On Wednesday November 3, I was driving along the Embankment in Londonwhen a policeman flagged me down. It was 11.30 in the morning, and I was in reasonable time for a meeting with lawyers due to start at midday.
The constable was accompanied by another policeman and a group of three men in what looked a little like traffic wardens' uniforms. These, I later discovered, were Mr Blunkett's new militia, the police community support officers (PCSOs). Their task, according to Sir John Stevens, is to "perform the vital role of security patrols in central London, deterring criminals and providing intelligence to police officers".
"We are conducting random stop and search under current anti-terrorist legislation," began the constable, addressing me through my open side window. "Would you mind if we searched your vehicle? We're training these new community support officers."
Although a little worried about being late for my meeting, I agreed to the search. I unlocked the doors and they went through my car and its contents: my overnight bag, my washbag and glove box. Next, they gestured towards my briefcase. As I lifted the lid I pointed out to them a Victorinox Swiss multi-tool, contained in a small webbing case, and a small collapsible baton, contained in another piece of webbing.
It is perfectly legal to buy both of these items. The penknife I carry because I find it useful for many small everyday tasks - cutting through packaging, opening bottles. The baton I bought to keep at home for security reasons. I live in a rural part of Suffolk that, although relatively crime-free, is policed very sparsely. I often hear people outside the house at night and I feel more comfortable with the baton inside the front door. A week or so before, I had discovered my young daughters playing with it and had locked it in my briefcase for safekeeping.
The community support officers reacted immediately. They behaved as if they had never seen a penknife before, pulling out the bottle-opener, the corkscrew, the thing that gets stones out of horses' hooves. "This device has a locking blade," said the constable. My goodwill towards the police began to give way to alarm. I reached for my mobile to call the lawyers and explain that I was going to be late but the constable stopped me. "Turn that phone off," he said. "You're about to be arrested for possessing offensive weapons and carrying a bladed instrument in public. You'll be allowed one call when we get you to Charing Cross police station."
I asked the constable whether this was, in his opinion, a valuable use of police time and resources. This was when the policemen and the PCSOs started to become hostile. "You've committed an offence, mate, and you'd better get used to the fact that you're going down for six months," said one policeman.
"Do you realise, sir," said another, "that behind us is the Ministry of Defence, a key target for potential terrorists?"
"But why did you stop me in the first place: do I seriously look like a potential terrorist?" I asked.
"We stop one in every 25 cars on a random basis, and, let me tell you, sir, criminals and terrorists come in many different guises," he replied.
"Shouldn't you be concentrating on men of Arab extraction?" This seemed to me to be a sensible question, relevant to the current state of the world.
The policeman said: "That is a racist comment, sir." Then the van appeared. I was locked in the back and ferried to Charing Cross. Upon arrival, I was subjected to the as-seen-on-TV rigmarole of being booked in by the desk sergeant. Most of the questions focused on my racial origin and HIV status. My belt and personal effects were removed, and after a telephone call to my lawyer I was "banged up".
By this time it was about 12.20 and I spent the next three hours dozing on a bench. At about 4.30pm, my solicitor had arrived and it was time for an "interview under caution". First, I had to be fingerprinted. The policeman who had flagged me down reappeared, and began the business of "processing" me. The man's lack of competence was comical. He had problems applying my fingers to the fingerprint-scanning machine, and with each failed attempt became angrier and angrier. Tired and fed up, I gave in to the temptation to needle him. "Having problems with your new toy?" I asked. "Shut the f*** up, you a***hole," he replied.
He was no better at operating the tape recorder used for my interview. Much fumbling of cassettes was followed by screeching noises. During the interview itself, I found him inarticulate, incompetent and only tenuously in control of his temper.
After the interview, I was re-introduced to my cell. I understood from my solicitor that the same policeman would speak to the Crown Prosecution Service, and a decision would be made about whether to charge me. I was also told that if the policeman had wanted to, he could have let me off with a caution.
In my cell, I thought a bit about the way I had been treated. For the police to be behaving like this at a time when we are all concerned about terrorism and street crime, and when resources are stretched and manpower is limited, seemed extraordinary. It was also, I decided, in direct contrast to the qualities of professionalism, endurance and discipline that are the hallmark of Britain's Armed Forces.
I have experience of two training establishments, the old Guards' Depot at Pirbright and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst: both successful in creating tough but professional men who are in control of their actions and able to make sensible decisions under pressure. Whether in Belfast, Bosnia or Basra, lieutenants and second lieutenants as young as 19 and 20 provide the linchpin between senior officers and the rank and file.
This, I suspect, is the problem with the police - they have no proper training and no officer corps. The old adage goes "There is no such thing as bad soldiers, only bad officers". The scruffy, overweight, badly turned-out, ill-mannered policemen I encountered at Charing Cross police station were desperately in need of decent leadership.
So I was not surprised when I was brought back before the desk sergeant and told that the CPS had decided to charge me with possessing an offensive weapon and carrying a bladed instrument in public. I was bailed to appear at Bow Street magistrates' court and informed that I was free to leave.
As I was about to pass through the door to freedom, I am ashamed to say that I snapped. The knowledge that we could have avoided the whole drawn-out, expensive and upsetting procedure was too much for me. I turned to the policeman and said: "You really are a prize wanker." At this point, in full view of my solicitor, he lost it. He grabbed my lapels and pushed me against the wall. My solicitor yelled: "You have just assaulted my client!"
Four other police officers rushed into the corridor, accompanied by the desk sergeant. "Right, re-arrest him: public order, breach of the peace," shouted the sergeant at me. "You'll be spending the night here." My solicitor said that she wanted the assault entered in the daybook, and that we would be bringing an action. So they let me go.
In the aftermath of my experience, I started some purely anecdotal research on the type of behaviour and attitude displayed by the police towards me. In speaking to friends, acquaintances, tradesmen, cab drivers and people in the pub, I rapidly came to realise that a quite staggering number of ordinary, law-abiding people had endured similar experiences.
The new security measures announced in Parliament last week are surely justified only in a society at war, and they might be acceptable if we were truly a nation under siege. But that is not how it feels to most of us. We have a terrorist threat to London and elsewhere, but that does not amount to a war, any more than the IRA bombing campaigns of the Seventies did, and yet we are enacting measures more repressive than in the Blitz.
Once I had been sprung from the police station, I walked back to the Embankment, where my car had been left since the arrest. It was, by this time, 6.45pm and, sure enough, there on my windscreen was a Metropolitan Police parking ticket. One further thing - I have just found out from my solicitor that the copy of the interview tape sent to us by the police is entirely blank.
This is an edited version of an article that appears in this week's Spectator.