Sir Ian Blair- From Oxford to the Met
Ian Blair, vilified by some, empathized with by others, remembered by all. The ex-head of the Metropolitan Police certainly has an identifiable presence about him. Whatever one believes about his career, this much cannot be denied him. Naturally authoritative, when Ian Blair speaks, people listen.
So when I had the pleasure of interviewing arguably Britain’s most famous police commissioner, I was certainly captivated by his unmistakable aura. He spoke eloquently and commandingly on everything from the spending cuts to police reform and student alcoholism.
On the cuts and their sizeable effect on the police over the coming year, Mr. Blair gave his former employers high accolade: ‘Of course, it is going to be difficult. But that is what the police are for, they are a 365 day a year, 24 hour a day service and so whatever is thrown at them, they will deal with.’ He also expressed the opinion that, despite the helter-skelter year ahead for policing with impending student protests, a Royal Wedding in Central London and a nationwide terrorist high alert, there may be no particular rise in public disorder. ‘Historically, British disorder tends to be very much around specific events, whether that is race issues in London or a miner’s strike. It’s something, rather than a general sense of unhappiness.’
During his time at the Met, Ian Blair was a strong advocate of the reintroduction of Neighborhood policing and his policy was quickly taken up by the Labour government in an attempt to localize policing across the country. On this scheme, Mr. Blair expressed his support by saying ‘a localized relationship between the police and the public is exactly where we need to be. If the local community knows the police officer, the police team and knows how to get hold of people, then that is exactly what we want. Obviously, it is much more difficult in a conurbation than it is in a village.’
However, the former police commissioner was also realistic about the significant limitations that lie in front of this utopian idea of nationwide policing. In sparse areas of countryside for example, there are often ‘one or two police officers for 9 or 10 villages’. However, for Ian Blair the founding principle of the policy remains imperative: ‘the key is policing by consent. This is the absolute bedrock of common law policing. If you don’t connect with the people, you lose the consent. If you look at what is happening in Egypt, the police are clearly not connected to the people. If the police aren’t connected to the community, then people will not cooperate.’
During Ian Blair’s time with the Met, knife crime in inner city centers became under severe scrutiny. The controversial stop and search powers, which can simultaneously offend and protect, is one area in which Mr. Blair was typically axiomatic yet concise. ‘Stop and Search is obviously a very intrusive power, but it is right, if it has the consent of the community.’ He also articulated his support for the introduction of specific stop and search zones in areas where there have been serious knife crimes. Again, he allowed a complex problem to appear ironically simple: ‘the key is to stop people thinking that it is less dangerous to carry a knife than not carrying one.’
On meeting Mr. Blair, it is hard to not sympathize against his decidedly misinterpreted reputation. Even his harshest critics found allegations of his personal racism preposterous: it is still noteworthy that he managed to purge much of the intrinsic racism that had embodied the Met, according to the 1999 Macpherson Report. Indeed, under his premiership recruitment of non-white officers increased fourfold.
Educated at Oxford, Mr. Blair has repeatedly been dubbed as the ‘thinking man’s policeman’, by virtue not only of his academic credentials but also his sanguine ability to innovate new policy adaptations within the police force. For graduates who feel that the police force doesn’t quite fit their academic billing, Ian Blair is a shining contradiction. He offered encouragement for graduates thinking about joining the police: ‘we do need people who will be educated and intelligent enough to reach the top. We have a graduate recruitment scheme, but it is very hard to get on and very hard to stay on but if you do, you rise pretty quickly.’
However, Blair was also adamant about the need for police officers to experience real–life, real-time experiences ‘on the beat’ during their training. He professed: ‘this is brutally crucial. It gives officers the ability to look into people’s eyes and say, I know what you are doing.’ Sir Ian is a huge advocate of ‘knowing the job’. In his eyes, policing is a job umbilically connected with the real world, and therefore, its preparation must consist of real-life experiences.
With the nationwide media profile of students at an unprecedented low level due to the abhorrent violence at the student protests in London before Christmas, one could excuse Mr. Blair for being skeptical about the behavior of students. However, he expressed, that in terms of habitual misdemeanors, students have not changed much since his time at Oxford. ‘I don’t think that students are drinking more per se, its just that there are more licensed premises within city centers that students can go to. When I was at Oxford University, we went to the pub most nights, but there was only one pub, the city wasn’t covered in them.’
It is the proliferation of ‘vertical drinking establishments’, pubs and clubs essentially, which is the root of contemporary problems in city centers, not any tangible increase in the student drinking culture.
Since stepping down from his position at the Met, Ian Blair has enjoyed a relaxing and interesting retirement. He attends and gives many lectures at Universities and literary festivals up and down the country and has become a Trustee of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (he was a keen student actor in his youth) and St.Paul’s Cathedral, amongst other cultural and intellectual exploits.
One would not be surprised if Ian Blair expressed a certain bitterness over his time in the police force. He was pushed and pulled by journalists and politicians alike on issues that shook the force to its very core. On the contrary however, he finished his interview with Palatinate with a proclamation about his deep affection for policing: ‘the danger for anyone wanting to become a police officer, is that when they become it, they fall in love with it.’ An aptly sanguine response from a deeply misinterpreted man.