Feature: What does The Wire say about the Tories?

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling says the UK is turning into a scene from the Wire. The gritty US cop show, set on the streets of Baltimore, shows an underclass living in extreme poverty, with violence and crime an everyday event. David Cameron may have gone to school with its lead star, Dominic West, but the similarities between Tory politics and the Wire’s message are not as simple as Grayling thinks.

By Ian Dunt

Warning: Spoilers

Capitalism

The Wire functions as a spectrum-wide critique of capitalism. As creator David Simon said of the second season: “The second season of The Wire, centred around Baltimore’s dying port unions, is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.”

The Wire shows the effect of capitalism without restrictions. The people of inner-city Baltimore go through life with no help from the state – health services barely exist, school is treated as a pre-determined waste of time, and life is, in Hobbes’ words, “nasty, brutish and short”.

The scenes focussing on Baltimore’s docks, where industry has long since dried up and gone home, show the gradual corruption of an honest profession in the face of joblessness, fewer and fewer contracts, and proud working men struggling to make ends meet.

By and large, it’s a decidedly left-wing piece of work, with the status of the poor associated with the structure of unfettered capitalism. This would play appallingly badly with Tory philosophy, but peculiarly well with the all-new ‘progressive’ Conservative party. Grayling’s speech, which associates The Wire with ‘broken Britain’ and a concern for the poor, is a clever trick. Loved particularly by city-dwelling liberals, an understanding of the dynamics at play in The Wire is a clear indication to progressive voters that the Tories are no longer the nasty party. Or at least – that’s the message.

Target culture

A recurring theme in The Wire is the distorting effect of targets on human behaviour. When 14 unidentified female bodies are discovered at the start of season two, various police figures spend considerable time trying to make sure they are not defined as being within their jurisdiction. Another 14 bodies on the books puts the department well above target. In season four, Prez is forced to give up on his creative teaching work with tough pupils, an approach which was paying dividends. Once state-level targets take hold, the teaching staff are forced to watch their pupils’ attention and enthusiasm drift away as they batter them with maths exercises.

All of this fits in rather nicely with Tory commitments to end top-down targets, specifically in the NHS and, to a lesser extent, schools. The Wire dedicates considerable time and energy to showing the effect of targets on human behaviour. The typical response, as we already know from stories surrounding NHS waiting lists, is to fix the numbers. Similar practises can be found in the financial realm, not least of all in private finance initiatives. Rarely do targets modify human behaviour in quite they way they were meant to. And numbers fail to always tell us the truth about the world around us.

Privacy

It is, after all, called The Wire, and the programme focuses extensively on the use of surveillance techniques by police. Accordingly, the gangs use “burners” – disposable pre-paid mobile phones – to prevent detection. The formalities surrounding legal approval for wire-taps are shown to be just that, although occasionally the political wind changes, and valuable taps are thrown in the bin by a police department which fails to appreciate the time required for major cases.

The show’s attitude to these wire-taps is understated. The privacy implications are not entered into – in fact the show’s implied attitude is of officialdom standing in the way of ground-level policing’s common sense. This is all very well for the Tories, whose main privacy advocate – David Davies – still holds a peculiar position in the party: too popular to be put fully out in the cold, too much of a wildcard to ever be given his old job back. Besides, no one is enough of a civil liberties extremist to object to these people being wire-tapped. Brutal, violent drug dealers being followed doesn’t equate to local councils checking on whether you live in the right school catchment area.

Drugs

Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin begins season three with a brilliantly written speech to his force in which he describes the brown paper bag as a corner-stone of America’s political and social system. Police didn’t want to spend their working lives busting people for drinking on the street. Drinkers on the street didn’t want to spend their lives being busted. So the brown paper bag emerged – a practical, if weirdly childish, application which made life liveable for all involved. It was a small step from that to Hamsterdam, the region of the city he establishes as a pilot project for effectively legalising drugs, and, tacitly, prostitution. Neighbourhoods outside the zone become safer. Police can dedicate themselves to other crimes, and outreach workers come into contact with groups which are famously hard to grab face-time with. Murder rates are down. Crime rates are down. Basically, after a lot of hard work, it starts to pay off, but political realities contrive to end the experiment.

The storyline would play spectacularly badly with the Tories, who remain implacably opposed to any liberalisation of the drug laws. The legalisation argument – widely accepted among the intellectual classes on both the left and right wing of political opinion – remains the great unsayable in mainstream political discourse, with plenty of tabloid editors ready to grab the throat of any politician brave enough to suggest it. A recent survey of Tory parliamentary party candidates at the next election showed most took a tough line on drugs, with 28 per cent wanting no change to cannabis’ current classification as class B, and 29 per cent wanting the law toughened even further.

The moral grey area

Treatise on capitalism it may be, but The Wire does not deal in moral absolutes. One of the central qualities of the show is the ability of deeply flawed characters to behave decently, and pillars of the community to be portrayed as self-concerned careerists. Jim McNulty, for instance, is a womanising alcoholic drink-driver, who cheated on his wife and spends most of his evenings downing whisky and vomiting. He is, by some considerable extent, the character with the strongest moral core – exhibiting a genuine anger over murders which most of his colleagues – likable or not – treat as a professional annoyance.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s tax incentives for married couples are not necessarily in vogue. Detective Shakima ‘Kima’ Greggs may fail to maintain her relationship with lesbian partner Cheryl once they adopt a baby, but the latter is shown to be quite capable of being a loving parent as a single mother, and later with her new partner. Meanwhile, the heart-breakingly damaged character of Reginald ‘Bubbles’ Cousins, who can’t beat his battle with drugs, nevertheless provides one of the only father figures available to teenager Sherrod, even if that takes the form of hawking small goods from a supermarket trolley – much of it illegally. The Tories simplistic reliance on traditional families and tax incentives for couples to stay together have no place in the complex, challenging world portrayed in the show.

Friendship

Cameron’s penchant for surrounding himself with a coterie of trusted friends is replicated in The Wire – and not in a good way. At one point, 14 of Cameron’s shadow front bench spokesmen were old Etonians, with a few more in his private office. The Tory leader is famous for surrounding himself with people he knows and trusts.

Similar habits are present in The Wire, where promotion and success are dependent on personal relationships. The entire currency of the professional system in Baltimore PD is based on doing people favours, covering up for them, and making sure your back is covered when the proverbial hits the fan.

No-one’s ever suggested Cameron’s loyalty to his friends is a mask for the use of favours as political currency, but the informal, unjust way in which promotions are conducted in The Wire might just be one of those comparisons the Tories would rather avoid.

Final assessment

The Wire provides a useful hook for Grayling to hang his ideas on progressive politics and a Tory party concerned with helping the poor, but it’s a dangerous one too. To compare the UK today to the scenes evidenced in The Wire is absurd to the point of being laughable. There is no part of Britain as bad as inner-city Baltimore. To suggest otherwise is opportunistic. The Tories should also be careful of straying into comments on programmes which deal with the real, grey fabric of the world, where live is complicated and difficult, and moral choices cannot be reduced to political soundbites. No programme on television is more complex and intelligent than The Wire. Many of its adherents will tell you that it offers a far more sensible, honest, and left-wing assessment of the world than the Tories have. They might just be right.