If “I told you so” is the least satisfying saying in politics, then ‘crisis’ is perhaps the most overused. Yet, I am finding it difficult to avoid using both when surveying the current mess at the top of policing in Scotland, following the SNP government’s botched centralisation.
Last week, the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Phil Gormley finally bowed to pressure and stepped down, albeit on a temporary basis, to allow allegations against him by senior colleagues to be fully investigated. This follows a summer during which the Chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), Andrew Flanagan was forced to resign when two separate parliamentary committees expressed no confidence in him over a culture of secrecy within the SPA and allegations of bullying. His Chief Executive, John Foley then quickly opted for early retirement.
Having raised concerns about these latest developments at First Minister’s Questions last Thursday, I called on the Justice Secretary, Michael Mathieson to make a statement to parliament this week. This he did but his remarks may best be summarized as “crisis, what crisis”?
This is an astonishing attitude from the Minister. With Mr Flanagan and Mr Foley still in post for the time being, the SPA, responsible for overseeing the single police force, is now headed up by two individuals who are effectively ‘lame ducks’.
Meanwhile, the authority of the Chief Constable has been fundamentally undermined. When news of the first complaint made against Mr Gormley surfaced last month, he took the decision that he would tough it out. Two further complaints later, however, and Mr Gormley has sensibly, if rather belatedly, agreed that he cannot remain in place while these allegations are investigated.
The Justice Secretary acknowledges the “uncertainty” caused by recent events but inexplicably insists there is no leadership crisis at the head of policing in Scotland. Certainly, Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone deserves credit for postponing his retirement in order to fill in for Mr Gormley, but that hardly justifies the Minister’s rose-tinted perspective on things.
Being in denial and refusing to accept the facts, sadly, is all part of a piece when it comes to this government and policing. Ever since the SNP decided to press ahead with their ill-conceived centralisation plans in the previous parliament, Ministers have been deaf to any misgivings from any quarter. Liberal Democrats were the only party to oppose the plans from the ouset, but since then the chorus of concerns has swollen in number and volume.
Industrial levels of stop and search, including of children under the age of 8; control room closures; and a failed IT programme that was supposed to deliver the efficiencies to justify creating a single force in the first instance. All this while officers and reduced numbers of civilian staff were being asked to do more with less. Indeed, at a local level, credit is due to those who did their best to shield the Orkney community from the worst excesses of the one-size-fits-all approach being demanded of them by the centre and sought to remain as accountable and responsive as possible.
In some respects, one of the tragedies of recent events is that Phil Gormley had struck a more conciliatory tone. He certainly came across as less belligerent than his predecessor. Nevertheless, there was a growing sense this week that Mr Gormley may find it difficult subsequently to return to his post, even assuming he wants to.
Whatever the future holds, one imagines that a period of stability would be welcomed by police officers and staff. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely as Police Scotland are embarked on a ten-year reform programme aimed at matching police resources to future demands.
What they do not need, however, is more centralization. Yet this is what the Scottish Government has decreed. In a move branded by the independent inspectorate as ‘politically-motivated’, SNP Ministers plan to dismantle the British Transport Police in Scotland and force its merger with Police Scotland. In response, many BTP officers and staff are threatening to leave.
When you have a government so intent on ignoring the lessons of history and the counsel of others, predicting the next crisis is not as hard as it should be.