A series of security breakdowns, starting in no less high and presumably safe a place than Buckingham Palace, has staggered London this summer. To analyze these incidents and to suggest what accounts for them, we went to Roy Hattersley, a Labor member of Parliment and the person who, as shadow cabinet Minister for Home Affairs, is likely to be in charge of just such security matters in the next Labor government. His second article wil be on the spy scandals.
Britain has just lived through two weeks of public farce and political fiasco. One hundred years ago, an urchin hid for a full week in the cavernous corridors of Buckingham Palace and then found fame and fortune as a circus exhibit--"In-I-Go Jones, the Boy Who Lived With Queen Victoria." But that was before the invention of electronic intruder alarms, closed-circuit television and the Special Branch of London's Metropolitan Police Force. Before July 9, nobody in the capital would have believed that it was possible for history to repeat itself. Yet it happened. A man--who often told his mother about Elizabeth R, his girlfriend in the fashionable West End--not merely entered the palace; he actually found his way into the queen's occupied bedroom.
Sitting on the bottom of her bed, he asked for a cigarette, talked of suicide and brandished the broken ashtray with which he proposed to slash his wrists. The queen pushed her alarm button, but no help came. So she telephoned the resident police sergeant, who carefully adjusted his uniform before he made his methodical way to the beleaguered woman. By the time he arrived at the bedroom, a footman and a maid had helped push the intruder into a pantry. The whole episode sounds, and was, ridiculous. But people who doubted the danger created by such incompetence had their complacency shattered 10 days later.
On July 20, two Provisional IRA bombs exploded in London parks. Ten soldiers--bandsmen entertaining holidaymakers and horse guards on ceremonial duties--were killed in the blast, and dozens of bystanders were injured. Commuters began to eye parked cars with nervous apprehension, and city trash cans were sidestepped with anxious suspicion. The unspoken fear reverberated through clubs and pubs: "If the Provos had known how easy it was to get into Buckingham Palace . . ."
The intruder found his way into the queen's bedroom early one Friday morning. The following day, the news of his escapade was whispered to two London newspapers--the Daily Express and the Sunday Mirror. Neither quite believed the story, and the Mirror missed the scoop of the decade by deciding not to publish what it feared was the informant's fantasy. The Express spent Sunday checking with its off-the-record contacts and felt confident enough to splash the story across Monday's front page. Once the news was out, the prime minister rushed to court with a much publicized public apology. And the home secretary promised Parliament an immediate investigation into how the unbelievable could happen.
The home secretary is directly responsible for the police in only one part of Britain--the metropolitan area of London. Already under attack from his own party because of his supposed secret sympathy with the liberal position on race and penal reform, he was immediately put under pressure to resign. His reputation was not improved by his performance in the House of Commons, where his assurance that palace security had recently been increased was greeted with inquiries about how bad it had been before improvement to the point where a man could gain access to the queen's bedroom.
The report on royal security exposed a list of inefficiencies which was so bizarre that they were barely credible. The intruder had successfully invaded the palace at least once before. And there had been numerous other incursions--both by the innocent and the ill-intentioned. On the night of July 9, almost everything went wrong. Alarm bells were ignored. A figure seen climbing the perimeter wall was not pursued. A maid saw a barefoot man outside the queen's bedroom but suspected nothing sinister. The police sergeant on duty was deceived by the calmness of the queen's manner. The footmen were exercising the dogs.
But even before the report was published, a second security scandal hit the royal court. Commander Robert Trestrail, the senior police officer responsible for the queen's safety outside the palace, resigned. A male prostitute had approached yet another newspaper (the downmarket Sun) with evidence that, for over a decade, he had been Trestrail's lover. No one suggested that the commander had performed his security duties inadequately. But the government was not in a mood to appear soft on security risks. Trestrail's resignation was either forced or gladly accepted. The home secretary told the House of Commons that yet another inquiry was to be set in train.
There are few people who believe that such a combination of frightening and farcical events could have happened outside London. In the provincial police forces, controlled by largely elected committees and responsible for much smaller areas, such continuous incompetence would be inconceivable. And the "intruder in the palace" humiliation is only the last in a series of controversies that have hit the Metropolitan Police. The reports into last year's rioting in the largely black suburbs of Brixton and Lambeth held the police at least partly to blame. For over a decade, there have been rumblings on London police corruption, periodically erupting into lurid prosecutions and convictions.
The truth is that the Metropolitan Police force has four major failings. It is too big, covering all of greater London and employing 25,000 uniformed policemen. It attempts too many diverse tasks, ranging from the queen's safety to traffic control. It is badly managed. And it has no effective authority over its strategic decisions. Its theoretical head is the home secretary, a frantically busy member of Parliament and Cabinet minister who cannot be expected to spend more than a fraction of his day on running Britain's biggest police force.
The London "bobby" remains one of the best policemen in the world--risking his life to arrest IRA bombers and guiding tourists to Trafalgar Square with equivalent aplomb. But the way in which his police force is organized makes it impossible for him to provide the service that the capital needs. The home secretary remains dubious about the need for root and branch reorganization and reform. But if he allows "the Met" to continue unchanged and another farce or fiasco hits the headlines, the calls for his resignation will be irresistible.