Policy Papers

Britain’s police forces: forever removed from democratic control?

Chris A. Williams |

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Executive Summary

  • Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, police power was largely seen as a responsibility of local government, and police were controlled by the appropriate local institution.
  • After its failed attempt to bring the borough police forces under its control in the 1850s, the Home Office left them alone until the twentieth century, and in this period they enjoyed total autonomy from the centre, and were subject to a high degree of local democratic control, even over 'operational' decisions.
  • The Home Office has consistently aimed to remove policing from local control, exhibiting a lack of faith in the basic principles of local democracy, and a fear of potential influence from left-wingers.
  • During the twentieth century, war brought central government into the day-to-day business of managing forces, and accelerated its efforts to create a homogenous and national profession of senior police officers.
  • Simultaneously, the legitimacy of local variation of any kind was eroded by a growing sense of 'one size fits all' professionalism, alongside which the financial and political position of urban government grew weaker.
  • Between 1919 and 1964 the state tried using 'efficiency', 'economy', and 'national security' as reasons to centralise control, before successfully employing 'corruption' to achieve this.
  • The 1960 Royal Commission was actively steered by the Home Office along its own centralist agenda, resulting in the 1964 Police Act, subsuming city forces into counties, and so replicating the weak systems of local accountability found in the county police forces.
  • Current proposals to increase the local accountability of the police force do not appear to appreciate the previous durability and effectiveness of the history of direct and unlimited democratic control over local forces in British cities, which existed until very recently.


In the mid-nineteenth century, policing power was largely exercised by local government, and the boroughs of England and Wales fiercely protected the police powers exercised by their elected watch committees. These powers were symbolic of the city's independence, and police forces were crucial exercisers of executive power locally, concerning poor relief, licensing laws, the regulation of the streets, and the imposition of morality on the community. Yet in the twentieth century, the boroughs proved unable to stop the progress of the 1964 Police Act, which reduced the once all-powerful watch committees to rump authorities with very little control over their police forces.

Autonomy and centralisation in the nineteenth century

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act introduced ratepayer democracy to the several hundred self-governing towns of England and Wales. The only compulsory statutory duty of the newly-elected councils was to select a watch committee from their number to run the police force. In this self-confident, prosperous, and autonomous urban world, most boroughs introduced uniformed 'new' police forces, or took over existing (often very efficient) forces. The committees had complete power over the activities and composition of their forces. This reform in the towns was matched by rural areas through the introduction of the county police in 1839/40, through acts which gave counties the power to introduce police forces. This act was prompted by long-term concerns over the vagrant poor, amplified by a clique of Utilitarian reformers headed by Edwin Chadwick, and by the immediate threat of the Chartist movement. These forces were controlled by the county bench of magistrates who were the police authority not because of their judicial function, but because they were the local government in the counties. In these forces, the police committee appointed the chief constable, who then ran the force as he saw fit; he was far more independent than his borough counterpart.

The first attempt by the state to reduce the autonomy of the towns and cities came after the 1853 Select Committee on Police, which recommended extending compulsory police provision to all areas. The Home Office were under no doubt that the most efficient way to run each force would be to put it 'under the orders of Government . . . uniform in its organisation and in the principle of its operation': But not for the first or last time, this 'most desirable' outcome was judged even by its proponents to be unworkable, since it would run up against the opposition of jealous local government. In 1854 and 1856 the Home Office's attempts to pass police bills that limited the rights of boroughs to control their own police forces were defeated by the boroughs. Instead, by the 1857 Act, central government paid a quarter of the costs of 'efficient' forces for all towns of more than 5,000 and the only concession by the towns was that they were now subject to Inspectors of Constabulary, who now gave Whitehall eyes in the provinces for the first time (though there were only two inspectors for the whole country and the only part of their reports that the boroughs could not ignore -- if they wanted the grant -- was whether or not the force was of an adequate size).

But in the counties, a precedent was set in 1888 that would have far-reaching consequences. Police were not included in the remit of the newly-created, elected county councils. The dominant Conservative wing of the Unionist government overruled the desires of the Liberal Unionists to replicate the democracy of the cities in the counties. As Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wrote: 'The civilisation of many English counties is sufficiently backward to make it hazardous for the Crown to part with power over the police; even if that power should be looked on as a proper municipal attribute, which I am inclined to doubt.' Hybrid county police authorities -- 'standing joint committees' -- were created, with their membership divided between magistrates and elected members.

