The 1820 Glasgow Police Act gave the city the bragging rights for the world’s earliest civic police force. That was nine years before Sir Robert Peel established London’s Metropolitan force, often credited with being the first full-time, civilian and non-armed force for maintaining law and order. Peel did however, lend his name to the eight “Peelian Principles”, that set the parameters for policing to the present day. The second is particularly significant, stating: “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon approval of police actions."

Police authority therefore, emanates from the people not the state and amounts to policing by consent. Furthermore, Peel’s seventh principle established the non-military status of the new force: “The police are the public and the public are the police." Peel knew his force had to be as little like the army as possible. Using the army to maintain order had been unpopular, particularly after its role in the 1819 “Peterloo Massacre” at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. Two hundred years later, the implications of both policing by consent and the force’s non-military structure and role are still with us.

There has been much discussion of what policing by consent actually means. Is consent conditional, and can it be withheld under certain circumstances? The UK Government’s position is quite clear: “No individual can choose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from the law.” Earlier this year an office bearer of the Police Federation put it more starkly: “Policing by consent is a general principle not a duty." Additionally, in recent years the lack of paramilitary back-up on the European model has seen civilian forces struggle to cope with major disorder.

Read more: Pandemic: Covid proves we are all poorer if it’s the greedy who inherit the earth

Irrespective of whether a principle or duty, it’s been a difficult year for policing by consent in Scotland and the UK in general. There have been multiple challenges to police authority and response. Forces up and down the country faced the fallout from lockdown, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, the Sarah Everard vigil and protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In recent weeks police in Swansea have struggled with major disorder and hooliganism. Nearer home, Police Scotland has faced moronic behaviour in George Square and the stand-off in Kenmure Street resulting in the release of two men from UK Immigration Enforcement custody.

Of the two, Kenmure Street could be the more significant. Former chief superintendent Owen West, writing in Policing Insight, suggests the events could “represent a turning point in the public’s willingness to support policing by consent”. Most of those present, unlike Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion protesters, had no particular cause or political axe to grind. Unlike Swansea and George Square, there was no hooliganism or violence. Ordinary, local people became “accidental activists”. It was a hostile, but largely peaceful reaction, against what was perceived to be the Home Office’s immoral and unacceptable “hostile environment” for immigrants. The police were caught in the middle. Those who blockaded the Immigration Enforcement van were not necessarily withdrawing their consent from policing, but withdrawing their consent to an unfair and discriminatory UK government policy. The police, to their credit, applied common sense and arranged for the two men’s release “back into their community”. Their choice of words was significant. The subsequent row over the rights and wrongs of the police action, ignores the wider implications for policing by consent when the law and community values diverge. Home Secretary Priti Patel claims the dawn raid “was what the British people voted for”. Oh Really? I don’t remember seeing that on any ballot paper.

There is a parallel between Kenmure Street and the acquittal of six Extinction Rebellion activists, charged with criminal damage to Shell’s London HQ, during protests in 2019. In his instructions to the jury, the judge set out the legal position. “Even if their actions were morally justified”, the defendants “don’t have any defence in law”. The jury ignored the judge and acquitted all six. The judge’s words could equally be applied to Kenmure Street’s accidental activists; they had no “defence in law”. As Owen West suggests however, it’s more than likely there will be further Kenmure Streets and more juries unwilling to convict where law and community values diverge and consent to government measures is withdrawn.

Read more: Coronavirus: Why we need to show animals more respect – our lives depend on it

Kenmure Street, Bristol, Swansea and George Square have demonstrated the limitations of local forces in the face of major street disorder. The UK is unusual in its lack of a paramilitary force to provide additional “muscle”. France has its Gendarmerie, Italy the Carabinieri, Spain the Guardia Civil and the US its National Guard. Having seen the Guardia Civil in action, I suspect they would have cleared George Square in less than 20 minutes. Mind you, Glasgow’s A&E departments would have been particularly busy that evening.

For all its faults, policing in the UK and the Peelian principles are still widely admired around the world. The political and partisan “whataboutery” post-Kenmure Street and George Square, serves only to undermine the principle of consent and the ability of a non-military force to maintain public order. Politicians of all persuasions need to be mindful of how their actions and responses have major implications for UK policing. Authoritarian and divisive policies such as The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill and dawn raids by Immigration Enforcement will lead to more Kenmure Streets, that are less likely to be peaceful. If public consent is withdrawn from policies perceived to be oppressive, policing by consent will become collateral damage. The likely and unwelcome consequence may well be the loss of another of Peel’s fundamental principles and the establishment of a paramilitary force on the European model.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.