Small Wars Journal

What’s British for ‘Oorah’?

Thu, 05/23/2013 - 9:13am

This piece introduces the institutional culture of British policing and its role as a perspective to keep in mind as part of the study of the London Riots as a piece of military history and in consideration of issues relevant to the future of urban security. It will also be published at Kings of War, under the title "George Dixon’s No Storm Trooper.” I was uncertain whether the reference would travel. 

One day I was walking from Clerkenwell to London Bridge Station. At some mad intersection of several roads in or near the City I stopped to watch something curious. A Police Constable standing on the corner watched something happen, shook his head and shouted ‘Oy, you!’ Within about 30 seconds a rather sheepish looking bicycle messenger rolled up, dismounted and presented himself. The officer proceeded to lecture him on the expected subjects, which the latter took dutifully. It was amusing at the time because I was fairly certain that very few officers in New York City would expect to be able pull over a bicycle messenger with nothing more than a common hail. Adding the backdrop of the institutional culture at issue in this piece, the episode has more meaning for me now.

The HMIC review of UK public order policing in the wake of the G-20 disturbances does not oversell itself by way of its titled intention to “nurture” the British Model of Policing (“BMP”). The report refers to the phrase relentlessly and repeats its terms in liturgical fashion. [1] This repetition had the effect of imputing near physical substance to the concept. Even if it is only an ideal, there is no room for doubt that something of importance is going on.

Although several works inform this piece, for obvious reasons it is the single-minded focus within “Adapting to Protest: Nurturing the British Model of Policing” which demands this review. And it is a happy scholarly discovery, as the issue of institutional culture, of the importance of a controlling and shared ethos, weighs heavily in the practice of military history. To wit, any history of 1st Marine Division at Chosin is incomplete without due consideration of Marine Corps culture.

Sustaining what I read in Nurturing and Adapting, the intellectually formative experience of the BMP as a concept came to me by way of a colleague here in London. I had just begun reading on the riots and public order when I started noticing references to the concept and chatted with her about it – aspects of policing are her area of expertise. But that description is incomplete to understand her influence on my thinking. So, in addition she is fiercely protective of her political rights, and with relish describes herself as a traditional defender civil liberties. She will not hesitate to protest against wrongs; woe betide you who might unjustifiably try to deter her. And when you mention the BMP, the notion that the police are answerable to the law not the government and serve at the consent of the public she will go well-nigh misty-eyed with pride. In fact, she holds it so dear that she expressed concern about tainting it with militarism by way of this review. It is quite important that the ideals which comprise the institutional culture are held and understood beyond the organization.

At this stage, I am limiting this to a review of the subject from the perspective of the period between the G20 protests and the events of August 2011. Yes, there are well more sources beyond this limited purview, but I thought a view to the idea on the eve of the events of concern would be an apt focus for this piece. The two HMIC reports ("Adapting to Protest” ("Adapting") and Nurturing) and a delightful bit of scholarship on the history of the BMP’s export abroad (Clive Emsley, “Marketing the Brand: Exporting British Police Models, 1829-1950,” Policing, 2012) offered the best talking points within the time frame.

Of importance to a military history of the London Riots, there are two questions regarding the institutional culture of British policing which form the basis for my interest.

The first concerns whether the BMP can serve both the full spectrum of protests as well as full-on disorder. This is clearly of concern, as HMIC asks early in Nurturing, “how...should the police as a service adapt to the modern day demands of public order policing while retaining the core values of the British model of policing?” [2] The horns of the dilemma upon which this question rests was identified previously in Adapting, when they set the objectives of modern public order policing as “balancing the rights of protesters and other citizens with the duty to protect people and property from the threat of harm or injury,” all in a manner consistent with the BMP. [3] If the 3 Block War and Hearts and Minds based COIN offer good, useful points of discussion and consideration for public order, then it is clear that the police must be able to orient themselves to the needs of both tasks – facilitate protest and combat disorder. On the hand that might seem manifestly unfair. Nevertheless, if they are aware of the contrasts, competing needs, contradictions, they can prepare – mentally, structurally, tactically, etc.  Considered from the military perspective, this is a policy statement which requires strategy and tactics that can satisfy it. Challenging, yes, but likely better than the options.

