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December 11, 2010



Actually he's right, more or less. It's the armed forces that instantiate the state's monopoly of force - some states have a gendarmerie or a carabinieri or a National Guard, which extend the armed forces into policing, but we don't. The police are, precisely, a quango (or rather 43 separate quangos, plus a voluntary association called ACPO). They're the lineal descendant of the parish constable; it's established in law that you can't give orders to police officers, as they are always tasked with using their discretion to resolve the situation before them, enforce the law and restore order. This remains true even in emergency conditions, where a semblance of "command and control" does apply: the firearms officer who shot Jean-Claude de Menezes was only ever going to do one thing, but he wasn't acting under orders.


Great post, immensely funny.

But perhaps if Weber was alive today he'd define the State as 'the monopsony of the purchase of legitimised violence', given Group 4 running prisons, and all those 'contractors' in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dick Pountain

Funny post. If the police are not to be seen as an arm of the state, perhaps some other appendage?


This is all well and good, but Hugh Orde is still basically correct. The Victorian police was a local service, staffed by members of the public with no special privileges, and accountable (at least in theory) to the magistrates in the country and the council in towns. Obviously there have been a number of changes since that period, but they've all been in the direction of giving the police more powers and less accountability: at no time have the police been brought under the control of central government.

As it goes, the Coalition are trying to bring the police into a Home Office chain of command, mediated by ACPO - which they're planning to put on a statutory footing - so if you leave it another five years or so you might be right.

Will Davies

Phil - I bow to your much better knowledge on this. My rant is clearly mis-placed, but in the interests of blogosphere honesty, I have left it up anyway.

Igor Belanov

I think Phil is splitting hairs on this matter. Just because the police aren't part of a Home Office chain of command doesn't mean that they're not a part of the state. They're not a voluntary organisation and clearly come under political supervision. The whole point is that Orde wants the police to be seen as some kind of cuddly arm of social services rather than the non-military arm of the protection of property and the state.

Will Davies

Regarding Phil's point, and Igor's response, I guess it depends how tightly you define 'Quango' (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation).

There are those, such as Dewey and Foucault, who implicitly treat everything and nothing as a quango. There is no such thing as 'the state', and if you go in search of some metaphysical substrate of power or violence, you won't find it. By this account, the police are no more (or less) part of 'the state' than the Queen or a local doctor's surgery. Their power is dependent on the quality of their knowledge and organisation, the quality of their body armour, and their ability to win consent from most people.

But of course we instinctively view the police as more representative of 'the state' than things that get termed 'quangos', such as the Arts Council. I wonder how the miners' strike became deemed a matter for the police to smash, if the police are as autonomous as all that. Maybe we need to recognise degrees of quasi-autonomy, between a civil servant (quasi-heteronomous) and a BBC journalist (quasi-autonomous)...

And, Phil: how do prisons fit in?


In a law-governed society, the prison system is in fact relatively autonomous from the state, in that it's the business end of the legal system. The state can't just send you to prison - you have to be found guilty of an offence defined in the law (or, more realistically, plead guilty to one*). And, insofar as we have the rule of law, the state is subject to the law, not vice versa. But when a prison officer tells an inmate where he** can and can't go, the inmate is in effect coming up against the coercive apparatus of the state - I'll give you that one.

we instinctively view the police as more representative of 'the state' than things that get termed 'quangos'

Thinking of the police as a quango is hugely counter-intuitive, I'll grant you that. But they don't operate as a government agency - they're far more autonomous than that would imply, and far less accountable. (This isn't an academic point - they've lobbied hard over the years to gain autonomy and shed accountability, and been very successful.) The alternative would be to regard ACPO as a constituent element of the state, with the same kind of autonomy from elected government as the 'permanent government' of top civil servants. Fortunately we're not there yet.

*85% of the time
**95% of the time


The state can't just send you to prison - you have to be found guilty of an offence defined in the law

Surely under emergency legislation they can, in fact, do precisely this? And the prison system doesn't as far as I know have any autonomy, they can't say "no, we won't accept these people". Can they?

it's established in law that you can't give orders to police officers

I'm puzzled by this. Does this mean something like "politicians can't give orders to police officers"? Or is it much wider than that?


Since internment was stopped (it would now be illegal), I don't know of any emergency legislation that makes it possible to go straight from arrest to detention. Even 28 day detention before charge (which is obscene) is hedged about with legal qualifications.

Nobody can give an order to a police officer, not even a senior police officer - that's The Law. (Literally - it's case law, going back to a ruling by Lord Denning, bless his cotton socks.) Obviously police officers operate under instructions, but the idea is that they're each individually responsible for enforcing the law & restoring order, and they use their discretion to take whatever actions are appropriate to achieve those aims. This is particularly applicable to chief constables - courts take a dim view of senior police officers attempting to hang a junior officer out to dry. (On the other hand, courts tend to take a dim view of the idea of finding any police officers guilty of anything, so it's a bit of a moot point.)


