People always jump whenever I draw parallels between any state at the moment and that of Nazi Germany. To some degree everyone tends to simply think about Nazi Germany as it was by 1944: a state at war carrying out extermination of millions of people. Obviously, that is an important aspect to remember, but the obsession with that phase means that people overlook very important lessons from earlier in the Nazi regime, for example 1933-6 before the state moved to a war setting and the authoritarian period that preceded it, 1930-3. It is unlikely that the UK or any other European state will ever return to the kind of behaviour of Nazi Germany in the mid-1940s (though the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s showed how easy it can be) but it is far more possible that states will take the first few steps towards an authoritarian or totalitarian regime and it is those steps, those policies being put into place that people looking at democracies in the 2010s need to be aware of.
With that caveat, you might wonder what issue has attracted my attention that I see parallels between the UK today and Germany in the 1930s. The issue is the apparent seizing of control over the (London) Metropolitan police service by the Deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse. Malthouse is an elected member of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and was given the position of deputy mayor for policing by the directly-elected Mayor, Boris Johnson. Malthouse was formerly Deputy Leader of Westminster Council responsible for the council's finances, 1998-2003.
It became clear earlier this year that Johnson and his team wanted greater control over the Metropolitan police service. Unlike all other constabularies in the UK the Metropolitan Police is not headed by a Chief Constable, but by the Home Secretary, who, however appoints a Commissioner as operational head. To some degree all of this goes back to the role the Metropolitan Police played historically as I have highlighted in my articles on the Great Upheaval of 1910-11. Being the largest force they often supplied officers across the country to bolster local forces in times of trouble. They were often called in to investigate serious crimes particularly murders, in various parts of the country, often far from London. Thus, whilst not being a national police force they used to often play that role though it is one that has declined greatly in the post-war era.
Thus, a contest over who controls the Metropolitan police is really a battle between Conservative-run Greater London Authority and the Labour government with the police service as the 'football' between them. Ironically this turns on its head the similar tension between the Labour-run Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher which led to the abolition of the GLC in 1986. London was without a central authority until the creation of the GLA in 2000 and ironically the last leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone was elected the first Mayor and head of the GLA. Trying to run London without central authority caused immense difficulties as anyone who lived or drove through London witnessed in that period (roadworks were not co-ordinated between different boroughs and in London with population so high you cross borough lines every few minutes at that time often from one set of roadworks to another).
The first steps to greater GLA control came with the resignation of Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in October 2008, citing lack of support from Johnson who had been elected five months earlier. To a great degree it was believed that Blair was resistant to Johnson's wish for greater political control of the London police and so was pressured to leave. Things, this month, have taken a step further with Malthouse, saying he and Johnson now 'have our hands on the tiller' of the Metropolitan police and have an electoral mandate to influence what it does. Furthermore he said that they had had 'elbowed the Home Office out of the picture' and would not simply comply with Metropolitan Police proposals: 'We do not want to be a passenger on the Met cruise' he said. Despite his ineffectual nature and the corruption of many of his deputies, it is clear that Johnson relishes power. However, it has become quickly apparent that Johnson is the pioneer for further steps of this nature.
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party who seems absolutely confident that he will become prime minister in 2010, has outlined the policy of having elected heads of all constabularies. This is sold on the basis that it will reduce Home Office bureaucracy and allow greater accountability to the local community (or certainly to those who are not marginalised and can make a fuss). Of course, you will find quite strict controls over the electoral process as Cameron would not want an active Muslim as the new head of the West Midlands or the Greater Manchester constabularies as might be the case in a free election.
Unsurprisingly, these steps have attracted resistance from the police. Ian Johnston, President of the Police Superintendants' Association (superintendants and chief superintendants run local police and detective units; they can be considered middle management in the police structure) has portrayed the approach as risking the world renown of the UK police service for 'short-term political dogma'. Now, people on the left like me, see the police as a very conservative force in society anyway and their response to the G20 protests this year which resulted in the police murdering a passerby as well as the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in 2005, just heightens that sense. So, if they feel that a right-wing Conservative policy is going too far, then you know it must be pretty extreme. Back in the early 1990s I remember talking to liberal police officers (they do exist, there are police who do still see themselves as having a role in guarding rather than repressing society) who were worried by what they saw as the politicisation of the service back then and we have gone much further since.