The second question is why a review of this institutional culture is important to a historical approach to the riots. The most obvious reason is that awareness of this factor is necessary for a full understanding of events and the police response over those several days in August.  As discussed above, institutions and their cultures matter to inquiries of this sort. More broadly, the BMP offers a useful alternative model by which to describe an ethos which can inform a people-centric approach to COIN. Contrary to what some might expect as part of a larger consideration of the implications of a future wracked by urban chaos, I am of the opinion that this, for lack of a better description, noble character should stand Metropolitan Britain in good stead and could serve as a model for others. [4]

We must also understand what the concept of institutional culture entails. In the simplest terms, the term refers to the character of an organization based upon its history, traditions, customs, sense of self, described identity, and so forth. In the same way we expect or understand behaviours based upon national cultures, so too in the case of institutional cultures. It need not be all-encompassing or necessarily deterministic, but it should have a significant influence and importance.

Also, while I understand that there is no unitary or single entity of the ‘British Police,’ there is nevertheless a common thread shared across the UK law enforcement landscape. As scholars and HMIC assert the existence of this shared identity, so too do I feel comfortable considering the collection of the parts as a single institution for these purposes. Thus, even as the “British Police” are really only a loose federation of largely independent forces run at a local level, shared among them there exists a self-conception, a desired self identification that conforms to known terms.

Giving the document its due, it is to Nurturing that we turn to for an explication of this model in its detail, including its specific application to public order policing:

The British model of policing places a high value on tolerance and winning the consent of the public. Neither value should be underestimated. Consent is not unconditional. Police have won it by convincing people that they can be trusted to uphold the law and to protect the freedom and safety of individuals with impartiality and restraint. Our review of the international practice of the policing of protest suggests that alternatives to the British police model exist. Many put more distance between the police and protest crowds. Some assign responsibilities for mediation or direction of protest events to other third parties. Whilst there are some elements of these alternative models that may be attractive in principle, the British policing model attributed to Sir Robert Peel, of an approachable, impartial, accountable style of policing based on minimal force and anchored in public consent, seems in the round to be well suited to today’s dynamics. [5]

This is no better exemplified than by the trend in recent years to apply the model as an ideal abroad. Of course, this is only the latest in a series of episodes during which this desire to export the model has come to the fore. Reviewing the historical record on similar efforts in British foreign policy, Marketing notes the claims against the strict “universality” of all British policing, as well as pointed cynicism regarding the ideals, but argues that “it was almost certainly the case that [there have been] individuals in the job who believed the rhetoric about the ‘Bobby’ and sought to live up to it.”

It is equally important to note that this character and culture emerge in fiction and drama. Even when drawn in affectionate if caricaturish fashion, this presence does not diminish the ‘truth’ conveyed. Marketing points to the character of PC George Dixon as being quintessentially “solid, avuncular, courageous and wise,” all according to the ideal of a London (and hence British) police constable. This should not disconcert. The culture of the US Marine Corps leaps out of the celluloid from similar archetypal depictions, and does not Horatio Hornblower illuminate something true about the Royal Navy circa the Napoleonic Wars (and beyond)? I have written elsewhere about Dodd, and as a general rule I don’t think any historian will deny that such icons are useful as they convey in simplest format a wealth of information about the culture (beliefs) they are meant to represent. [6]

On the specific matter of consent, I will return your attention to the opening anecdote. The obvious interpretation that will come to most minds first is that of the police gaining the consent of the people. This is not incorrect, but neither is it complete. Given the balance of authority, it is sensible for the police to provide the momentum to sustain that state of consent. [7] However, I would submit that the apex of the consent at the heart of the BMP is one which is mutually expressed. It is not merely that the police serve the law faithfully, but also that the public accepts its responsibility to the law as well. As an expression of that mutual consent, of that relationship between the police and the public in shared respect of the law and its place in society, the opening anecdote becomes quite valuable.