PS Detention of people who supposedly couldn't be tried or deported would also qualify (and is also now illegal) - from late 2001 to mid-2005 it was true that the government could simply send you to prison, indefinitely and without a criminal trial. But (a) this is also now illegal and (b) unlike internment, it was only ever a highly exceptional measure, implemented in a very small number of cases. Exceptional cases do tell us a lot about what the system can be made to do, but they can't tell us much about how it normally works.


Oh buggeration. Sorry to clog up the comments box, but I've just realised that from late 2001 to mid-2005 it was true of a specific subset of non-nationals that the government could, etc; it was never true of me and thee. I was confused for a moment by the fact that control orders, the replacement for detention under ATCSA 2001, can be imposed on anyone at all. (They're also of dubious legality, incidentally, and probably on their way out - although if anyone blows anything up all bets will be off.)


Can a judge give an order to a police officer? (I partly ask because I'm sure I read yesterday, in a piece I now can't find, that the judiciary were considering "ordering a reopening" of the NOtW phone-hacking investigation, and obviously as this discussion is going on I found the term "ordering" an interesting one!)

Paul Sagar

"Obviously there have been a number of changes since that period, but they've all been in the direction of giving the police more powers and less accountability: at no time have the police been brought under the control of central government."

this doesn't touch Weber's point. Weber did not say that the governing powers at the top of a state hierarchy directly control all uses of violence - he said the state monopolises the right to use legitimate force. And that obtains even if (say) the police force operates on a decentralised model not answering to central government. The point is the state has licensed this model of coercive enforcement, and could withdraw than license and issue a new model if it wanted.

The original post is fine. Spot on, in fact, in terms of a Weberian analysis.


ejh - that's an interesting question. I guess you could see it as a declarative statement that a case was not legally closed and therefore had to be reopened - but, as you say, the use of the word 'order' is interesting.

Paul - I take the point, but there is a sense in which the police aren't a tool of the state (in the way that the Army is), & that's the sense Orde was thinking of. It may ultimately be an illusion, but if so it's an illusion that goes back at least to Peel.

Will Davies

15 comments is now, I think, a record for this blog. I therefore officially declare the motion "The police are not a quango: discuss" to be the most successful catalyst for debate in the history of potlatch.

Yours sincerely,


Will Davies

(Sorry, that wasn't an attempt to bring the debate to a close. By all means, please keep going. And now it's 17)

Ian C

And now 18. This is fascinating and I have learned several things that surprise me.
So the police are de jure not an arm of the state, but more like a distinct 'estate' between government and civil society - like the universities and schools? But de facto, given their role as enforcers of state monopoly on violence, they are indeed an arm of the state. I suspect what Hugh Orde meant was 'we are not an arm of this particular Government, nor of any other'.
Weber's formula is surely correct about the state and violence. A failed state is precisely one that has lost its monopoly of violence, often by starting out on the slippery slope of sub-contracting.


Something's still bugging me about this, and I think it's the difference between everyday uses of force and the use of force in the "last instance". I mean, I agree with Benjamin that the power of the state is ultimately backed by force - in fact, by lethal, unappealable and extra-legal violence: if you don't believe it, try overthrowing the state and see what happens. (There's an analogy here, although I'm not sure how far it can be pushed, with the old sysadmin joke about computers running on magic blue smoke - you can tell because when the blue smoke gets out they always break down.) So one fairly straightforward sense in which the state has the monopoly of legitimate violence is that the state can kill you if its survival is threatened, making use of its own workforce of professionals of violence (the armed forces) and setting aside the law (by implementing martial law).

This is a different form of violence from the violence meted out by the legal system: in that context the state has the monopoly of delivering violence but doesn't have any role in deciding how much or to whom. (I don't know what Weber says about the law.)

The violence of the police seems to be something else again: they're free to use force, but they can't override the law. This may not constrain them greatly in practice, but it does influence the way we think about police violence. For instance, I think it's significant that we don't expect the police to kill people, and at least go through the motions of holding them to account if they do. Acceptable police violence tends to be glossed as not real violence - as forceful tactics which have to be adopted so as to restore order.

The armed forces deal in frank and unapologetic violence, carried out in extremis by the state. Police violence is violence that denies that it is violence, carried out routinely (but sparingly) by an agency that denies it is a state agency. I guess it does ultimately come within the Weberian framework of the state's monopoly of legitimate force, but it's a bit of an oddity.

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