The police march in London on 10 May was ‘supported’ by some radical protesters, holding sardonic signs: ‘Without us, democracy would triumph’, ‘Kettling: a transitional demand’, and ‘Not all cops are bastards’. People joked that the police might be less conservative than usual in their estimates of how many marched (in the event, Scotland Yard refused to give a figure).
The protest was against plans to cut police numbers by 16,000 over four years, as part of a 20% cut to the policing budget. As everyone knows, the police are forbidden to strike or even to ‘work to rule’.
What is less well-known is that the last time the police went on strike, in the summer of 1918 (while the First World War was still going on!), the British government was terrified of a revolutionary challenge from a united rank-and-file working-class movement. Workers in many industries were on strike, some inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which had yet to be evolve into a totalitarian tragedy.
So the police were bought off with improved pay and conditions, and forced to join an officially-sanctioned trade union, divorced from the rest of the labour movement.
This May, the police didn’t go on strike, but prison officers, who are also banned from striking, did walk out across the country – in protest at the raising of their retirement age. It is not inconceivable that some police officers may be tempted to follow them at some point. Whether they do or not, the police are likely to have growing sympathy with others protesting against public sector cuts.
If there is to be radical social change in this country, we are going to need to shift the loyalty of a large part of the security apparatus from the government and the wealthy to the interests of the people.
There is an important strategic question about how demonstrators behave towards the police. Do we get closer to shifting the loyalties of the security forces by insulting and physically attacking them, or do we have a greater chance of winning them over by treating them as human beings whenever possible, and appealing to them as fellow citizens, in the way that demonstrators did in Egypt in 2011 or Iran in 1979?
Of course, there were important street battles in both Egypt and Iran, but the strategy of the demonstrators in both countries was generally to unite with the security forces rather than inflict revenge on them.
In 1789, the French maréchaussée (police) went over to the local constitutional authorities rather than stay loyal to the king. In Russia in 1917, the police were known to stand by as crowds took over bakeries; the ferocious Cossacks refused to fire on or ride down demonstrators; the military mutinied. In 1978, members of Iran’s army and air force deserted en masse. To make a revolution, we need to break the link between those who hold the wealth and those who hold the guns.
Befriending can be a revolutionary act.