by Anjo Abelaira
My pensioner neighbour and I received a Lib Dem election flyer asking for our vote to ‘Save Our Local Police’. After reading that the other three parties want to “remove the local link”, my neighbour was left confused fearing we may never see our local policeman again.
Like many Scots, what my neighbour knows about politics is mostly what the BBC evening news tells him. So, as the threat of imminent armageddon on local policing left him deeply concerned, I felt compelled to reassure him that the sky would not fall on our heads should the Scottish Parliament decide to merge Scotland’s eight regional constabularies into one national police force.
Politicians love to twist figures and dig into technicalities in order to win their argument, however – I told my neighbour – here is the fact: small countries like Scotland – Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, and even larger countries such as France or Italy- all have their single national police force. Indeed, some of those countries, such as Norway, Austria or Luxembourg, are the safest nations in the world.
The basic point I knew my neighbour would understand and agree with is that: if so many countries in the word can have a safe society and local policing with a single national police force, why can we not?
Having a Scottish national police force instead of eight regional police forces is not about taking bobbies off the beat, but about not having to pay for eight separate chief constables, human resources, procurement departments and so on when everything can be managed from a single headquarters. If other countries do it more efficiently this way, why can we not?
It is not all about budget efficiencies. There is also the issue of improving the fight against crime. The current mosaic of eight regional police forces means precious time is often wasted liaising between different forces, for example in the case of a criminal crossing the Kincardine Bridge boundary between Fife Constabulary and Central Scotland Police.
My neighbour understood by now that the picture was not as bleak as depicted by the Lib Dems election flyer. He actually told me that back in 1975 Scotland had about twenty regional police forces which were amalgamated into today’s eight constabularies. Our own Strathclyde Police was created less than four decades ago from the merger of the City of Glasgow Police, Lanarkshire Constabulary, Ayrshire Constabulary, Dunbartonshire Constabulary, Renfrew & Bute Constabulary, Argyll County Police, and a small portion of Stirling and Clackmannan Police. My neighbour said there was no chaos in the streets after the merge of regional police forces in the west of Scotland.
I could see that some doubts still remained nevertheless, so we wrote together an email to the Lib Dems asking why they say a Scottish national police force would be the end of local policing, and why if other nations with a single national police force have low crime rates, we Scots cannot.
What we got back was a long reply, which google later showed to be an impersonal copy-and-paste extract of a letter to the Herald by Baron Wallace of Tankerness -known by most of us as Jim Wallace.
The Lib Dems’ generic email did not address any of the two questions we asked them. But these are not the only questions the Lib Dems’ opposition to a Scottish national police force do not address. If, as they say, it is all about having a regional police headquarters close to you, what about the Northern Constabulary with its headquarters in Inverness? That is not really close to the people of Orkney or the Western Isles, is it? Why not then devolving policing to Shetland, which up to 1969 had its own Zetland Constabulary? Why not reverting to the almost twenty police forces we had before the 1975 amalgamation of forces?
Surely the Lib Dems would admit there is a case for reform here, either one way or the other. Where is the balance of having a police force like Strathclyde Police which serves a population of over 2 million, while Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary serves less than 150,000?
I must admit that I am surprised the other parties, which add up to almost 90% of the vote in the Scottish Parliament, have not bothered to dismiss the Lib Dems’ argument against a national police force. Perhaps it is because they think the matter is self-evident, or maybe it is because their debating priorities are elsewhere.
However, I am even more surprised that the LibDems’ assertions have not been properly scrutinised by the Scottish media. The Fourth Estate in Scotland has been extraordinarily meticulous on the Scottish Government over the past parliamentary term, so one would expect a similar scrutiny on the Opposition, for today’s opposition parties could be tomorrow’s government. Could any newspaper please ask the Lib Dems why what works for other small nations around the world cannot work for us here in Scotland?
Of course, there are “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” and the Lib Dems have their own side of the story, namely the statement of a few Chief Police Constables (incidentally, those who would lose their jobs should all forces merge) saying the benefits of a Scottish national force “is not supported by the evidence”. We could use statistics the other way around to point out that the UK – with its system of regional police forces- has one of the worst crime rates in Europe. In our very own backyard, a regional police force such as Strathclyde, “keeping policing local”, has not prevented Glasgow from being the murder capital of Europe. So, surely, if the evidence was that crime fighting was done best by breaking the national police down to a mosaic of regional police constabularies, one would have expected most countries in the world following the British model by now? Is there anything “supported by the evidence” saying that a national police force in Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands or France is not accountable to local communities? What is the key to effective policing, an administrative headquarters in Aberdeen or Edinburgh, or a range of wider issues including alcohol, drugs, and police presence in the streets?
As to why the Lib Dems have chosen to swim against the tide and make this such a central theme of their campaign, well, it really escapes me. I can only think that with Lib Dem support in freefall according to the polls, the party has decided to enter damage limitation mode and do party politics in their Aberdeenshire and Northern heartlands scaremongering with “local policing” being taken south to Edinburgh.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats have contributed positively to the governance of Scotland in the past. As a centre party, it has the potential to play an important role in Scottish politics. Hence, it was disappointing to see a lack of direction and the party’s political potential wasted in negative campaigning over the past weeks.
As for my neighbour, I do not know who he is going to vote for, but I certainly guess who is not going to get his vote. He told me that Scottish politics have long been plagued by a “cannae dae” attitude, and the job of a nation’s leader is not about playing down your country, but about inspiring and showing that we can do things just as well or better than others.