr Hitchens contrasts policing attitudes between this country and the United States. Many parts of America are so remote that the nearest police patrol can take up to an hour to respond to the scene of a crime. There, you either look after yourself or perish. Homeowners are often armed, and are fully expected to hold the law in their hands, from where it has never been taken. A would-be intruder who disturbs the peace and cops a bullet receives scant sympathy from the forces of law and order. Any person doing that here would be deemed a vigilante and condemned for “taking the law into his own hands”. A strange expression indeed. When Sir Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan Police, the idea of the police constable was of someone who was paid to do what he might otherwise have done voluntarily out of public-spiritedness. The police constable had few powers that ordinary citizens didn’t. A far cry from the all-powerful cops of today, for whom the very notion that everyone still has the power of arrest is an affront to their perogative.

No sane person is arguing for the return to 1970s attitudes as typified by Life on Mars, but few would argue that in this respect the status quo is acceptable either. Unfortunately, the excesses of both social liberalism and social conservatism have led to the state of affairs that we have now: in which grown men are scared to tackle kids vandalizing a bus shelter for fear either of being knifed or of gaining a criminal record; in which nobody dares assert any moral values; in which the “right” to swear in public or to spit on the pavement trumps all notions of public moral rectitude; and in which the stiff upper lip has given way to the unthinking frenzied hysteria we saw following the death of Princess Diana. “Oh, my mother died last year but this has affected me so much more,” one person is quoted as saying. Really, it beggars belief.

Some deeply unfashionable opinions, I know. To wrap this up and drag it vaguely back on-topic, I recall reading an account of a speech Dr David Starkey gave to (I think) the Royal Television Society, some time after the Hutton débâcle. I haven’t got the account to hand at present, but from memory he gave a rather disparaging account of current attitudes in the media to news and current affairs, and, apart from one lone member of the audience applauding vigorously, was thanked by, for a real controversialist as opposed to a talk-show phoney, the most pleasing sound imaginable: a deafening silence. With Greg Dyke sitting in the front row, arms crossed, staring at the ceiling with a fixed expression on his face, Dr Starkey concluded: “Sorry, this has all been rather sombre, I know. I’m not just a media entertainer, you see. I still have a residual notion that what was taught in this hall all those years ago, that serious academic research, that thinking the unthinkable, are important, even in front of an audience that doesn’t want to hear it.”

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Liverpool, Saturday 6 August 2022