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Response to Review of Police Control Systems in Britain, 1775–1975: From Parish Constable to National Computer

I very much welcome this review, partly because it is supportive of the book, but also because I think that the substantive criticism within it is entirely reasonable. Some of that criticism concerns things which I consciously omitted, but the most useful elements of it are about the things which I got wrong. Although I concede that the book’s weaker moments ultimately derive from an attempt to cover a long time period, I am unrepentant about adopting this focus in the first place. Whether or not historians are working at this long-term level, social scientists and other commentators will be doing so. Sometimes, such as with the work of Christopher Dandeker, the conclusions are of high quality, but this is not always the case.(1a) Discussions about the ‘big picture’ of transitions to, from and within modernity are inevitable as well as essential, but it’s much harder to make them useful if the only historians taking part are those who have studied a relatively short period of time.

I agree with Kevin Rigg that the book could have done more to look at the ways that the police constable generated information. An earlier iteration of the book’s plan paid more attention to the development of an autonomous occupational culture in policing in the period 1850–1919. I dropped this because I was unable to find much to say about this period which has not already been discovered and better presented by others, such as Clive Emsley, Carolyn Steedman and (especially) Joanne Klein and Haia Shpayer-Makov.(2a) Had I left it in, there would have been more about the agency of the constable: though probably still not enough. At the start of the book (p. 3) I noted that ‘I do not examine the practise of police discretion’: but I was clearly relying on this statement to do rather too much work for me. Given that I drew some general conclusions about the nature of police control systems in the 20th century, I clearly needed to know about all aspects of their use, rather than to look merely at the top-down and horizontal channels of communication. Notably, Rigg is right to point out that even given my self-imposed limitations, I should have paid more attention to the ways that police constables on the ground used technology to originate information within the control system, and to get support for their roles. I alluded to some aspects of this in relation to personal radios in the 1960s (p. 161), but as Rigg notes, the technical innovation which actually accelerated this development the most was the earlier adoption of the telephone.

I feel, possibly correctly, that I could easily have filled another 100 pages with relevant material: though I doubt the extra length would have been worth the transition to a tome. Lack of space is a fine reason for not treating some topics (such as the 999 system) in more depth, though not an excuse for some of the weaknesses of the book as it stands. I tried to do two things: describe the ideologies and policies which structured police control systems, and describe their outcomes in terms of the systems which they generated. I think that I attained the first goal for the whole period, but was slightly weaker on the second for the 20th century, which was related to the nature of the primary and secondary source coverage for these periods.

Clearly, therefore, there is a lot more to do: Kevin Rigg is right to note that my study of the Police National Computer was heavily slanted towards its development alone. Its impact in the years after 1975 deserves more than the small number of general conclusions I drew from it: in my defence I can only say that I had to stop somewhere. An examination of the impact of the PNC on policing (and of the slightly later ‘HOLMES’ system on detection), would fill a readable and illuminating book. Already some of these topics are being studied: for example, Ben Taylor of KCL is doing good work on the history of police technology in the post-war United Kingdom as part of his doctoral research. The ongoing procurement of police information systems, what this tells us about the changing governance of the UK in the past 40 years, and how this interacted with the general shift from mainframes to networks, would also be worth a look: currently the most useful work on this topic is an unpublished thesis.(3a)

Moving away from policing as a specific instance of modernity towards the more general topic of the rise of the modern state, there is also a need for ongoing analysis of the history of the longue durée of evolving government structures. Our understanding of the past could benefit from more people following Joe Moran into the history of boring quotidian things.(4a) For example, we need more history of form-filling. The standardised paper form for the public to complete was a key technology of twentieth-century government: we should go beyond the necessary stage of noting that this didn’t always work (for which the most useful starting point is the work of James C. Scott (5a)), to writing qualitative and comparative histories of the practice.

There is another highly relevant aspect of this topic that I unaccountably failed to consider, which I noticed distressingly soon after pressing ‘send’. When, where and how did the expectation arrive that a police officer would, at all times, know the time?


  1. Christopher Dandeker, Surveillance, Power and Modernity: Bureaucracy and Discipline from 1700 to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1990).Back to (1a)
  2. Joanne Klein, Invisible Men: The Secret Lives of Police Constables in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, 1900–1939 (Liverpool, 2010); Haia Shpayer-Makov (2002) The Making of a Policeman: A Social History of a Labour Force in Metropolitan London, 1829–1914 (Aldershot, 2002).Back to (2a)
  3. Alan Naylor, ‘A critique of the implementation of crime and intelligence computing in three British Police forces 1976–1986’ (PhD, Edinburgh Napier University, 1986).Back to (3a)
  4. Joe Moran, Queueing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime (London, 2007).Back to (4a)
  5. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, NY, 2008).Back to (5a)