The noble principle of policing by consent

In the UK there exists a principle, harking back to the days of Sir Robert Peel. This long held tradition and principle is called policing by consent. This is essentially the idea that police legitimacy is based on the consent of those it polices. This vital bond, between citizen and state is one that should be held with the upmost regard. When our nation is in crisis, as it arguably is now, the rule of law becomes more, not less, important. This vital principle has almost passed unnoticed in recent weeks as the UK government has brought in strict legislation to help mitigate Covid-19.

As liberals, we should be cautious of those who seek to expand state power, and perhaps more importantly, those who seek to wield their newfound powers with an unhealthily zealous attitude. It is with this in mind, I turn to the seemingly disgraceful attitude of the Police in recent days when it comes to overreaching their newly found powers. The two most pertinent examples (below), set a worrying precedent that we should be weary of.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Now, if we consult the regulations passed in relation to figure 1, they do not specify types of food that are classed as a basic necessity. The implication of this is that the police have decided to adopt incorrect interpretations of their new powers.

Figure 2 however, paints a significantly more concerning picture. The issue of summonses appears to be a comprehensive overreach of the police powers in the case of multiple people from the same household going to the shops for non-essential items. 

Both figure 1 and figure 2 show the problem we all face when the government officials give contradicting advice to the legislative and regulatory provisions.

Now, I am not going to argue that the people making excessive trips to the shops or going out for non-essentials are good people. In fact, we should take a particularly dim view of behavior that is self evidently not in the public interest. However, even if they are breaking a socially constructed barrier, they have not actually broken any law. This is where the concerns about policing overreach come into the fore.

When the police are clearly going beyond their defined powers and “making it up on the hoof”, it sets a dangerous precedent for the relationship between citizen and state. This in turn undermines the principle of policing by consent and sets an almost Orwellian tone for the rest of this crisis and beyond.

* Callum Robertson is a teacher and former Chair of the Young Liberals

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • James Baillie 31st Mar '20 - 12:09pm

    Very much agree with this. If the police keep overstepping the law it will spread confusion as to the rules, breed contempt for the lockdown, harm vulnerable people and ultimately lead to worse health outcomes as vulnerable people uncertain of the rules fail to look after themselves properly and others decide that the lockdown rules are untenable and start ignoring them.

    This is absolutely something that we as Lib Dems should be tackling loudly, especially being loud about it on a local level where this is an opportunity to very publicly showcase our different approach with PCC elections happening next year.

  • John Marriott 31st Mar '20 - 1:05pm

    When I was a little boy, and even later, when my parents told me to do something and I asked “Why?”, the answer that invariably came back was “Because I said so”. Back in the 1950s it didn’t serve any useful purpose to argue with your ‘elders and betters’. They usually had all the cards.

    We have moved on a bit since then. However, if a police officer tells me to do something, I do not attempt to question his request. After all, if enough of us become stroppy in these difficult times, that ‘request’ might become an order and the person delivering it might be a squaddie armed with an automatic rifle. So, my advice would be to proceed with caution about banging on about civil liberties at the moment. I’m sure that this won’t go down well with some Liberals; but when have I bothered about that?

    As someone, who spent eight years as a County Council member of the Lincolnshire
    Police Authority (R.I.P.), I can tell Mr Robertson that, if he were successful in his aim to become tge PCC for Essex, he won’t be a very person with the police force if he tries this on. In any case, I thought that it was official party policy to oppose the concept of PCCs and not to field candidates. That’s still my view and twice now I have gone into the polling booth and written on my ballot paper “Bring back PAs!”. If I am spared for the next time, I shall do the same again!

  • Julian Tisi 31st Mar '20 - 3:55pm

    I wouldn’t blame the police for this. The communication from Government has been confusing and unclear. In the Easter egg example, it appears just a handful of retailers were asked not to sell them by local Police – and the Government have, to be fair, since clarified that this was an incorrect interpretation of the law. And how exactly do you police “one trip to the shops for essential items”? I hardly think this is overreaching of police powers; surely it’s more the police trying best to interpret new and unclear rules.

  • John Marriott 31st Mar '20 - 5:32pm

    I have to apologise again as my iPad is playing tricks on me again. “A very person” should have read “a very POPULAR person”.

    I notice that, since Derbyshire Police utilised a drone to warn dog walkers away from the Peak District, numbers are dramatically down. Job done!

  • Tony Greaves 31st Mar '20 - 5:55pm

    “We have moved on a bit since then. However, if a police officer tells me to do something, I do not attempt to question his request.” Well I do. And so should every other active citizen unless it is very obvious. In a democracy the people who enforce the law have a duty to tell people what it is they are enforcing.

    On the over-reaction of some foolish police, one of the worst examples is that of Derbyshire police flying kites (sorry, drones) and “shaming people on social media. This is not how police in a democracy are supposed to behave. But the fact it is Derbyshire Constabulary does not surprise me.

  • John Marriott 31st Mar '20 - 6:37pm

    @Tony Greaves
    Right, so the next time a police officer tells me to do something I ask why? If the Officer asks me why I’m querying their request , perhaps I should therefore reply; “ because that’s what Lord Greaves would do and he’s a REAL Liberal”. Me, I guess, by your standards, I’m just a obedient wimp! So was Pastor Niemöller, apparently, although he admitted his guilt later (“First they came for the socialists ……”). Oh to have your chutzpah!

  • Robert Hardware 1st Apr '20 - 7:52am

    While I’m in wholehearted agreement with you on the overall point, I want to point out that the police haven’t made decisions over what food is and isn’t necessary. The story about Easter eggs was misreported as it was environmental health officers, not police officers, who objected to them being sold. This was confirmed by Danny Shaw, the BBC Home Affairs correspondent:

  • I have printed out copies of the Regulations on restrictions on movement and the Government guidance on access to green spaces, so that I can show them to a police officer if challenged. That should not be necessary in England.

  • I very gently suggest that you don’t tell him, Pike !!!!

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