OBITUARY: Sir David McNee

McNee Sir DavidSource: Daily Telegraph with additional reporting by Bill Heaney

Sir David McNee, who has died aged 94, was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police from 1977 to 1982, when he faced a series of crises ranging from the Brixton riots to the debacle of an intruder in the Queen’s bedroom.

His arrival at Scotland Yard from Strathclyde Police coincided with a collapse of morale caused by poor pay, to a point where there was talk of a police strike.

Although McNee, pictured right,  was a tough policeman, Glasgow-bred, his detractors accused him of ignoring the political implications of some of his problems. In the face of deepening racial conflicts, picket lines and National Front marches, McNee called for greater powers to stop and search, to limit demonstrations and to refuse bail.

McNee was politically less astute than his predecessor Sir Robert Mark, and he lacked administrative expertise, arriving at the Met from Scotland with little grasp of its Byzantine machinery. Few were surprised when he announced his early retirement in 1982.

The son of a Glasgow railway worker, David Blackstock McNee was born on March 23 1925 in one of the city’s tenements. His family’s two-roomed accommodation was one of the few with an indoor lavatory, and in later years McNee would joke that it made his one of the better-off families in the area.

He was educated at Woodside Senior Secondary School, was a keen and accomplished footballer, played trombone and euphonium in the Boys’ Brigade band, and developed a good singing voice with which, in later years as Commissioner, he would often entertain guests at his house.

To the disappointment of his parents, he left school at 15 to take a job with the Clydesdale Bank, and three years later, in 1943, was called up for service in the Royal Navy.

On his discharge, he applied to two police forces, the Met in London and the City of Glasgow Police. In the event, he joined Glasgow, the one which had responded to his application.

His career took off in 1968. As a chief inspector he was encouraged by a senior officer to apply for the vacant post of deputy chief constable of Dunbartonshire Constabulary. McNee was reluctant, and it was only his wife’s cajoling that drove him out into the pouring rain to post his application. His car ran out of petrol and he was soaked to the skin, but his application caught the last post and he got the job.

He was in post at Dumbarton Police Headquarters at Crosslet when the then Chief Constable, William Kerr, who had been one of the detectives assigned to the Stone of Destiny case, was terribly injured when he was struck by the rear rotor blade of a helicopter the Dunbartonshire Force had been testing for its suitability to introduce policing from the air.

Sir David was appointed as temporary successor to William Kerr. He moved to Dumbarton and with his wife, Lady Isabella,  and took up residence in Cardross, where he was an elder in the village kirk.

Three years later, McNee was approached by the chief constable of Aberdeen, who made it plain that he would stand a very good chance of succeeding him if he cared to apply. At the same time, however, McNee was invited to submit himself for the post of the head of the Glasgow force, and in April 1971, just nine years after promotion to sergeant in the City of Glasgow Police, he returned as chief constable.

The Glasgow force was doomed to be absorbed in a wave of amalgamations, and McNee was anxious for his future. But his fears were groundless, and in May 1975 he became chief constable of the newly created Strathclyde Police.

This was a formidable challenge. The task of running the new force, the second largest in Britain, covering a sprawling terrain containing more than half the Scottish population, brought many unique problems.

But McNee would remain in Glasgow, where the new force was headquartered, for less than two years. After some 15 months in his new post, he was summoned to London to see the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins.

In his memoir he tells of receiving a telephone call from Robert Armstrong, head of the police department at the Home Office, informing him that Jenkins wanted to discuss the new computerised command-and-control system at Strathclyde.

The detective in McNee was not fooled by this ruse, and he was not surprised, on arrival at the Home Office, to be confronted by Jenkins, Armstrong, Sir Arthur Peterson (permanent secretary at the Home Office) and Sir James Haughton, the chief inspector of constabulary.

According to McNee, the interview was a strange one, covering all kinds of general police topics; only later was any reference made to his suitability for the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, when the officials explained that he, among others, was being considered to succeed Sir Robert Mark.

The note of high farce was sustained when a Sunday newspaper mistakenly announced that Colin Woods, the current deputy, was to get the Commissioner’s job. The report was widely believed and Woods received letters of congratulation. The announcement of McNee’s appointment was brought forward and he became Commissioner in March 1977.

Predictably, many in the Met resented the appointment of a chief with no previous service in their own force, and disinformation was rife: McNee was labelled “The Hammer”, a figure who abhorred swearing, abolished promotion celebrations, forbade familiarity between officers of differing ranks, and demanded to see every single letter that arrived at Scotland Yard.

On the surface he was a mild-mannered, but extremely hard man who had earned his nickname while working with Detective Superintendent Tom Goodall on a highly publicised illegal money lending case.

Gangsters charged poor families in then deprived Govan astronomical lending rates which they enforced with unspeakable violence until The Hammer brought them to justice in the High Court and they were sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.

