What Robert Peel can teach us about Black Lives Matter

There is no historical figure whose arguments are better suited to our times

June 17, 2020
Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill
Portrait by Henry William Pickersgill

You may not have thought it, but there are few politicians whose accomplishments are better suited to Black Lives Matter than Robert Peel.

The principles of policing by consent that Peel set out in 1829 are a hymn to our troubled times. His fourth principle of policing actually reads: “the degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.” It is a shameful tragedy that Derek Chauvin of the Minnesota Police Department did not heed those words before he knelt on George Floyd’s neck.

Yet the reforming home secretary and prime minister now finds his record traduced by the left and his principles undermined by the right. In his hometown of Tamworth, Peel’s statue today stands entombed in protective cladding. The protestors calling for its toppling appeared to mistake his sins for those of his namesake father, who owned slaves as a cotton trader. Even after acknowledging the mistake, they still refuse to revoke the bounty on his head.

As for the left’s wider plan, it could not be further from Peel’s ideal: the official BLM fundraising page demands politicians “defund the police” entirely, a preposterous idea that undermines their wider cause.

Meanwhile there are growing calls from those who proudly call themselves conservatives to undermine Britain’s model of policing by consent from the right. On Saturday, Henry Hill wrote on the ConservativeHome website that the “answer” to violent protests in the UK could be to replace civilian public order policing with a militaristic force similar to France’s Gendarmerie Mobile. France is not a country usually known for peaceful civil protest or efficient riot control.

The US experience is another cautionary tale. The militarised version of policing which arguably prompted the Black Lives Matter movement has its roots in the race riots of the 1960s. Then, like now, black communities filled the streets of Los Angeles after an altercation between the police and a black suspect. Looting and violence broke out. The response of predominantly white police forces was to abandon community policing and adopt counter-insurgency tactics from the Vietnam War. The animosity and the tactics have only grown since.

In contrast, the relative success of the last 200 years of British policing reveals how a tradition of consent generally fosters trust. To use Peel’s phrase, “the police are the public and the public are the police.” Each depends on the other, and the police have largely learnt that they can only expect respect and observance of the law if they secure it willingly. It is telling that only a handful of people die as a result of law enforcement in the UK each year, compared to between 25-35 a year in France in recent years.

This does not mean that British policing is perfect. Far from it, as we have seen in recent weeks. The response to the initial BLM riots was indeed slow and weak. The felling of Edward Colston’s statue—however egregious his crimes—only gives confidence to those on subsequent protests and counter-protests that they, too, can take the law into their own hands. The priority for chief constables now should clearly be to identify troublemakers on both sides of the issue and ensure they are prosecuted fairly, to regain public confidence in the rule of law.

Nor can British policing be acquitted of some of the charges from Black Lives Matter. As an adviser to Theresa May, I was involved in establishing both the Independent Review of Deaths in Police Custody in 2016 and the Racial Disparity Audit. The former found systemic failures, complacency and a lack of institutional accountability after deaths—often of young, black men—in police custody. The latter review, supercharged by Boris Johnson this week, established that black men are more than six times as likely to be stopped and searched by officers. These are injustices that still need correcting.

But the answer lies in rebuilding the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police, not in tearing it down or arming it up. Peel understood that 200 years ago. The intervening time has proved him right. Let’s not forget it now.

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and was special adviser to Theresa May 2013-2017