AS SIR Stephen House prepares to step down as chief constable of Police Scotland, it is difficult not to conclude he is an officer out of time.
Although the national single force – driven by the need to save money rather than by any other imperative – was sold to us as the very epitome of modern policing, House has repeatedly behaved like a man of the past.
The departing chief constable has failed to get a grip on a series of scandals, often appearing not to grasp that the days when the public deferred to the police as a matter of course are long gone.
Respect for the police has been worn down by decades of scandal and corruption. A modern leader in the force has to understand the challenges this presents.
House’s decision, early in his leadership, to deploy armed police on routine duties was a serious misstep. But perhaps worse was his failure to see why this sweeping change to the culture of policing in Scotland had caused such anxiety among voters and politicians.
A lack of sensitivity to the concerns of those he served was the first sign that House – for all his many talents – might not have been the man for the job.
It is important, however, to recognise that he has done much of which he can be proud in his time as Scotland’s most senior police officer. Ironically, his agenda was far more modern than he appeared to be through his actions.
A focus on domestic violence, for too long all but ignored by police, was long overdue. House should be commended for making the safety of women a priority and it is to be sincerely hoped that whoever succeeds him will carry on this important work.
It would be wrong if the chief constable’s flaws were allowed to taint his finer achievements. House was, necessarily, a political animal. He was comfortable in the company of those in power and used his considerable networking skills to secure the position from which he is soon to depart.
But that blind spot, that failure to understand a public mood, seemed to hobble him on a worryingly regular basis.
We are policed by consent. This does not, of course, give any of us the right to dictate operational decisions made by senior officers, but it does entitle us to debate what we expect of those who serve and protect us.
With House due to step down at the start of December, the Scottish Police Authority – itself the focus for legitimate criticism over its failure to properly hold the force accountable over the past two years – does not have long to find his replacement.
While we do not expect those choosing a successor to place public relations skills at the top of their wish-list of talents, we do hope they understand that the next chief constable must be a clear communicator with a thorough understanding of the relationship between police and public.
House, despite his modern agenda, never seemed to understand why this mattered.
The next chief constable will be under extraordinary scrutiny from day one in the job. He or she will have no choice but to make mistakes in public.
When those mistakes come, as they surely will, the chief constable will find that being open and honest is the best course of action.
House was aloof when he should have been approachable, inflexible when he should have been sensitive. His successor should learn from his mistakes. Otherwise, confidence in Police Scotland will continue to plummet.
The single national police force was born of financial necessity. To many officers and members of the public it is an unwanted child.
The next chief constable of Police Scotland must win back respect for the force. His or her personality will be crucial to that.
Silent applause for hush-hush strategy
FOR all the availability of cheap flights and cut-price daytime rail tickets, there remains an undeniable romance about taking the Caledonian Sleeper from Scotland to London.
There seems to us to be some element of ceremony to the journey. It is, for the most part, a most agreeably civilised way to travel.
Falling asleep as the train races towards the border only to wake up refreshed in England’s capital is such a simple pleasure.
But the journey is not an entirely perfect experience. Those who have taken the sleeper will know only too well how discombobulating the sudden brake of an engine can be; they will know how even the deepest sleep can be broken as the train splits in the small hours. With a “skreee!” and a “clunk!”, one is jerked awake, often then to lie in one’s berth desperately hoping for a return to sleep which never comes.
So what marvellous news it is that the new operators of the service have decided to teach drivers to accelerate, brake and shunt more gently, allowing passengers to sleep better.
As part of their tuition, drivers have been invited to travel by sleeper themselves. What a wonderfully simple idea. By experiencing
the journey as passengers, drivers will understand just how important it is to get that good night’s sleep before arriving in London or Scotland.
There was a time when train operators could take passengers for granted. On some local routes that remains the case, because of poor or nonexistent bus services.
But with a flagship service such as the sleeper, there is real competition these days.
Anything that can be done to improve the experience, to make it as pleasurable as possible for the weary traveller, is to be applauded (albeit quietly and with consideration for other passengers).
London is just an hour from Edinburgh by plane and the sleeper operators must provide a first-class service to compete with that.
We wish the drivers luck with their new training and hope that the sleeper continues, gently rattling though the night for years to come.