The sinister move by the Association of Chief Police Officers (or ACPO) to seek government approval for the purchase and use of water cannon as a means of crowd control on the British mainland was met with widespread alarm when the idea was first mooted in January.
Even more concerning now is the news that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has unilaterally purchased three such devices from the German police in the presumptuous expectation that the Home Secretary will agree to ACPO’s request before Theresa May has had the opportunity to make her decision.
This blog noted at the time that the ACPO’s move was a transparent power play, that there were no serious concerns about impending violent protests in Britain and that even if there were a repeat of the 2011 riots, water cannon would be uniquely unhelpful to the police in containing the disorder:
So what is this really all about? One explanation could be that ACPO are politically agitating, and trying to send a message of their disapproval of coalition austerity policies to the public and their elected representatives, essentially saying “we told you that cutting government spending would lead to chaos and disorder and we were right; now we have to take the draconian step of procuring water cannon to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy”.
This is one plausible possibility – as we have seen only too recently with the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” scandal, there are those in the police force with very hardened agendas who would stop at nothing to discredit or cast doubt on the performance of Conservative ministers.
But in truth, a more convincing explanation is that the police just really fancy having these new toys to scare and intimidate people, that they have decided that building good community relations with the public and doing the hard work of policing large scale events just isn’t worth the effort when they can just bully the public into cowed obedience much more easily.
And so it is. The coalition government’s ‘austerity’ policies have now been in effect for over three years, and have yet to provoke widespread public disorder of any significant kind, other than the usual antics of misbehaving students. Why then does ACPO believe that Britain is a smouldering tinder box about to erupt in an explosive delayed reaction to policies which are old news and have already taken effect?
The Guardian also condemns the Mayor of London’s actions in a stinging editorial, and calls on the Home Secretary to refuse ACPO’s request. This would have the double benefit of standing up for civil liberties and giving the mayor of London a slap in the face for presuming to anticipate her decision:
But this cannot be a matter for City Hall and Scotland Yard alone. The Met has a significance that extends beyond London. Westminster should have a say in what would be a profound decision affecting the rights of the UK citizen and the nature of British policing. The mayor will have his water cannon, but cannot use it without the approval of the home secretary. She should ensure it never leaves the depot.
The Guardian’s second point, that Boris Johnson’s move is of particular concern because the significance of the Metropolitan Police extends well beyond London, is also important. With some chief constables up and down the country agitating for water cannon of their own (though to their credit, some realise their lack of utility in policing normal protests), where the Met goes, others would be certain to follow.
The fact that Boris Johnson (in what he thinks is a conciliatory move) is publicly offering to demonstrate the water cannons supposed safety by being blasted by the newly-acquired water cannon himself is entirely meaningless, unless he intends to be hit directly with the maximum force that the Metropolitan Police will be permitted to use the machines. This is unlikely.
Johnson will almost certainly only submit himself to a light sprinkling from one of the machines at its lowest power setting, and then appear charming and even more bedraggled than usual in front of the television cameras, assuring us that he got a good soaking but is otherwise perfectly unharmed.
Others who have come face to face with the full power of water cannon have not been so fortunate as the Independent notes:
Dietrich Wagner, a German pensioner, remembers the exact moment he was knocked over by a water cannon, in Stuttgart in 2010. It felt as though he was being punched. He fell backwards, lost consciousness, and when he woke, blood was running down his face. “I couldn’t open my eyes,” he says. “I only saw black.”
The former engineer, who turns 70 this year and has had six operations on his eyes, is still almost completely blind. He is in London to warn Home Secretary Theresa May not to authorise the use of water cannons on the streets of mainland Britain.
But the devastating injuries sometimes inflicted by water cannon and the potentially chilling effect on the rights and willingness of people to assemble and protest are already known and much discussed.
Of equal concern is the fact that this draconian, illiberal and presumptuous step was taken by a politician with a fair chance of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore also a potential future prime minister. How will Boris Johnson’s unilateral move to acquire draconian new policing weapons in response to a nonexistent threat affect his already somewhat inexplicable popularity?
The simple fact is that Boris Johnson purchased the water cannon before approval for their use has been given by the Home Secretary. Either he is attempting to strong-arm the government into giving him what he wants in the belief that the Home Secretary will rubber-stamp his decision, in which case he has no respect for the democratic process and the deliberations of government, or he has made a huge gamble and is willing to potentially lose taxpayer money by investing in capital equipment that may not be authorised for use at all, in which case he has committed a major strategic blunder and is terrible guardian of the public purse.
Worse still, if this is about forcing his rival for the future leadership of the Conservative Party into making an illiberal and politically damaging decision that he can somehow later use against her, as is also being suggested, then he is also playing political games with the cherished civil liberties of our country.
None of these possibilities or their associated character traits are desirable in someone who has their sights set on the highest political office in Britain.