The mid to late nineteenth century saw the heyday of independent borough policing. Watch committees, meeting weekly, had the power to hire and fire members of their forces and were prepared to exercise it. The only constraint in this period was a carrot not a stick: the exchequer grant was raised to half the wage costs of efficient forces by the Police (Expenses) Act of 1874. Some borough chiefs managed to gain a degree of autonomy from their committees by virtue of great personal authority. But even this was not enough. In 1890 the limits to local autonomy were tested when a pro-temperance group, the Vigilance Association, gained a majority on Liverpool city council and hence its watch committee. They ordered the city's chief constable, William Nott-Bower, to close down the city's brothels, which though technically illegal, had long been tolerated. Nott-Bower, a highly able officer who had already been used as an advisor on policing matters by the government of Ireland, protested that this would merely spread the problem throughout the city and lead to more police work: but he was over-ruled by the watch committee. Nott-Bower was eventually vindicated when the inhabitants of the areas into which the trade had been displaced put enough pressure on the watch committee that they tacitly reversed their zero-tolerance policy. Democratic accountability had worked.

In the 1890s civil servants were quite prepared to declare that watch committees had very wide legal powers, including the power to veto prosecutions in individual cases. In the city, police power was a vital component in the local exercise of control and administration; police intervened in the lives of urban workers, inspected nuisances, enforced by-laws, and exercised discretion over who could legitimately use highways and public places. Borough police in ceremonial uniforms often led city-based ceremonies, such as the arrival of the assize judge, and kept order during the proceedings.

Increasing centralisation in the twentieth century

The First World War brought an unprecedented degree of central government involvement in policing. During it, the cherished independence of the watch committees could be extinguished at will, and their forces temporarily amalgamated with the counties in the interests of efficiency. With the peace, independence was regained, and doubtless seen as part of the process of returning to normal, but the First World War and the strains it set up on the policing status quo appear to have had a permanent effect on the thinking of the Home Office. In fact the Great War was immediately followed by the great crisis of twentieth-century British policing, the police strikes of 1918-19. The Desborough Committee, set up in response, recommended that police wages be increased, and that they be set centrally for the first time. Driven by the demands of their responsibility to maintain the security of the State, and by the administrative convenience that would result from having to deal with fewer and better understood subordinate units, this corresponded to the long term aims of Home Office intervention, which were consistently to promote the creation of a uniform profession, a nationally homogenous group of men (and later women) who could be trained to do the job without intervention from local government or other intervening 'democratic' bodies.

This approach then led the Home Office to proclaim the independence of chief constables from local government accountability. The decision by Whitehall to support the authority of the independent Chief Constable (both borough and county) was justified by referring to the doctrine that since the ordinary constable was ultimately responsible to the law rather than to his superiors, therefore the Chief Constable was too. Local executive control of the police was therefore portrayed as 'political' and hence suspect. In a speech in November 1928 the Home Office's Permanent Secretary, Sir John Anderson, spelt out that: 'the policeman is nobody's servant . . . it is the Law . . . which is the policeman's master.' In 1930 the contentious decision 'Fisher vs Oldham' declared that the constable was the servant of the Crown, not the local authority. By 1945 the doctrine of 'constabulary independence', though less than thirty years old, was taken as a given to such an extent that the British even tried (unsuccessfully) to impose it in their occupation zone of Germany, despite the protests of bemused German democrats.

Regional and national standing conferences of Chief Constables, effectively the forerunners of today's Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) had been set up in 1919. In the tense atmosphere of the 1920s, the spectre of Bolshevism and the appearance in local government of its apparent (to some) shadow, the Labour Party, led to an increase in political battles between police authorities and their chiefs. Disputes involving Labour-controlled authorities, Monmouthshire and St Helens, were both settled when the Home Office came down against the authority: in the county by withholding funds, and in the borough by setting up an inquiry that exonerated the Chief Constable. The expansion in the 'security state' during the red scares of the early 1920s saw an unprecedented level of peacetime planning for counter-insurgency and maintenance of supplies. The Home Office took increasing responsibility for producing a class of leaders for police forces, and thus intervened increasingly in matters of training, promotion and appointment. The Home Office also began to intervene more in the appointment of Chief Constables. The Hendon Police College, which had a national impact, was set up in 1933. By the 1950s Whitehall introduced a policy of refusing to appoint any Chief Constable who had no experience in a different force: this was clearly designed to create a more nationally homogenous and professionalised group of senior police officers.

