There are signs that Oxford’s police may apply some thought before closing Magdalen Bridge to May Morning revellers next year. Even more astonishing is the fact that Supt Jim Trotman begins to believe that civil liberties may have a place in a debate which has hitherto ignored them.
The “tradition” of jumping off Magdalen Bridge on May morning is not an ancient one. Even if it were hallowed by the centuries, you would need to be an extreme devotee of tradition to jump from a road bridge down into 2 feet of water – or too drunk or stupid, of course.
One boy was paralysed in the late 1990s. 40 people were injured in 2005. The arguments for closing the bridge to prevent jumpers include one sensible one – that Casualty has more important things to do – and several less worthy ones to do with excess of authority, power exercised for its own sake, and the arrogation of other peoples’ right to choose what they do.
Be clear that there is in fact a risk involved here. One may not be too bothered about prats who injure themselves by jumping (I am certainly not), but there is a risk of the whole parapet toppling into the river through sheer weight of numbers. It is arguable that the ban becomes both part of the incentive to jumpers and an enhancement of the risk – I watched from the Botanic Gardens below a couple of years ago and it seemed to me that the whole business of having to evade the security men and climb the fencing was simultaneously part of the game and an additional source of danger.
I am against a ban, whatever the risk, because of the way in which the police and the two councils misuse their authority, both generally and in this particular instance. There is a parallel in the opposition to the powers which Tony Blair sought for dealing with terrorists – the misuse of the powers he had already, and his contempt for civil liberties, made Parliament unwilling to grant him wider powers.
One ground of opposition is a reaction against officialdom in an era when government and council pen-pushers and self-important councillors and policemen encroach further and further into our lives. Another is the cost of the ban in fencing, security guards and police over-time which at the least ought to be off-set against the possible NHS costs. Another is the inconvenience caused by closing the main East-West entry into the city from 3:00 am.
The clincher for me lies in two quotations from policemen. A spokesman for Thames Valley Police is quoted by the BBC as saying “I suppose it is about protecting people from themselves”. Well, Flatty, when you have got back to protecting us from those who intend us harm in our homes and streets you can perhaps start thinking about protecting us from ourselves. Ask the woman who cut my hair last week, still miserable about her lost treasures, who had phoned in vain for the police whilst burglars ransacked her house – what would you prefer, Madam, someone to protect you at home or scores of Plods on overtime preventing dim youths from the Poly from jumping off a bridge?
Then one Victoria Bartlett of Thames Valley Police reacted to complaints of inconvenience by saying “We publicised it months in advance that the bridge was to be closed”. Just smell the arrogance of the woman who is going to be paid because of the closure, talking of those whose businesses would suffer – we told you that you were going to be inconvenienced, she says, so that makes it all right.
Supt Jim Trotman seems to have had a change of heart:
“I’m increasingly uneasy about a society that has police officers and wire fences involved in the management of what should be a largely fun, enjoyable and traditional celebration within this great city.”
Well, I am increasingly uneasy about a society in which the little men gain, and use, more power daily, power to poke into our bins, to tell us where we cannot smoke and generally to substitute their judgement for ours.
The cynic in me says that Trotman is less concerned about society than he is about the public perception of his police force – if they are to be criticised and attacked, he would rather it was on some other ground than this.
Let them jump. They might learn something, not least some basic physics, some truths about the frailty of the human body, and about the effect on Casualty departments of having Patricia “Useless” Hewitt in charge of the NHS budget.
Now there’s someone who might usefully jump off a bridge.