What happens if police join the protesters?

Neil Clark: David Cameron is taking a huge gamble by alienating the police

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 07:38 ON Wed 23 Mar 2011

Let's fast forward to October 2011. British troops are bogged down in Libya. Unemployment is edging towards three million. The price of petrol and basic foodstuffs continues to rise. Anger against the coalition's austerity measures is spilling over into widespread strikes and street demonstrations, of the sort we witnessed in Greece last year.

A huge crowd makes its way towards Downing Street. Only this time, the police, instead of barring the way of the protestors, join in with them.

An unlikely scenario? Perhaps. But while the prospect of Pc Plod joining Dave Spart on the barricades is still a remote one, David Cameron would be making a huge mistake if he were to underestimate just how hostile the boys in blue feel towards the present government.
"Bush declared war on terror, Blair declared war on crime and it's like Cameron has declared war on the public sector," a disgruntled constable, Clive Chamberlain, who has more than 30 years service with the Dorset police, told the Guardian.
In an interview with the Observer, Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said his members would have "a lot of sympathy" with those taking part in the big TUC anti-cuts march this coming Saturday.
The police are unhappy at the government's plans to reduce spending on the police service by a staggering 20 per cent over the next four years - cuts which will mean as many as 28,000 job losses - as well as a two-year pay freeze and cuts to overtime payments, housing and travel allowances.

They're also disillusioned with the government's stance on law and order. "There seems to be a dislike of policing with this present government - the so-called party of law and order is dead, it's buried, it's gone," moans McKeever.
In short, for the first time in decades, Britain has a government which is at loggerheads with the boys in blue.

The most pro-police government in the modern era was that of Margaret Thatcher. On coming to power in 1979, she immediately awarded the police a huge pay rise - as much as 45 per cent in some cases - and announced a major increase in recruitment.

From 1997, New Labour also increased police numbers and gained support from the force for its "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" policy.
But the days of government buttering up the police now seem to be gone. The coalition has made it clear that not only will policemen and women face swingeing cuts, the service itself also faces a major shake-up. In its neo-liberal crusade to "roll back the frontiers of the state", the Cameron-Clegg government is set to hive off police functions to private contractors.
However,  the police will have to tread carefully in their battle against the government.
As Robert Chesshyre wrote for The First Post this month, there is not the same instinctive public sympathy for the police as there is, say, for nurses or miners. Many regard police overtime allowances - under which they receive a minimum of four hours overtime at time-and-a-third on rest days and public holidays, even if they work for less than that time - to be over-generous.

And quite a few people would be happy to be paid an average salary of £743 a week, which the Winsor Committee found to be the average payment for male police constables and sergeants in 2009.
But whatever one thinks of the rights or wrongs of the government's proposals, taking on the police could cost Cameron dear.
The last time there was a police strike was in 1918/19 when the country faced huge industrial unrest and appeared to some to be on the brink of revolution.
Since then it's been illegal for police officers to go on strike, and although a walk-out is unlikely to happen now, there are plenty of other ways the police can cause trouble for the coalition.

Individual police officers could "look the other way" when protestors are seeking to get through to government buildings. They can march alongside demonstrators themselves. And they can hold their own protests: it has been reported that the Police Federation is considering holding a mass rally in London in the run-up to the royal wedding on April 29.
In 1984, when her government's economic policies were challenged by the National Union of Mineworkers, Margaret Thatcher used extra police numbers to great - some would say brutal - effect in quelling the revolt.

Thatcher could always count on the police's support when things turned nasty. Can Cameron?