The clownish behaviour of the Derbyshire Police Drone Division last week was followed up this weekend with some more enthusiastic crowd work from the nation’s playground monitors. Much of the media attention was focused on Hove, where I live now, and Brockwell Park, where I lived prior to leaving London, where the police came down forcefully on anyone seen to be flouting the lockdown rules.
It’s at times like this that I miss Alan Coren. And to be fair, at most other times too, especially at 6.30pm on Friday evenings. But especially now. Police buffoonery, a well-established comedy trope, was perfect fodder for the king of British satire: preening, pompous Plod, bellowing through megaphones, keeping watch over us via drones and harassing solitary sunbathers with enough social distancing around them to satisfy Greta Garbo at her tetchiest.
And all this was before they began to shame those they considered to be flouting the rules, on social media – apparently oblivious to the failure of their “We Need to Talk about your Tweets” and “Have You Got a License for that Opinion?” campaigns of 2019. It was policing by condescension, rather than consent.
My general impression is that the British have responded with extraordinary equanimity to the onrush of house arrest. I don’t know what the collective noun is for hermits – a failure? – but as a nation that is what we have become, and in the blink of an eye. Traditionally, we have been more committed to liberty than any other people. Indeed, we were determined, in very recent memory, to risk serious economic harm in order to secure and defend it. And yet our willingness in recent weeks to be cooped for the greater good inside little more than psychological chalk circles, has been remarkable.
It might have been worth the police pausing to reflect on our overwhelming adoption of the new norms. And on the fact, surely well understood by every half decent headmistress and Scout master, that when you want to encourage a certain behaviour in a mixed ability nation, it is more effective to praise that behaviour when witnessed in a well-behaved citizen, than it is to expose the handful who strain a little at the leash to mass condemnation, to hold them up for ridicule and threaten them with pain.
There remains in this country, despite various scandals and systemic failures, a certain grudging affection for the police. We know that we no longer live in Dock Green. But we love – or at least I sure as Hell know I do – their reluctance to get tooled up. We can imagine the temptation, but we have seen what has happened elsewhere when one gives into it. It’s still a shock to walk into an airport and see a militarised officer touting a sub machine gun and a Judge Dredd jaw. But airports are international turf, or no man’s land. In England proper, you know that when you report a burglary, the officers that fail to come to your house will at least fail to do so unarmed.
There is something approaching a race memory in our attitude to the police, something similar to the reaction we get when we see spider or a snake, that once saved the life of our prehistoric progenitors, however “phobic” it might seem now. We dismantle it at our peril.
You only have to look at the effectiveness of those six foot two cardboard cut outs, grinning like Christopher Reeve, that stand inside petrol station windows and confidently imply that they know we won’t be trying anything clever. I’ve considered putting one in my son’s bedroom. Because they work. Even once you register that they are a two dimensional avatar, it’s too late. You are primed to behave yourself. More so it seems, in fact, than if you see two of what pass for actual police officers nowadays queuing up in stab vests to buy a Twix and a can of Monster.
But the advent of social media threatens to undo centuries of hard-won if outdated respect. Give the police a Twitter account and suddenly we get an unwelcome glimpse into their psyche. We see them for what they see themselves as. We see what they think our relationship is, and what they think their role is, and we see just what makes them tick.
And suddenly we are back in the sixth form, with that bloke that always struggled to make it in the natural hierarchy of social animals, but who now has the blaze of the Prefect’s Peacock stitched across his breast pocket, and has invested in him the power to right wrongs and remake the world in his image.
Believe me, as a stand up comedian, I know whereof I speak. Half the appeal of being on stage with a microphone is that you get to finish a bloody joke without being interrupted once in a while, and being laughed at. But we are only there on sufferance, and we had better not forget it.
I am confident that the police will self-correct over the next few days, and we should do our best to help, as they will indeed require our co-operation. But they too must acknowledge that discipline on the field of play may be enforced by the Referee but emanates from the Captain, and the culture of the club. It’s not the police who will ultimately get us to play ball but our own sense of collective duty. This isn’t something you can conjure up with spot fines and truncheons; in fact, it really really helps, if the referee is not a w*nker.
I’m only sorry that Alan Coren isn’t here to put it just a little less bluntly.