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Duncan Tanner and the art of the possible: understanding politics and governance in modern British history

Duncan Tanner’s work was overwhelmingly focused on the political process and on politics in government. He reached back into the late Victorian era, and forward to the very recent past. He was interested in organisations, parties and systems, but also in the people who worked in organisations and parties, and who were affected by (especially electoral) systems. He was a truly British historian, in that he engaged not only with politics at the highest (Westminster and Whitehall) levels, but also with operations on the ground in constituencies across the breadth of mainland Britain. He wanted to find out about MPs, agents, party loyalists, and also about voters in general. And in his approach to the politics of the past Duncan was, essentially, a pragmatist. Rather than condemn historical figures for failing to match up to an often ahistorical standard of ideological purity, he preferred to comprehend the varied pressures under which they operated, and how the decisions they made usually represented a rational (if not always correct) response to the need to reconcile policy ambitions and political realities. This chapter introduces Duncan Tanner’s approach to the politics and governance of modern Britain.

in The art of the possible

J.M.Staniforth (1863-1921) was for the best part of three decades one of Britain’s most prominent and popular cartoonists, his work reaching a wide audience at home and abroad. This essay examines Staniforth’s response to the rise of the Labour party. As a Conservative himself, Staniforth observed the labour movement’s flexing of its muscles within the constraints of the informal Lib-Lab alliance with wry detachment. Sympathetic to the older, more moderate generation of leaders, he was more antagonistic towards explicitly socialist and independent labour elements. Hostile depictions of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were the norm. Working-class male voters and trade unionists, however, were often represented, before the Edwardian ‘labour unrest’, as guileless, prone to be misled and misused by their self-serving leaderships.

In the last decade of his life Staniforth moved away from depicting the essential innocence and naivety of the British working man to a more suspicious and fearful representation focusing instead on volatility, bloody-mindedness and the threat that the organized working-class was held to present to the safety and security of the British people as a whole. A study of this influential cartoonist offers insight into certain elements of contemporary public opinion regarding the rise of labour.

in The art of the possible
From parish constable to national computer

Police Control Systems focuses on the way that British police institutions have controlled the individual constable on the ‘front line’. This control has been exercised by a variety of different institutions and individuals, ranging from direct day-to-day input from ‘the community’, responsibility under Common Law, through bureaucratic systems built around exacting codes of rules – and the gradual modification of this process to accommodate a growing professionalism – to the real-time control of officers by radio, coupled with the increasing use of surveillance techniques. This is the first book on police history which looks at how police institutions worked on a day to day level. It challenges the idea that the reformed police of the early nineteenth century were automatically ‘professional’, asserting instead that in most respects they were de-professionalised. It describes the role played in police organisations by books, forms, clerks, and telephones, and looks at how some of this technology was derived from military precedents. It argues that at many - but not all – technical milestones in these institutional developments were precipitated by national security concerns. It ends with an analysis of the development of the Police National Computer in the 1960s and 1970s: a milestone in policing and computing history which has never been explored before.

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This book looks at the history of systems within police forces. It traces four main innovations: the ‘new’ police themselves; real-time communications; control systems based on radio; and computerised records. It draws on a number of theoretical approaches to do so, and takes particular inspiration from the nascent field of information history, as well as the history of information technology. It uses Bruno Latour's concepts of ‘black-boxing’ and of ‘centres of calculation; pays special attention to Max Weber's work on the much-maligned concept of bureaucracy; applies Foucault's concept of disciplinary society; seeks to compare the long-term pattern of development to that set out by Christopher Dandeker; and acknowledges James C Scott's work on the limits of government.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

The ‘old’ police system was dynamic. Parish constables, played a variety of roles, and in densely populated areas could make a good living from fees. They were professional, competent, and entrepreneurial. An analysis of their manuals proves they were controlled by systems of legal incentives, warnings and (strengthening) immunities. The main form of oversight on them and limit on their power was the possibility that they might be subject to a lawsuit. Watchmen in towns were waged, with less legal power than constables, and subject to more supervision, including periods of definite duty. Some ‘old’ police organisations, notably in the City of London, introduced supervisory ranks over their watchmen in order to control them.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

The creation of New Police forces in the first half of the nineteenth century can best be understood as a de-skilling of the role of the constable. This was linked to control of and through the time of the policeman, in a manner akin to the early factory system. Patrick Colquohoun's main organisational innovation was to think of police officers as highly supervised workers, and this model was adopted by Peel's 1822 Committee which wrote the blueprint for the Metropolitan Police. A hierarchy of control which embodied continuous observation of the constable, and was itself continuously observed, was a crucial innovation. The life of early police constable George Bakewell shows how the new police were proletarianised.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

One characteristic of the new police was physical drill, which was designed to inculcate discipline through the body. Control was embodied in books rules, which were very different from the manuals of the ‘old’ constables because they attempted to describe the kind of person the police officer should be. The policeman's habitus was tightly controlled, notably though a uniform. Rules and regulations centred on the precisely-controlled and closely timed walking of the beat, subject to continual spot checks by supervisors. Since supervision was never total, the constable was supposed to mould himself into the form of the ideal man demanded by the institution, and since rules were never enough for every eventuality, space was necessarily left for the use of initiative. Consciousness of the future, of the possibility of incremental promotion, and of his (until 1890 discretionary) pension also disciplined the police officer.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

New police forces employed a variety of bureaucratic forms in order to function. These closely followed Weber's ideal type. Information and its flow were and are central to policing, and these require filters and standard procedures whereby knowledge of the outside world was necessarily simplified in order to be processable. Many of these components formed ‘black-boxes’ (in Latour's sense) within the system. Books of various kinds recorded activity, and forms acted as means of communication. Policemens’ notebooks became ubiquitous by 1900: they were intended to act primarily as a technology for controlling the police officer. All we constructed to be transparent to future audit by superior officers. Within the Metropolitan Police, daily orders distributed to the whole force made the leadership of Scotland Yard in all matters completely transparent. Police used up-to-date office techniques, some of which were borrowed from military precedents, notably the Royal Engineers. Many senior police officers who rose to command from ‘the ranks’ did so after service as clerks.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

The introduction of telecommunications enabled some police control functions to be exercised at a distance. Public anticipation of police technologies usually entailed greater speed of information and response. Telegraphs first replaced some communication within hierarchies: the initial point here was the ad hoc use of the national telegraph network against Chartists in 1848. This began a pattern whereby political crisis inspired the emergency use of technologies which later became general. Telephones were better suited to horizontal communication, particularly that between different police forces, and between them and other institutions. Telephone box systems were initially emplaced as a way of limiting the ability of the public to call upon the police. After 1919 many forces used systems of boxes in another way: to act as the basis for the supervision of police officers on their beats.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975

During the 1930s real-time control of police using telephones and wireless telegraphy was introduced as much to patrol the expanding suburbs as to respond to serious crime. It was backed by Home Office civil servants and involved some co-ordination with the Marconi company. This involved the centralisation of operational control at headquarters level, and the speeding up of feedback: most manifest in the use of CCTV in 1968 to monitor the performance of the Metropolitan police against demonstrators in Grosvenor Square. The initial introduction relied heavily on technologies and procedures developed for control of train movements in the early twentieth century and further refined to support air defence in the first world war. The overt embrace of technology and ‘police science’ in the interwar period helped police to control a crisis of confidence in their reliability. Personal radio, introduced in the 1960s, was similarly seen as a way to keep policing looking modern and thus head off criticism of liberalisation.

in Police control systems in Britain, 1775–1975