So, what has any of this to do with the Third Reich? Germany in the 1930s had a police system very similar to the UK model, i.e. decentralised. This in part had come about because the German state was a federation of various other states which retained their own police forces. There was an imbalance as after 1866 Prussia constituted two-thirds of Germany so Prussian police forces covered a great deal, if not all of the country. As in the UK, detectives from the capital, Berlin in Prussia, would be called into to tackle serious murder cases in other German states.
When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, they obviously were keen to take full control of the police system. They created a rival body in the SA (Sturmabteilung), their paramilitary group which almost immediately set up their own illegal prisons and the first concentration camps. However, step-by-step 1933-6 the Nazis began to bring the police forces of Germany under political control. In March 1933, Heinrich Himmler became Police President of the Munich police and Commander of the political police (these units had existed in a number of German states since the late 19th century and were responsible for monitoring revolutionaries and reactionaries and anyone who threatened the political status quo) across the whole of Bavaria, the largest of the German states outside Prussia. In September 1933 Himmler became head of the political police in all German states except Prussia. In Prussia he became Head of the Prussian Police and its political division (the 'Gestapo' from GEheim STAats POlizei, i.e. secret state police) though in theory he was under Hermann Goering who had been Minister of the Interior for Prussia since January 1933. It was not until 17th June 1936, three-and-a-half years after the Nazis had come to power that Himmler became head of all police forces across Germany. He merged the detective units, the so-called Kripo (KRIminalPOlizei) with the Gestapo to create the Sipo (SIcherheitsPOlizei - security police). The Orpo (ORdnungspolizei - order police), the uniformed sections remained separate but still under Himmler.
Himmler already headed the SS and had created the SD (Sicherheitsdienst - security service) as an intelligence organisation to monitor Nazi party members though it turned into a counter-espionage unit. The final stage of politicisation of the German police came in 1939 when the RHSA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt - Reich Security Central Office) merged the SD and Sipo effectively making the police an arm of the Nazi party.
Now, I am not saying that David Cameron intends that by 2015, the UK police will be an arm of the Conservative Party, but what is important to note are the steps that led up to Himmler taking control in 1936. Cameron would contest that he would weaken the Home Office and reduce centralisation. However, given the people likely to be elected to run the different constabularies, it is likely that they will get guidance from the Conservative government, and recognising that they need to maintain their position by popular vote are going to press policies that they know the public are sympathetic to. We all know that in a referendum the UK would be compelled to leave the EU, the death penalty would be re-introduced, paedophiles castrated and all people from ethnic minorities would be expelled from the country. Thus, the likely step is that we see more radical policies aimed at those that people that the 'silent majority' despise and are whipped up to hate by the tabloid media. What would be interesting is, if in some areas of the country where left-wing radicalism lives on a truly liberal head of police was elected and police policies such as use of the over-use of sus laws against ethnic minority men and the blocking of protestors from reaching sites would be challenged. I could imagine that happening in Liverpool and Glasgow. Presumably in that situation, the Cameron government would find some excuse to take direct control away from that particular elected head. Do not be deluded that election of heads of police means no central control, it will just be a different approach to a more explicit control.
To some degree I do not know why Cameron feels he has to grab this control of the police. They basically follow a very conservative line anyway. Individual chief constables may not follow the Conservative Party manifesto to the letter, but as we saw with the G20 protests they are more than happy to intervene forcefully against and perceived threat to the status quo. The police have not balked at imposing the anti-terrorism legislation though it has effectively brought house arrest to people who have not been convicted of anything; similarly they have no trouble tracking 'escaped' asylum seekers from places like Campsfield House. To some degree because Tony Blair took a number of steps towards an authoritarian state and Gordon Brown has not reversed these, to appear more conservative, Cameron has to go further. Perhaps he genuinely believes in democracy, but I am increasingly feeling he sees it as a faulty system that gives too much of a voice to those people he feels should not have a voice because they only make foolish decisions.
The UK will not become the Third Reich reborn, but there are lessons from German history about how a decentralised police service can be centralised and politicised step-by-step that are useful for us to bear in mind at a stage when Boris Johnson begins to assert political control over the largest police force in the UK, not that different from what Hermann Goering did in Berlin in 1933.