Connecting the police function in protest and public order to the BMP, HMIC identifies the critical nexus between consent and tactics. Reminding that the UK is a “democratic society policed by consent,” the report is clear that in public order policing “planning and action at every level must be seen to reconcile all...factors,” or more simply “be designed to win the consent of the people.” [8]

Influencing public order policing at all levels, the BMP has a marked effect on tactics, nowhere more obvious than in their approach on the day. “British policing has always had a clear identity, separate from the rest of the world no more so than in its approach to public order…[of] putting the police amongst the people to maintain security and facilitate protest.” [9] The first consequence of this is an ideal that deserves a place of honour if it can be done correctly. That is, it is the police who, in service to the law, are charged with the duty to protect and facilitate the right of free and public expression – from both the tyranny of the government and the vitriol of the community. It is a concept of liberty and a manifestation of democracy which smirks boldly in the face of cynicism.

Also important to keep in mind, this style means that in public order events the UK police are outnumbered and unarmed, often within the maddening crowd. This is no better demonstrated than in the G20, the images of the MPS high visibility yellow overrun by protester black. This reference to the police being overrun is not as a criticism. To the contrary, it's evidence of something important that they accept the numerical disadvantage in such potentially volatile circumstances. [10] What drives that is the theme hammered at in Nurturing, as HMIC sought to use this common ethos to frame public order policing. However, the exposure to this vulnerability, as well as the close proximity to the madness, put the police in the position to interact more frequently and personally with the crowds. There are consequently more opportunities for tempers to flare dangerously, or for momentary or isolated or justified incidents to be taken out of context, either equally to the detriment of the necessary consent. It is an approach which demands the highest discretion in application.

This is even more important in an age of mass and immediate image communications. Impressions of these tactical issues are critical as police activities become increasingly visible. A function of the rise of citizen journalism, in public order policing perceptions can strengthen or weaken the model. Adapting makes clear that as “large public audiences have access to documentation,” it ought not surprise that “images of police officers using force, including distraction techniques, have the potential to undermine the public’s trust in police.” [11]

There are concerns that the police are being led down a garden path to kindly ineffectiveness. These sustain one segment of critique of police action during the first night and next day of the disturbances. The belief is that the response on THR, e.g., was too restrained as a result of the critique of policing at the G20 and the rise of what has been dubbed the ‘softly, softly’ approach. [12] As HMIC notes in Adapting, “Faced with dispersing a crowd of protesters which may contain a disorderly element, police have to think very carefully whether the conventional range of tactics is appropriate for ensuring the minimum use of force.” [13] According to the roots attributed to Sir Robert Peel, this last bit on the minimum use of force is critical to the consent piece. It is foundation for the disarmed stance of the force, a feature which cannot be overlooked. However, there is no value to the model if it is misunderstood and undermined by assumptions regarding politically correct tactical timidity, etc.

Despite the criticisms and potential misunderstandings, my sense is that the model may have particular utility given the modern context of protest and disorder. Defined as creating a force or service whose individuals stand as the representation of the law in uniform, independent of governments and parties, the BMP exists as an important element with a web of many institutions, customs and traditions which form British society. In this instance it is the primacy of the law and that how the police function heeds the requirements of the customary fear of arbitrary government and political tyranny. As the British Army serves parliament and not the monarch, so British policing ultimately answers to the law, all of which are meant to keep British safe within their own borders. [14]

Given all of the ideals it conveys, rationalizing public order policing according to the BMP should only be for the good. At an even deeper level, for British law enforcement generally the maintenance of this institutional culture serves the valuable purpose of setting a high standard of service. No organization was ever harmed following that banner. As proof, it’s perfectly legitimate to argue that the Marine Corps has positively thrived under such a regime, despite often being starved for attention or resources. Standards and discipline enhance the value of the Corps’ identity, which in turn drives the desire to maintain the standards and discipline – a virtuous circle. In a near term of budget constraints confronted by increasing demands the institutional culture embodied in the BMP should prove a valuable asset.


[1] I stopped counting the iterations of the phrase at 50. I started noting the incidence of the phrase at page 30.

