Out on the beat in London

Jonathan Laurence 26 January 2008

I am justifiably nervous about the list of questions I sent off to Brian Paddick’s campaign team the day before the interview. After all, most of the things I plan to ask the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor are going to be about homosexuality. Recently retired from the police after a distinguished 30 years’ serving on the force, Paddick is hardly your stereotypical gay man.

So why the hell, I ask myself, am I going to spend 20 minutes talking to this man, who has made such an effort not to be defined by his sexual orientation, about LGBT issues. The fact that he has very publicly asked questions like “What has my sexuality got to do with my ability?” makes me very uneasy about conducting an interview centering heavily on all things gay-related.

Why am I not asking him about his plans for London transport? Or his proposals to sort the capital’s chronic housing shortage? Or how his experience as a senior police officer would shape the way he tackled the city’s problems with crime?

In the course of the interview, I pelt Paddick with some of the clich├ęs that dominate media coverage of the gay community, and he makes short work of all of them.

Although the police force has been notoriously homophobic in the past, don’t you think that the situation is improving, I ask. “I don’t really know”, he responds, “because I think that as society becomes more liberal and gay people are more open about their sexualities, they are become an easier target as far as homophobes are concerned.

“In the last year the Gay Police Assocation had more complaints about homophobia than they have had at any time in their history. Now it could be because officers feel they can be more open about their sexuality, but people still worry that we are getting an increasing number of incidents.”

At another point in the interview, I question whether the homophobia of the tabloid press is reflective of the attitudes of the general population. “I think that people like you and I”, Paddick begins, “who have lots of liberal (with a small l) and intelligent friends find it hard to believe that there are LGBT people up and down the country who suffer extreme homophobia in their day to day lives. There are… high levels of homophobia, that we in our little liberal bubble don’t experience”.

And Paddick also dismisses my suggestion that successive Labour governments have performed sterling work in tackling prejudice. “They have done a lot in terms of pushing through legislation in order to prevent discrimination”, he admits.

“But it takes a lot more than passing laws before you rid society of unfair discrimination.

“And I think that the Labour government could do a lot more in terms of trying to change the culture of society, rather than simply passing more and more pieces of legislation,” he adds.

I only realise later that Paddick is someone who can actually claim to have “changed the culture of society” in the past, and that he just might be capable of doing so again. During his time as commander for Lambeth, his innovative policing style improved relations between the force and members of the public.

Although his postings on a radical Brixton-based internet forum drew criticism from the right-wing press, his popularity among residents was partly down to his unconventional attempts to engage with the local community. When he was transferred from the post in 2002 amid unsubstantiated allegations of drug-taking, he received an unprecedented level of support from people traditionally hostile to the efforts of law enforcement.

I try and tell Paddick that some of what I see as his most positive qualities – his willingness to take a different perspective, for example, or to employ unconventional strategies, might be attributed to his homosexuality. My amateur psychological assessment continues as I suggest that his sexuality might have made him an outsider in the force, which would have helped him to take a different line from other senior officers. I am very quickly shot down.

“Well, if we fall into that trap, we give sustenance to our enemies”, Paddick claims. “It’s not about LGBT people having particular qualities. You get the full range of personalities and types within the LGBT community as you do within mainstream society. To say that gay people have particular characteristics is as meaningless as to say that straight people do.”

He then returns to the subject of his career in the police, and argues that: “In terms of my progression, I honestly believe that I got very close to the top of the police service because I was very good at my job – and it was nothing to do with my sexuality.

“I didn”t formally or officially come out, or acknowledge my sexuality, until 25 years into my 30 year career.”

And did you ever think about leaving the police force, I ask. “I considered leaving the police service on a regular basis”, he quickly states. “Not just because of the prejudice I saw against LGBT people, but because of racism and sexism that I also witnessed, and also in terms of the illegal and right-wing attitudes that I saw displayed within the police service.

“The only thing that really kept me going was the belief that I could change the culture, and change the attitudes of officers within the police service from the inside, rather than from the outside.”

Paddick tells me that he did eventually quit the police force after being sidelined for speaking out over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell Tube station in 2005. “It was made perfectly clear to me that I had been sidelined because of that issue”, he claims, “and therefore I was effectively neutered in terms of effecting change. I was also very clearly told that I was not wanted in the police force. So the only thing to do was for me to leave.”

This section of the conversation provides us with a good opportunity to finally move beyond homosexuality, as I finally give him a chance to tell me about his priorities for London mayor. He talks passionately about his proposals for London’s transport system, as well as voicing his concerns at the state of the capital’s housing market. “We need decent, reasonably priced rental accommodation, and I will do everything I can within my power as mayor (and there are considerable powers to do with housing) to try and ease that situation”, he says.

It almost seems unnecessary to talk about his ability to tackle the city’s problems with crime, so when he says “Clearly I know more about crime and how to deal with it than any of the other candidates who are running”, his comment feels (in the context of the interview) like far more of a throwaway than it should do.

We talk a bit more about his proposals for London transport, and then the interview ends rather abruptly. It ends before I can thank him for one of the most challenging and interesting conversations I’ve ever had.

The last thing I have a chance to say is a quick non-question about his opponents in the London mayor election race. “Ken or Boris, who’s worse?”, I ask, and for the first time in the whole interview, the answer that I receive is predictable.

“Both as bad as each other”, he says.

Jonathan Laurence