Hugh Reilly: Rennie risks falling on his face

Willie Rennie 'seems to  hanker after the days of Dixon of Dock Green'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Willie Rennie 'seems to hanker after the days of Dixon of Dock Green'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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With his misguided criticism of reforms in the police service and justice system, party leader Willie Rennie shows he’s well wide of the mark, writes Hugh Reilly

EVEL Knievel scolded the assembled journalists who believed his imminent endeavour to leap across Snake River Canyon in his steam-powered Skycycle X-2 to be nothing more than a publicity stunt. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I don’t ask for your respect.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he snarled: “I demand it!” Any vestige of veneration plummeted, however, when his Heath Robinson contraption landed with a parachuted bump on the same side of the gorge whence it had been launched.

Sadly, in 2007, Knievel leapt into the next world, an easier feat to accomplish. But his spirit lives on in the shape of Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie. The Dunfermline and West Fife MSP demands respect while his utterances scream for him not to be taken seriously. To be fair, nobody can doubt his bravery. He is a daredevil politician, a man unafraid to boldly say out loud what no-one else is thinking.

His latest intense musing concerned the rationalisation of police stations. “Over half the police stations in the country have closed to the public,” he told his party’s Aberdeen conference.

I ask the question: why only half? A few years ago, whilst I was grappling in the lobby with an intruder at 3am, the 7th Cavalry came in the rotund shape of the elderly bloke upstairs who ran in to give what I presumed would be physical assistance.

Shockingly, he merely looked at the situation – taking the concept of neighbourhood watch to a vertiginous level – and phoned 999. Within minutes, police arrived to seek the whereabouts of the now departed interloper. The availability of police to attend the break-in was probably, at least in part, due to the fact that the SNP government has provided more than 1,000 extra officers. Thanks to gizmos such as, erm, telephones and IT such as e-mail, there is little need to stroll down to a local cop shop to report a crime. Heck, there is probably a Police Scotland app one can instantly download when one is being mugged (although this may not be practically possible if the mugger has purloined one’s mobile phone).

Rennie, it seems, hankers after the halcyon days of Dixon of Dock Green, where a beefy friendly sergeant leaned over the counter and took details of the lieges’ concerns. However, there is a solid reason why police stations have gone the way of the once ubiquitous police box – they are superfluous to the needs of modern policing. Likewise, the traditional clubbing over the head with a sturdy wooden baton has been replaced by tasering.

“Over half the control rooms will shut,” Rennie laments. Frankly, it doesn’t matter a jot where these essentially jumped-up call centres are located or how many of them there are; the public only desire that complaints are acted upon punctiliously. “They [the government] have ripped the heart out of local policing,” he lambasts. But the reality is that the same local officers are patrolling the same beats as usual.

Willie Rennie would have us believe the Nationalists have turned Scotland into a police state. He said hundreds of children were being stopped and searched “without any suspicion”. Mr Rennie may not be a frequent flyer but it must not have escaped his attention that thousands of travellers are stopped and searched every day in our airports. To date, I’ve never seen security personnel seize an improvised explosive device from the underpants of a passenger, yet most people consider the inconvenience of being vetted to be something of a necessary evil.

According to police figures, around 20 per cent of searches produce results, be it offensive weapons or illegal drugs. It can’t surely be coincidence that the five-fold surge in stop and search has resulted in knife crime falling by one third in recent years. Does Rennie want the police only to pat-down those people whom they are 100 per cent sure are in possession of a blade? Better one chib-carrier goes free than an innocent teenager is frisked? His strident announcement that he will attempt to amend justice reform legislation – currently going through parliament – for stricter regulation of police stop and searches will be as popular with the public as silent phone calls; the majority of law-abiding voters do not share his hands-off approach.

Mr Rennie’s accusation that SNP ministers have taken a “wrecking ball” to the justice system is patently absurd; at best, the Salmond administration is guilty of attacking Scots Law with a big, fluffy, yellow, indoor tennis ball. The Coalition’s Lib Dem point-man rails against the abolition of corroboration yet fails to admit that corroboration is unique to the Scottish legal framework. In dispensing with the need for corroboration, the SNP is accepting the advice of Lord Carloway who investigated the matter in the wake of the celebrated Cadder ruling. If other jurisdictions can successfully prosecute criminal cases without the necessity for corroboration, why not Scotland?

Rennie would have received my support had he attacked the nonsensical “Not Proven” verdict. In England, critics of lower courts state that predicting an outcome is akin to flipping a coin: in Scotland, we have the third possibility of the coin landing on the courtroom floor and disappearing under the beading.

I would also have respected him more if he had pushed for anonymity for the accused, as well as the victim, in alleged cases of sexual violence or misconduct. The recent acquittals of showbiz males indicate that there is a pressing need to protect the accused until the jury has deliberated on his guilt. Of course, taking this stance would have alienated some of the 7 per cent of the Scottish electorate that, according to an STV opinion poll, intends to vote Scottish Liberal Democrat in the next Holyrood election. For me, it’s unforgivable that he places populism above principles.

In my view, the jury is still out on whether Willie Rennie is the right person to lead a revival of the Lib Dems.