Monday, 8 July 2013

Policing in Australia: a revisionist view

The smooth transition from a locally based ‘inefficient’ parish constable system to an efficient and professional body of law enforcers formed the basis of this ‘consensus’ view.[1] During the 1970s, historians using conflict and social control theories challenged the consensus view of widespread public acceptance. Concentrating on working-class responses, they argued that the ‘new police’ were resisted as an instrument of repression developed by the propertied classes. The ‘new police’, it was argued, were developed to destroy existing working-class culture for the purposes of imposing ‘alien values and an increasingly alien law” on the urban poor’.[2] Conflict historians argued that a preventive police system was developed in response to changes in the social and economic structure of English society. Robert Storch, the foremost proponent of this interpretation contended that, the formation ‘of the new police was a symptom of both a profound social change and deep rupture in class relations’.[3] The working-class, it was argued, questioned the legitimacy of the ‘new police’ and responded to their interference in a variety of ways ranging from subtle defiance to open and, on occasions, violent resistance.

More recently the level of support that the ‘new police’ received from the propertied classes has been questioned. Barbara Weinberger argues that opposition to the ‘new police’

...was part of a ‘rejectionist’ front ranging from Tory gentry to working class radicals against an increasing number of government measures seeking to regulate and control more and more aspects of productive and social life.[4]

Stanley Palmer also argues that conflict historians ‘have tended to ignore or down play the resistance within the elite to the establishment of a powerful police’ and have over-emphasised the threat from below.[5] While accepting that the introduction of the ‘new police’ involved a clash of moral standards, Palmer argues that it should not be exaggerated.[6] These more recent studies therefore suggest that opposition to the ‘new police’ was also, but not equally, a response of the English upper- and middle-classes.

The broad generalisations regarding public opposition or acceptance of the ‘new police’ have tended to obscure the subtleties in community responses. Opposition did exist, at times resulting from police enforcement of ‘unpopular edicts’ or attempts to ‘prevent mass meetings,’ although they were also used and supported by many people ‘as a fact of life’ in their preventive and social order capacities.[7] While these studies have concentrated predominantly on the public’s negative responses to the introduction of the ‘new police’, Stephen Inwood has considered how the police, administratively and functionally, dealt with the public. Too great a reliance on social control theories, Inwood argues, has led to over-simplification of the complex inter-relationships between the ‘new police’ and the wider community. While the ‘new police’ sought ‘to establish minimum standards of public order,’ it was not in their own interests ‘to provoke social conflict by aspiring to unattainable ideals’.[8] Inwood sees relations between the police and the public as based on a calculated pragmatism in which it was acknowledged that attempts to impose unpopular laws rigidly would ultimately meet with resistance resulting in ‘damage to the rule of law’.[9] Police administrators and the constables on their beats were required to tread carefully between the demands and expectations of ‘respectable’ society and the practical need for good relations with the working-class.[10]

While there has been a re-examination of public responses to the ‘new police’ and police responses to the public, these studies maintain that the police were, amongst particular groups, for varying reasons and at certain times, unpopular. Weinberger argues that this unpopularity stemmed from public

...suspicion of the police as an alien force outside the control of the community; resentment at police interference in attempting to regulate traditionally sanctioned behaviour; [and] objections to expense.[11]


[1] King, H., ‘Some Aspects of Police Administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 42, (4), (1956), p. 207.

[2] Ibid, Jones, David, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888’, p. 153.

[3] Storch, R., ‘The Plague of the Blue Lotus: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840-57’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 20, (1975), p. 62.

[4] Weinberger, B., ‘The Police and the Public in Mid-nineteenth-century Warwickshire’, in ibid, Bailey, V., (ed.), Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth Century Britain, p. 66.

[5] Ibid, Storch R., ‘The Plague of the Blue Lotus: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840-57’, p. 61; ibid, Palmer S. Police and Protest in England and Ireland, 1780-1850, p. 8.

[6] Storch, R., ‘Policeman as Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 9, (4), (1976).

[7] Ibid, Jones, David, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888’, p. 166; Ibid, Emsley, Clive, The English Police, pp. 5-6.

[8] Inwood, S., ‘Policing London’s Morals: The Metropolitan Police and Popular Culture, 1829-1850’, London Journal, Vol. 15, (2), (1990), p. 144.

[9] Ibid, Inwood, S., ‘Policing London’s Morals: The Metropolitan Police and Popular Culture, 1829-1850’, p. 134.

[10] Ibid, Inwood, S., ‘Policing London’s Morals: The Metropolitan Police and Popular Culture, 1829-1850’, p. 131

[11] Ibid, Weinberger, B., ‘The Police and the Public in Mid-nineteenth-century Warwickshire’, p. 65.

No comments: