TechnoCops and Radical Scientists: Towards a Radical History of a British Surveillance State?
The past ten years have seen the British police engulfed in scandal and controversy to an unprecedented extent. A once rather sentimental notion of ‘the best police in the world’ has given way to allegations of corruption, institutional racism, and systematic abuses of power. The use of surveillance and coercive crowd-control practices have been subject to particular criticism. Although in some cases – as with the police spies scandal – these allegations are traceable back to the late 1960s, there remains a popular assumption that it was Thatcherism which turned the police down this route, and that the role of New Labour in extending it was an inglorious historical anomaly within mainstream left wing politics.
While it is not the intention of this paper to exonerate Thatcherism’s legacy on the police, it will challenge some of the more complacent narratives about police reforms that have emerged over the past few decades, and in the process attempt to question why a recent radical history of the British police has been strangely lacking.
In particular it will focus on the growth of surveillance in public order policing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the critiques of this process which emanated from the Radical Science community of the same period. While there is much to commend about this literature, this paper will argue that a radical history fit for the present must engage with and critique both mainstream left and right wing narratives about the police, surveillance and technology, but must also question the assumptions of past radical movements as well.
About Ben Taylor
Ben Taylor is a fourth year PhD student at King’s College London, studying the emergence of electronic mass surveillance in the context of twentieth-century British policing. His thesis demonstrates how technologies like CCTV have been used in Britain since the 1950s, and charts how Britain became a world leader in electronic mass surveillance technologies by the 1970s. These developments were directly linked to a tightly networked national policing elite who were themselves deeply invested in promoting these technologies, challenging ideas about “absent-minded” surveillance. Taken together, these developments are best understood in the context of a changing matrix of concepts including welfarism, techo-nationalism and neoliberalism.