The student protests: part 2


Are the police now in a ‘cocoon of contempt’ for the rest of us?

Read part 1

by Kenneth Roy

When objections were raised to the oppressive police presence at Glasgow University a week ago yesterday, the police responded by describing these objections as ‘frankly ridiculous’. In the frankly ridiculous stakes, a horse race with a crowded field, Strathclyde Police are among the front-runners.

The chief constable, Stephen House, is quite open about his desire to have DNA taken from every man, woman and child in Scotland. He believes that this would assist the police in their work. Of course it would. I expect most of us would like our work to be made easier, but few of us apart from Mr House expect the whole of society to be adjusted accordingly. He may have been surprised by the lack of serious challenge to his frankly ridiculous idea. He may feel he is on something of a roll.

His spectacular foray into the affairs of the university came only weeks after his equally attention-grabbing reaction to trouble at an Old Firm game: a dramatic telephone call to the First Minister followed by a hurriedly arranged ‘top-level summit’. We should not assume that this largely cosmetic gathering was inspired wholly by a public-spirited wish to make the world – or even Glasgow – a better place. The hidden agenda – not that it remained hidden for longer than three minutes – was ambitiously political: the chief constable was sending his masters a message about cuts.

His confrontational approach to policing may, however, be coming at a cost. It is not one of those expenses you can jot down on a cash-flow forecast and forget about. It hangs around from one financial year to the next. It is what the accountants call an accrual. The accrual in this case is the increasingly sorry state of police-community relations in Glasgow. That is the long-term cost of what is happening.

Old Firm supporters, the majority who are not of the west of Scotland professional classes, are an easy target. Some may hurl abuse at each other, sing vile songs about each other, beat up their partners if the result goes the wrong way or the meal is not on the table, but essentially they are marginalised people, an under-class. They have no political voice. They have no clout. In the civilised committee rooms of Edinburgh, where the decisions are made, no one articulates their grievances or champions their wretched lives.

Last weekend, one moderately right-wing commentator wrote that the police are now a law unto themselves, insulated in a ‘cocoon of contempt’ for the generally law-abiding citizens they are supposed to be serving.

The chief constable may take on the east end secure in the knowledge (for he is a Glaswegian himself) that the opinion of the east end counts for little. Taking on Byres Road, and its many environs, is a different proposition.

It may not matter much, for any practical purpose, that Mr House has succeeded in alienating many if not most of the 20,000 young people who study at Glasgow University. It will be years before any of them is in a position to influence policy on such questions as the powers and responsibilities of the police. By then, Stephen House will be enjoying a comfortable retirement at our expense. The sense of outrage he has provoked among the academic staff is more immediately damaging: for these are the thinking people of Scotland whose opinion does count. Even politicians and journalists occasionally listen to their accumulated knowledge and wisdom; less so, perhaps, their own management.

Last Tuesday, when a silly decision was taken to call in the police to disperse 15 students occupying the Hetherington Club, Mr House’s force responded by over-reacting, just as it over-reacted to the trouble at the Old Firm game. It despatched to the scene between 40 and 80 officers (the number varies from account to account), up to 18 vehicles and the Strathclyde helicopter. What was all that about? The police made themselves look more than a little foolish.

Yet there is no hint of repentance on the part of Mr House and his colleagues. On the contrary, it is the police’s official view – we should be clear about the reasoning – that the sheer weight of numbers prevented any injuries occurring. The logic of this is quite baffling, and it also happens to be inaccurate. One of the students, a young woman, was taken to an accident and emergency unit suffering from concussion. It was surprising that there was not some opening statement of concern for her welfare by the principal or rector of the university at the meeting of students and staff in Bute Hall.

Last weekend, one moderately right-wing commentator wrote that the police are now a law unto themselves, insulated in a ‘cocoon of contempt’ for the generally law-abiding citizens they are supposed to be serving. He was not referring to recent incidents in Scotland, but it is a disturbing thought that he might well have been. The excessive reaction to what was essentially a non-event at the university was bad enough, but the subsequent dismissal of rational, well-founded objection as ‘frankly ridiculous’ brought the cocoon of contempt uncomfortably close to home.

What next? Send in the helicopter – is this to be the chief constable’s default position whenever there is a hint of bother at some high-profile location? The way things are going, Mr House will be demanding a second helicopter in his unceasing efforts to keep us all in order. The day may be approaching when ‘frankly ridiculous’ suddenly becomes ‘frankly unacceptable’. Then we really will be in trouble.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.