Line of Duty, politics and corruption


The sixth and final series of police corruption drama Line of Duty concluded on Sunday night. I say ‘concluded’, but the ending was rather inconclusive, to the extent that it may have left the door open to continue the story.

The revelation of the identity of ‘H’ proved to be a damp squib: rather than a kingpin, H was just a cog in a wider criminal conspiracy that will continue to function as before. The chief constable remains in securely in place, determined to quash any questions about institutional corruption. A diminished AC-12 struggles on, under an unpromising leader who may or may not carry the flame. Our heroes step into the evelvator and descend back to earth, with hints that they might return to the fray.

On social media, fans who had been gripped for years by the efforts of AC-12 expressed disappointment and confusion at the ending. After investing in the show for so long, some felt let down and even angry at the lack of a clear and positive resolution.

Personally, I felt the ending was fitting, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this series of Line of Duty has been the most political of the six. The connections between politics and policing were always clear in the show. The elected official of the Police and Crime Commissioner always loomed large, putting pressure on the service to deliver what they believed to be public priorities, which was not always committing money and effort to rooting out institutional corruption.

In this series, however, the writers put speeches into the mouth of Superintedent Hastings that sounded very close to commentaries on the current political situation. When he asked in despair, ‘When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?’, he could have been talking about our political leaders, who are mired in accusations of expenses scandals, cash for access and dodgy COVID contracts. When Hastings characterised Buckles as a ‘bumbling fool’ whose ‘corruption was mistaken for incompetence’, it was pretty clear who he was really talking about.
Source: Wikipedia

In Line of Duty, as in government, the problem is with institutions rather than bad apples. And in making this case so strongly, the programme took a very political stance. This was also in keeping with the history of political corruption in Britain. Concern about ‘Old Corruption’ began in the eighteenth century, when the expansion of paid offices in the state increased concerns about the ability of the government to buy off its supporters. This upset the constitution, which relied upon balance to function properly: each element had to be able to check the others to ensure that good government was carried on in the interests of all.

As we approach the nineteenth century, this concern about elite corruption was central to the critique of the radical movement, which sought political representation for the excluded and a reform of the governing system so it did not just act in the interests of the monopoly. The vision of corruption became more elaborate, a nightmarish picture of rottenness and venality detailed in publications like The Extraordinary Black Book (1831). ‘The Thing’ was a kind of monster, with tentacles in every aspect of public life. If this sounds like the antisemitic conspiracy theories of the twentieth century, they partly had their origin in Georgian radical thought: it was in Britain that ideas about Jewish financial networks first gained ground.

Individual scandals might appear, such as the Duke of York affair of 1809, which concerned the selling of military commissions via his mistress. (It is interesting to consider what Georgian radicals would have made of accusations surrounding the current holder of that title.) But these were merely symptoms of a wider malaise, which could only be cured by radical reform of the system.

Line of Duty therefore fits a very British notion of conspiracy and corruption. It is currently showing on BBC America and will likely play well there too, since US political culture is if anything even more focused on these concerns. This was the founding ideology of the republic, since the revolution of 1776 was informed by the British radical tradition that was exported to the Americas in the eighteenth century.

The ending of Line of Duty may have felt unsatisfying as we usually expect crime fiction to deliver a clear resolution. The villain is unmasked, they rant that they would have succeeded if it wasn’t for you meddling kids, and the police procedural moves on to the next case. This is reassuring, since justice can be delivered, and individual evil is easier to explain than a problem with the world itself.

The best detective fiction is more sophisticated than this, however. Arguably the first detective novel, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, ends in a similar way. Published in instalments over 1852 and 1853 (so, like Line of Duty, it kept its readers hooked from episode to episode), it painted a vivid picture of the rottenness and corruption of the British establishment. Key characters get their happy endings, but there is no doubt that ‘The Thing’ remains intact.

Despite the heroic efforts of AC-12, it does to this day.

Matthew McCormack

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