Last weekend, and for the first half of this week, I've had to endure the security arrangements for the Labour Party annual conference, which took place just next door at Manchester Central (formerly known as the GMEX). This first affected us a couple of months ago, when just after moving in we got a letter from the police asking us to ring them up so that they could send a policeman round to take our details. The policeman was very friendly, and simply checked our passports, noted our names and landlord's address. If we had a car parking space, we would have had to apply for a special permit just to have been allowed to drive in to the underground car park.
The on-street security started a couple of days before the conference, when huge concrete-filled barriers arrived on the back of big low-loader trucks, to be placed at strategic locations, blocking off roads and some underground car parks. As security measures go, these are pretty in-your-face, and are presumably designed to stop cars and trucks loaded with explosives from being able to drive too near the conference centre.
Slightly odd were the yellow entrance points that were also dotted around, looking like oversized hotel luggage trolleys. We thought at first that these would become points where there would be metal detectors or police searches. When the conference started though, they just stood there, with people walking through them (or in some cases, around them) and no obvious purpose. I'd love to know what they are designed for. Maybe they're just there to look intimidating.
By far the weirdest thing about having the conference camped next door though was getting used to seeing policeman on the roofs of the buildings opposite. There were regular roof patrols, with black uniformed police seemingly searching for explosives. Plus, on the roof of a building a bit further away, police maintained a 24 hour surveillance post. We couldn't quite tell if they were armed with sniper rifles or not, but they certainly seemed to have binoculars or telescopes, which would quite often be pointed in your general direction! Altogether it was a bit unnerving, although one roof-top policeman did at least return a wave.
The whole episode made me think about anti-terrorist security, and how it seems that the general tactic is for a large a visible 'presence' of lots of policeman (with guns), checkpoints and barriers. At airports, train stations and football matches it's all the same story. This seems like it's a long way from the hidden world of spies and MI5, and I wonder how much of it is there to both scare and reassure the general population so much as to prevent actual risks? With ID cards back in the news again, and regular reports of new security technology (like a 'mind reading' scanner), are we headed slowly towards more of a police state?
I'd love to do some research about how the public respond to these security measures. Do we feel safer or less safe to see police carrying guns? How many times do conference delegates expect their passes to be checked? If there's too few they might worry that anyone could walk in, but too many and it just gets annoying. As with lots of things, I suspect that there's a very fine balance.