Above all, it was rumoured, he was a teetotaller and would allow no one to drink in his presence. In fact, McNee, who as a young constable had patrolled Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, was perfectly tolerant of drunks. He once tried to persuade an over-refreshed and argumentative detective to go home peacefully for his own good.

When the man demurred, he was briefly suspended from duty before being transferred to the uniformed branch – his sole punishment for an offence which could (and some thought should) have resulted in dismissal.

Early in McNee’s term of office, a committee headed by Lord Edmund-Davies recommended a vast improvement in police pay and conditions, and he viewed with satisfaction the rise in his force numbers from 22,000 officers when he arrived to 26,500 by the time he retired.

These developments were overshadowed, however, two years after his appointment, by civil disorder. The first serious outbreak resulted in the death of Blair Peach, a New Zealand-born schoolteacher, at a National Front demonstration in Southall, the heart of London’s Asian community.

Setting aside the causes of the clash, the fact remained that at its end, 97 police officers had been injured and Blair Peach, a Left-wing activist, lay dead, the evidence pointing to the fatal blow having been struck by a police officer.

McNee ordered an immediate inquiry, but it was difficult, if not impossible, to identify the single officer who might have killed Peach from the 3,000 on duty that day. Despite a thorough investigation, the Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution, and McNee was left to face allegations of a cover-up.

Although outbreaks of public disorder in London occur capriciously, McNee seemed to suffer more than his fair share: Notting Hill, Southall, Ilford, Lewisham. Violence also surrounded the trade dispute at the Grunwick photo-processing factory at Willesden, which arose over the payment of non-union rates to Asian workers, most of whom went on strike. But a handful of them wished to continue in employment at the existing rates, and furthermore declined to join a union.

The TUC marshalled armies of demonstrators, several MPs and other prominent figures, backed by disparate groups unconnected with the dispute. The unrest dragged on for months and, to protect those who wanted to work, large numbers of police were deployed.

The most dramatic event in McNee’s term of office – televised live as it unfolded – was the storming of the Iranian embassy in Princes Gate, Kensington, where 24 hostages, including PC Trevor Lock, had been held for six days.

After considerable soul-searching, and for the first time in more than 100 years, McNee called in the military to break the impasse, attacking the embassy and freeing all but one of the hostages unharmed; five terrorists and one of the hostages were killed.

But all these were mere curtain-raisers for the events unleashed in April 1981 when Brixton erupted into violence. Ironically, the catalysts were the police themselves: two officers taking part in Operation Swamp, an initiative aimed at cutting street crime, saw a black man hiding something in his sock.

Thinking it was cannabis, the officers challenged him, only to discover that he was a minicab driver, wisely hiding his money.

But the incident was enough to ignite the smouldering fires of resentment. A crowd of 30 to 40 people gathered and began shouting abuse. A swelling mob tried to release a man who had been arrested, and within the hour the first petrol bomb arced through the air.

Although the rioting reached its peak on the first night, it continued unabated for three days, leaving more than 400 police injured and millions of pounds worth of damage.

The other big problem to face McNee concerned the Royal family. At the 1981 Trooping the Colour ceremony, a deranged youth called John Sargent discharged five blank rounds from a pistol at the Queen as she rode to Horse Guards Parade.

The only real casualty was a frightened horse, but it was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the monarch on state occasions.

More serious was the astonishing revelation that an unemployed man called Michael Fagan had managed to get inside Buckingham Palace, where he sat on the Queen’s bed, asked for a cigarette, and engaged her in conversation, this despite the much-vaunted and (it was claimed) recently improved security systems in place there.

The resulting outcry found McNee, embattled at Scotland Yard, resisting calls for his resignation, one of which (according to McNee himself) came from Sir Brian Cubbon, who had replaced Peterson as permanent secretary at the Home Office.

As if that were not enough, a fortnight later came the claim from a male prostitute that he had for some time been engaged in a homosexual relationship with Commander Michael Trestrail, the Queen’s bodyguard. Trestrail admitted it and resigned.

It was a sad valediction for McNee, but his retirement date had been announced some months earlier, and he left office in October 1982, leaving behind him a strong body of opinion, not least within the force itself, that he should have resigned at the time of the Fagan affair.

Following his departure from Scotland Yard, McNee was appointed to directorships with Trusthouse Forte and the Clydesdale and North of Scotland Bank, and was security adviser to British Airways. He was part of the Express Newspapers’ team with Lord Matthews who purchased the Helensburgh Advertiser and Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter. He published his autobiography, McNee’s Law, in 1983.

David McNee was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 1975 and knighted in 1978.

With his first wife, Isabella Clayton Hopkins, who died in 1997, he had a daughter. He married secondly, in 2002, Lilian Campbell (née Bogie).

Sir David McNee, born March 23 1925, died April 26 2019 


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