In the meantime, the boroughs were changing. The widening municipal franchise rendered their power more problematic in the eyes of the well-off. In the 1920s Labour representatives arrived in numbers on borough councils: by 1939 they controlled 18 out of 83 county boroughs. The civil service fear of 'politicisation' was coloured by prejudice against the left in favour of 'non-political' people. But, as a bitter alderman from Hull pointed out to the Association of Municipal Corporations in 1963, 'you know how "non-political" people vote - they do not vote Labour'. To an extent this fear was tempered by the nature of watch committees in this period. They had a separate administrative and legal existence from the corporation as a whole, and their financial and administrative procedures were seen by other parts of local government as occupying an inner sanctum. The full council could only refuse to vote them money, or sack them en masse. But as well as rendering itself problematic in the eyes of a conservative London 'Establishment', local government was being squeezed by changes in its responsibilities. Over the course of the Second World War, central finance became a larger component of its funding than rates for the first time and, even after the end of wartime exigency, in 1946 the centrally-provided Block Grant was retained in order to meet the problem of geographical inequality in services.

Since 1919 the boroughs had co-operated fully in modernising and homogenising the various police forces, through co-operative training, communication, and laboratories. However, this growing empire of common services merely served to bolster those who doubted that the police were an essentially local organisation. The growing culture of professionalism led to a general respect for expertise and thus a retreat by councillors from close control over technical matters such as policing. By 1964 many of the actual powers enjoyed by watch committees were not being exercised.

'Police corruption' and the 1960 Royal Commission

The process whereby the towns finally lost their police powers completely was played out in the terms of reference, the deliberations, and the conclusions of the 1960 Royal Commission, and the subsequent drafting and debating of the legislation that formed the 1964 Police Act. These were all influenced by the nature of two of the policing scandals of the late 1950s, which gave the Home Office a convenient point of entry with which to attack the status quo.

The first major scandal broke openly in Brighton in 1957 with headlines in the local press reporting the arrival of Scotland Yard detectives to investigate allegations of corruption in the Brighton Borough Police force. Three weeks later, Chief Constable John Ridge was arrested along with two officers of Brighton CID and two members of the public, and charged with a variety of corrupt practices. He was eventually acquitted (unlike his subordinates) but in a scathing statement the trial judge then demonstrated that he thought Ridge far from innocent. Without a change in the leadership of the force, he maintained, the judiciary would feel unable to believe evidence from Brighton police. The boroughs demanded that the powers of the Inspector of Constabulary be enlarged, and that his annual report be sent to the watch committee as well as the Home Secretary. This tactic was an implicit attempt to blame the Home Office for not spotting Ridge earlier. It was, though, also an acknowledgement that watch committees no longer possessed the specialist knowledge that, alone, would enable them to supervise 'their' local police forces on their own.

The second scandal took place in Labour-controlled Nottingham in 1959 when, Chief Constable (and former Black and Tan member) Athelstan Popkess, launched an investigation of twenty Labour councillors. The Town Clerk successfully persuaded him that this was unreasonable, but it was succeeded by another enquiry, responding to groundless allegations that two Labour councillors and the Secretary of the District Labour Party had been bribed on a visit to East Germany. When details of the investigation, known only to the police, were leaked the day before the municipal elections, the Labour group asked for a report on the matter from Popkess. When he refused, they suspended him but Home Secretary Rab Butler immediately ordered them to reinstate him. The Town Clerk maintained that this power was the prerogative of the watch committee, but Butler threatened to withdraw the central government grant, even though the Home Office conceded that the force was not 'inefficient' -- their only legal justification for a withdrawal. By now national Labour Party figures, worried that the events in Nottingham would damage their chances in the forthcoming local elections, persuaded the watch committee to back down.

Other scandals also influenced the formation of the Royal Commission, notably the furore surrounding the cases of the 'Thurso Boy' John Waters, and the dispute between a Metropolitan policeman and the actor Brian Rix. Both of these fuelled an atmosphere of unease about the relationship between the police and the public, and both additionally threw into question the mechanisms whereby the police were accountable. Yet despite its mandate -- to investigate 'the constitution and function of local police authorities; the status and accountability of members of police forces, including chief officers of police; and the relationship of the police and the public and the means of ensuring that complaints by the public against the police are effectively dealt with' -- the Commission skated over the question of the relationship with the public and concentrated on administrative structures. The Home Office agenda from the outset was clear - the Secretary of State should be made more responsible for policing outside London. Watch committees ought to be more like the county police authorities, and thus exercise far fewer powers.