[2] Nurturing, p. 5

[3] Adapting, p. 41

[4] Some think my views on urban security in the future context is alarmist. If I am, it’s not in the traditional sense – or for traditional purposes. My fear is not the attack but the response – draconian domestic legislation and control and/or relentless costly (blood and treasure, all sides) conflicts – in the event of surprise. So, if I am sounding an alarm it is to awaken people to the notion that restraint, thoughtfulness, and serious long term consideration are the best characteristics of response – none of which can happen if we are predisposed to fall into domestic storm trooperism. (Mktg. P. 45, the British Empire, policing and COIN.)

[5] Nurturing, p. 9

[6] Marketing, pp. 44 and 49; Jesus on the Cross is a story in an image, is it not? (p. 44)

[7] In “The Hermes Insurgent” I noted a particularly convivial exchange between a constable and two members of the public after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. I would submit that it is often these small efforts which do the most to

[8] Adapting, pp. 5 and 42

[9] Adapting, p. 15

[10] In testimony to the Home Affairs Committee’s review of the policing of G20 protests, Commander Bob Broadhurst, the MPS lead for the entire event reiterated the tactical model and its consequences: “We as a service come toe-to-toe far quicker…than any other jurisdiction in the world…which does then mean that we put our officers…in that very invidious situation of being toe-to-toe with sometimes a violent and antagonistic crowd, and then having to work out who are the decent people and who are those that are trying to attack me.” (“Policing of the G20 Protests,” 2009, p. 23)

[11] Adapting, p. 8/Note, and pp. 17, 25 and 54

[12] In the near aftermath of the G20, Lothian and Borders Police faced protests in response to NATO in which the emergent “softly, softly” approach was implemented (at least in part). The effort was reviewed by Hugo Gorringe, Michael Rosie, David Waddington & Margarita Kominou in 'Facilitating Ineffective Protest? The Policing of the 2009 Edinburgh NATO protests' (2011, Policing & Society, 21 (4)).

[13] Adapting, p. 8

[14] And when Marketing references a “Protestant people protected by Providence,” politically blessed as well as a “free people with a balanced Constitution,” but nevertheless always concerned with the “state of liberty,” I get all reverential for the Patriots of 1776. Go Founding Fathers. (pp. 46-7) Disclaimer: whether the first is true or useful, the intended adherence to the latter portions was wisdom incarnate.



Sat, 06/01/2013 - 5:01pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

I cannot deny that I had real problems with the issues you raise.

For example, I am aware of the existence of the two basic models, one for Northern Ireland and the other for Great Britain generally - as well as the variations within GB. (Fyi the "Marketing" article does a very good job of quickly and concisely explaining the different variants on law enforcement structures and characteristics generally, as well as those which pertain to the UK specifically.)

As well, while my historical knowledge is not at all where I want it to be yet, I am trying to keep in the back of my mind the differences between London, its history, and that of the rest of GB.

However, from an outsider's perspective, there is something "different" about police/policing in GB. While part is clearly derived from the national culture(s), there has to be more to this idea that there is an ethos to the law enforcement than just a myth. I don't want to impose more weight upon the concept than it deserves in actual application, but I do think it has to be considered within the scope of assessing the riots, to determine the weight it deserves as an influence. Also, and of particular importance with respect to this review, the concept is meaningful within at least some bureaucratic/institutional circles, and that does need to be taken into account.

So, this is one of the challenges of the project, but it is also what makes it quite interesting.


Wed, 05/29/2013 - 3:33pm

The author has an early article 'Military History and the London Riots', which needs to be read alongside this article.


Yes, there is a British Model of Policing (BMP), but it is a popular legend. Policing in the UK has always been different in London, the rest of England & Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each have their own powerful institutional and personal culture, although awareness of their history is not a strong trait.

In fact you can make an argument that the Northern Ireland model of policing has today greater international exposure; for CT and public order.

Since the focus is on the London rioting and more generally the policing of disorder, London has a history of policing protest and civil disorder quite unlike the rest of the UK, especially in the long ago Victorian era.

For our American readers for obscure reasons the English refer to public order and public disorder when Americans would use riot control.