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November 21, 2012

The answer is more democracy, not less

There’s no escaping the fact that turnout for last week’s elections for England’s police commissioners was abysmal.  One polling station failed to register a single vote.  Some have read  this as signal that there’s no appetite for more localised control over services. Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian argues that the reality is in fact quite the opposite. Harry Reid in the Herald takes a similarly optimistic view, but points out that in Scotland we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.


Harry Reid, The Hearld

We will have 32 local authorities but just one police force. It seems a peculiar mix, an uneasy disparity, and there are bound to be concerns about the neglect of local sensitivities.
The man who will be our national police chief, Stephen House, is well respected and has served in six different forces. Nobody could question his wide experience of policing in various communities. And the force he currently runs, Strathclyde, serves over half the population of Scotland, including many remote rural areas as well as Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow.
Nonetheless I have considerable concerns about the implications of a national police force. Maybe this is sentimental, but I associate the notion of honest and decent policing with what might be called local continuity. It’s an organic concept; the police are part of the community they serve. Of course I accept that occasionally local forces simply cannot cope; in the aftermath of the Lockerbie atrocity, the local force understandably required immediate support and assistance form the bigger force to the north.
Back in 1984 and 1985 the prolonged miners’ strike split the UK industrially, politically and socially. It was an intense, vicious dispute and the scars remain to this day. I think the main reason for this residue of bitterness and distrust is the way the dispute was policed. The defeat of the miners was predicated on police tactics which many observers thought amounted to the creation of a national police force by stealth.
“Co-ordination” of the police effort across the country entailed huge numbers of police being deployed far away from where they normally worked, hundreds of miles from their own communities. The policing of the dispute would have been a lot less confrontational – and possibly more effective – if, say, South Yorkshire police had been left to deal with South Yorkshire miners. Even more controversial was the use of national intelligence: police were deployed to stop miners moving freely around the country to sites where they allegedly intended to picket. This amounted to an undoubted breach of civil liberties.
Altogether it was a rancid, acrimonious dispute that left a very sour taste. After the year-long strike, most of the outstanding charges against pickets simply collapsed. I’ve always thought that while most people in Britain realised the Thatcher Government had to prevail, they were not at all happy about the way the long battle was won. In some areas of England, the police have never recovered the respect and regard they enjoyed prior to the dispute.
Of course it is unlikely that in the near future Scotland will face an industrial dispute of such intensity and divisiveness. But the implications of a national force are nonetheless there for all to see: the potential deployment of many police far from their local areas, and the concomitant centralising of power. That’s maybe the key point: a national police force is clearly not about the dispersal of power. This is surely counter to the idea of policing that we have enjoyed for generations and that has, incidentally, gained worldwide respect.
Indeed it is ironic that just when Scotland is about to have a national force, there has been south of the Border an exercise in the opposite direction. The election of local police commissioners across England and Wales has been much derided because of poor turnouts.
Even so, there were some positives. The election of no fewer than 12 police and crime commissioners who were genuine independents was encouraging; the two major political parties lost out more often than had been predicted. And talking of predictions, I reckon next time the commissioners are elected, the turnout will be considerably higher.
Indeed I have a strong hunch this experiment south of the Border is going to work. It’s an exercise in authentic localism. Meanwhile here in Scotland we are moving the other way, away from localism. In this context I’m not convinced we are wise to do so.