One of a long line of barbarians

Sir Kenneth Newman
15 August 1926–4 February 2017

A few national newspapers carried bland, uncritical obituaries for Kenneth Newman, former Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and former Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, making out that, despite a few ‘issues’, on the whole, here was an honest cop interested in management and reform of Britain’s police ‘service’ and opposed to freemasonry. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Newman was instrumental in the transformation of British policing – from ‘policing by consent’ to paramilitary policing. He was one of a cohort of leading figures in the British state – in political circles, the Army and the police – who form an unbroken line of experts and promoters of brutality, torture and coercion in the interests of British imperialism.

Newman claimed to have been first attracted to a career of a police officer by the prospect of wearing shorts to work in a sunny climate. It could not have been an accident, however, that he joined the Palestine Police in 1946 at exactly the time when the nature of policing in Britain’s colonies was an issue. His career coincided with that of army officer Frank Kitson, later to be Brigadier General, Head of UK Land Forces, but at the time active in British imperialism’s ‘hotspots’: Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya (Mau Mau rebellion). Kitson went on to theorise British strategy for dealing not only with crises in the colonies, but more importantly, as the capitalist crisis developed, the prospect of insurgency in Britain itself. Kitson wrote Low Intensity Operations,1 a manual for ‘counter-insurgency’, repression, surveillance and psychological operations for use against working class and anti-imperialist movements. Although Kitson and Newman never mentioned it, there was a close parallel between their trajectories, which were to encompass tours of duty in the north of Ireland and the top echelons of the Army and police in Britain.

In 1973 Newman, by now an ex-Commander in the Metropolitan Police, was brought to the Six Counties to play a central role in the reorganisation of the RUC. The aim was to transform the RUC into a force capable of gathering and using information of the kind needed to defeat the IRA and break the back of its support in the nationalist community. In the meantime, in the early 1970s, as operational commander in Belfast, Kitson’s ideas had underpinned the organisation of Military Reconnaissance Force squads carrying out undercover assassinations of republican supporters, with the promise that he would ‘squeeze the Catholic population until they vomit the gunmen out of their system’.2 Following Bloody Sunday, Kitson was moved out of Ireland, but Newman’s reorganisation of the RUC followed Kitson’s requirements. Newman was promoted to Chief Constable of the RUC in 1976 and, together with Roy Mason, the Labour government’s Northern Ireland Secretary from 1976-79, who promised to ‘squeeze the IRA like toothpaste’, Newman instituted a system of brutality and torture in specially constructed interrogation centres. Despite the notorious failure of this strategy, which resulted not only in widespread criticism of the torture regime but also a dramatic worsening of the crisis, Newman gained a great deal of experience for the British ruling class and was quickly transferred to Britain. Less than one year after the uprisings in British cities in the summer of 1981, Newman was made Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

As Commissioner, Newman was a leading figure in the transformation of British policing to deal with imperialism’s political opponents wherever they emerged. In 1983, the Association of Chief Police Officers issued a secret handbook, the Public Order Manual, which codified the end of traditional ‘policing by consent’ and the implementation of a policing strategy based on the experiences of the RUC and the paramilitary Royal Hong Kong Police. The new strategy was used against striking miners in 1984-85 and the black community of Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, in October 1985, amongst others. All opposition to capitalism in Britain itself was now described as ‘the enemy within’.

The Guardian leader of 8 October 1985 bemoaned the outlook as ‘irredeemably bleak’ following the Broadwater Farm uprising. In response to the disorder, Newman had blamed ‘organised gangs of Trotskyists or anarchists’ and promised plastic bullets would be used ‘for the first time on the mainland’ along with whatever methods he thought necessary to maintain law and order. This was a repeat of the policing strategy that had failed in Ireland in the 1970s, although the Guardian leader failed to mention this. What the newspaper did recognise echoed Kitson’s message in Low Intensity Operations.

‘There is nothing firm to hang on to. Britain's Afro-Caribbean population tragically lacks the kind of middle-class leadership which has already begun to develop amongst the Asians here. There is precious little sense of community, and so few community leaders who can speak for – or reach – people like the 500 masked youths who rampaged around Broadwater Farm. Nor does there seem a single black politician with the statemanship or foresight to warn where this spiral of violence will lead.’

Shortly after his appointment as Commissioner, Newman had supported this view, claiming that the black population in London lacked middle-class leadership. Following the inner city uprisings, the ruling class set about creating a layer that could be relied on to contain the struggle: a new cohort of ‘community leaders’ and ‘black MPs’ were recruited to do the job. Other aspects of the ‘new’ policing are now well entrenched: the activities of undercover police squads to monitor political opposition; paramilitary policing of political demonstrations whenever necessary; shoot-to-kill and tasering, for example. Abroad, Kitson’s strategy of coercion and torture has become the international standard, following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is also no accident that the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, hailed as the ‘first woman’ in post, was the operational commander in charge when the wholly innocent Jean Charles de Menezez was summarily executed at Stockwell tube on 22 July 2005, and true to form, the police immediately set up rumours to cover up the murder. Newman may be dead but his legacy still lives.

Jane Bennett

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017

1. Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping (1971), Faber and Faber, reprint 1991.

2. Ireland: the Key to the British revolution David Reed, Larkin Publications 1984. This title and other articles on the history of the activities of Newman and Kitson are available on our website: in particular see Editorial FRFI31 August 1983, reprinted in FRFI 135 February 1997.


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