Policing in Scotland has become a political football

Kenny MacAskill MSP
Friday, 11 September 2015

It’s all change at the top in Police Scotland, with Chief Constable Sir Stephen House standing down early after significant criticism from some politicians and press.

Recent controversies dogged him, though most were not of his making. He has also been unfortunate that policing has become a political football and the Chief Constable the target for many.

The criticism has become personal and must be an understandable factor in his decision. His legacy, though, will be significant for both Policing and Scotland.

The establishment of Police Scotland was always going to be challenging especially with the budgetary constraints and the tight timescales imposed. But, established it had to be, to ensure the service could cope with the financial pressures of austerity and deliver vital police services across the country.

Duplication has been reduced and a frontline presence maintained. Meanwhile, domestic abuse is tackled across the county rather than on a postcode lottery and national units now exist in specialist areas like rape and human trafficking.

There have been problems, but in any public or private sector reform such as this, that is only to be expected. But, the changes could not be avoided and the fact that they have been delivered at all and with so little difficulty is testimony to his capabilities.

But, his legacy goes beyond the structure of Police Scotland and has benefitted all of Scottish society. It’s not simply the 41 year low in recorded crime or the huge drop in violent crime, though both owe a great deal to him.

He did, though, speak out bravely about the cultural issues that fuel so much criminality in Scotland. The culture of violence, far too often glamorised; sectarianism whether in football or society and domestic abuse for far too long simply tolerated.

He was criticised for a uniformity of practice across a diverse country. But, standards needed to be set and some issues ignored by some legacy forces had to be tackled.

Decisions on IT and other matters that were incapable of agreement are being implemented. Relationships with councils, many of whom had opposed the single service, were always going to be fraught. But interaction between police and local authorities is greater now in so many ways. Councils that have reacted purposefully are reaping the benefit. Halcyon days that were referred to never in reality existed.

Life will be easier for his successor, who inherits a sound base in the main. The new Chief will almost certainly come from within Police Scotland and rightly so. The talent exists there and whoever is appointed will know both the issues and the landscape.

They will have the luxury of lightening up a regime that was needed to meet the deadlines and challenges of the single service. Doubtless, some more autonomy will be given to local Commanders but certain national standards will still need to be maintained. That would have occurred anyway but the new incumbent will get the credit.

Police Scotland will go on under a new Chief. There is no turning back now and the changes needed are in hand. Policing will remain politically charged, but the sting will be less.

However, policing in Scotland is all the stronger for the legacy left, as Scottish society is all the better for it.