OPINION: Water cannon must not be allowed on the streets of London

[UPDATE March 11, 2015] ​Home Secretary Theresa May has withheld approval for three crowd control water cannons bought by London Mayor Boris Johnson at a cost of over £200,000.

According to The Guardian, a government source said a decision on licensing would be delayed until after the general election in May.

There is an unattractive competition taking place between the Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, about who will ultimately get the credit for deciding that water cannon should be allowed on the streets of London.

Those of us who oppose the use of water cannon in London must join together to ensure that neither Johnson nor May wins their battle. A no-score-draw between them is the result I want to see. The very idea of police using water cannon in London is odious. It will not cut crime or prevent the type of public disorder which by its nature is sudden and swift. It will breed terrible resentment against the police.

There is a grotesque irony that in the same week that politicians are falling over themselves to explain what “British values” means to them, this most un-British of authoritarian public control is being considered. One of the most important tenets of a liberal and democratic society is that policing happens by consent. Water cannon is not suitable for a civilised police force; it is militaristic and brutal. Individual officers in the Metropolitan Police carry out selfless and brave work on behalf of communities every day, even as the service as a whole is viewed with suspicion in many parts of our city. How on earth the establishment within that police service expects to rebuild its reputation among London’s communities, which has been tarnished after repeated outrages, defies belief.

Water cannon carries dark associations which are very difficult to shrug off. First used in Germany in the 1930s, and never before used in England, Scotland or Wales, the introduction of water cannon in London would sound the death knell for the treasured right within a free and democratic society to peaceful protest without fear of harm from the authorities. The actual use of water cannon is indiscriminate, meaning innocent protesters would be caught up in any attack on a suspect who is causing criminal damage. It is also not easy to see how water cannon would even prevent such criminal damage from occurring; if anything, the anger felt towards a police force which had used it would spur on and encourage dissent, not dampen it down.

When I raised this issue recently on Twitter and among friends, a few people asked me about the London riots. And indeed, I suspect if it were not for the riots in 2011, we would not be so far down this dangerous road, because Theresa May herself had in fact said no to water cannon back in 2010. But it would be a great shame if the tragedy of the riots, which destroyed the livelihoods and businesses of so many innocent Londoners, were to be used as an excuse for this most angry form of policing to be sanctioned in our great city. The London Assembly Police & Crime Committee (LAPCC) have investigated whether water cannon should be used in London and they questioned Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He told the Committee that use of water cannon in response to the riots would not have been effective. “All the experience of water cannon that I have says that a fast-moving, imprecise, cut-and-run situation is not when you would use them. It would not do.”

This is one of those terrible moments in politics in this country where we seem to drift, as a society, into catastrophic decisions which are not backed up by evidence. They arise, I feel, out of the need to always be seen to be “doing something”. Allowing water cannon on London’s streets will not cut crime. It will not prevent serious disorder on those rare occasions in our city where mass protest turns to such disorder. It will hurt people for whom it was not even intended. And it will change, irrevocably, the relationship between the individual and the Police, ending, in an instant, the concept of policing by consent.

Join me in sending a clear message to the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London that water cannon must not be allowed on the streets of London.

Sign the petition today.