The Commission received evidence that the corrupt dropping of prosecutions was not confined to the borough forces: two county policemen expressed their belief that such a practice prevailed in their forces. Yet it did not recommend changes in prosecution procedure: instead it defined the problem as politicisation in the boroughs. In private correspondence with Commission members, Home Office officials deprecated the position of the boroughs, and instead drew their attention to the submission from the Inns of Court Conservative and Unionist Association (signed by, among others, Leslie Scarman and Margaret Thatcher), which recommended a professional and national force free from 'political' interference. Although the final report of the Royal Commission fudged the issue of what the powers of the watch committees were and ought to be, the Home Office pursued its agenda through the working party that considered the recommendations. By the 1960s the boroughs were finding it hard to articulate a convincing view of localism against the logic of 'efficiency', and if anything they were embarrassed at the extent of their powers: powers that most watch committees had not used for decades.

In May 1963 Home Secretary Henry Brooke, Butler's successor, put forward proposals to eliminate most of the powers of the watch committees, justifying this move with innuendoes about corruption. Brooke 'could not fault the position in the counties and referred to stories that he frequently heard of instances of abuse of power by watch committees. When challenged by the representatives [of corporations] he said that he had not confirmed any such stories'. Unable to reconcile the national exposure of sordid local scandal with the demands of impersonal 'modern' efficiency, the cities were forced to lose the trappings of a local control that had been steadily leached away over the decades by an advancing professionalism. The new police forces followed the counties' geographical borders, and the police authorities followed the county model: only half their members were elected, the rest were appointed; and the Chief Constable was accountable for executive decisions to the Home Secretary in practice, and nobody in theory. The Secretary to the Royal Commission, T.A. Critchley, retired to write a highly successful, though sometimes misleading, history of police in England, which perpetuated the Home Office view of reform as both necessary and inevitable.

A lesson for the present?

The corruption scandals defined certain structures as a problem, but the reform process proceeded not from the nature of the scandals, but from the way the Home Office and the Royal Commission chose to deploy them. 'Efficiency' in 1852, 'national security' in 1919, and 'economy' in the 1920s, had all failed to bring the police under central control. 'Corruption' finally allowed the Home Office to get this on the agenda and thus enabled the centre to legislate in a way that both confirmed and accelerated the triumph of professionalism over urban independence. Before 1964, policing in many parts of the country was democratically controlled. This did not sit well with central government, and thus the Home Office was ever keen to point up the occasions when the system looked like it was broken, rather than to give credit for the extent to which it apparently worked well for most of the rest of the time.

In 2003, the major political parties are trumpeting plans to make police 'accountable to local communities', but the devil is in the details of their proposals. The thought of a return to democratic control does not appear to sit well with many 'reformist' senior police officers, who are keen to allow more public involvement at the fringes of police work, so long as the commanding heights of the sector remain under the tight control of the ACPO ranks.

The Conservative Party has looked across the Atlantic for an inspiration for its own reform ideas, although it has watered down the American example almost completely in subsequent policy proposals, by insisting on retaining a role for unelected members of police authorities.

But rather than look abroad to a system sundered from our own for over two centuries, why not look to our own recent past for inspiration? Just forty years ago, our great cities policed themselves, and they appear to have generally made a good job of it. The process whereby they lost the right to do this was not nearly as clear cut as was made out at the time. Why should we not get back the powers that our parents and grandparents exercised - to vote for (and against, if necessary) the people who hire, fire and direct the enforcers of the law?


Justice and the Community, Liberal Democrat Party policy paper, 2002.

Localisation of the Police Service, Conservative Party consultation paper, 2003.

Building Safer Communities Together, Home Office consultation paper, 2003

Going Local - Who Should Run Britain's Police? B. Loveday and A. Reid, Policy Exchange, January 2003

Further Reading

M. Brogden, The Police: Autonomy and Consent (London: Academic Press, 1982)

T.A. Critchley A History of Police in England and Wales: 900-1966, (London: Constable, 1967)

C. Emsley, The English Police: a Political and Social History (Harlow: Longman, 1996)

J.E. Farquharson 'The British Occupation of Germany 1945-6: A Badly Managed Disaster Area?' in German History V.11, n.3 (1993) 316-338

N. Hayes, Consensus and Controversy: City Politics in Nottingham 1945-66 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996)

L. Lustgarten, The Governance of the Police (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1986)

R. Reiner Chief Constables: Bobbies, Bosses, or Bureaucrats? (Oxford: OUP, 1991)

D. Wall, The Chief Constables of England and Wales: The Socio-Legal History of a Criminal Justice Elite (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998)

C.A. Williams 'Rotten boroughs? How the Towns of England and Wales lost their Police Forces in 1964.' in J. Moore and J.B. Smith, (eds) Urban Corruption (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).


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