THE decision by the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, to reverse a policy of sending armed officers to routine incidents is to be welcomed, even though it is long overdue.
Sir Stephen’s U-turn comes after months of controversy over the emergence on Scotland’s streets of police officers who carried weapons as a matter of course, even on everyday patrol.
There are, of course, incidents where the deployment of armed police is fully justified. But for day-to-day policing, the proliferation of officers with guns caused understandable unease.
While we support Sir Stephen’s volte-face on this issue, this saga still leaves much to discuss about the way Police Scotland is operating.
The argument for the creation of a single Scottish police force had its merits, both in terms of cost and the effectiveness of joined-up law enforcement.
It is now absolutely clear, however, that the flaw in the process has been a lack of accountability, at both a local level and a national level.
Sir Stephen was free to put armed officers on our streets without making so much as a phone call to the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill.
While Scotland’s top police officer must have the power to make decisions he feels appropriate, such a huge change in the culture of policing should have been discussed by our political representatives and explained, loudly and clearly, to the public.
The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) – in theory, a body which keeps checks and balances on the activities of Police Scotland – has been woefully absent in the debate on whether we are ready, as a country, to see officers carrying handguns on routine patrol.
If Scots are to have faith in the national police force, then it is absolutely crucial that the SPA takes an active role in interrogating Sir Stephen’s decisions. Yes, he must have the power to lead, but he cannot do so without responsibility. More troubling, still, has been Mr MacAskill’s handling of this issue.
For too long, he preferred to fob off questions, insisting that police matters were, quite simply, matters for the police.
The mess of confusion over the routine arming of police suggests yet another lapse of judgment from the justice secretary, who previously angered even those on the SNP benches with his suggestion that opposition parties were critical of his plan to remove corroboration from Scots law for purely political reasons.
And there remain issues – the previous tolerance of sex workers in the Lothians, abandoned by Sir Stephen, for example – where the new national force has created tensions among officers and in communities.
Police Scotland was conceived and delivered by Mr MacAskill and any failings in its creation must be his responsibility.
He must make clear to Police Scotland and Sir Stephen that it is answerable to Scots at all times.
Personality politics has its flaws
IN TERMS of content and delivery, Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday was several cuts above the one delivered by Ed Miliband to the Labour faithful last week.
As the applause faded, Tory activists were keen to play up the contrast between their man and the leader of the opposition. It is clear that a central plank of the Conservatives’ General Election campaign next year will be: “Who do you trust to run the country, David or Ed?”
The Tories will hope that they can play on the same credibility issues which thwarted Neil Kinnock, back in 1992. But they may be placing too much faith in the notion that British voters see elections as presidential-style battles.
Polling may show voters believe Mr Cameron is a better Prime Minister than Mr Miliband might be, but it takes a lot for granted to assume that will be the deciding factor next year.
Some in the Tory fold believe that was a mistake the party made in 2010, when Mr Cameron was up against an increasingly unpopular Gordon Brown. Tory strategists over-estimated the effect this would have on the outcome, and Mr Cameron was unable to secure a majority.
Labour continues to lead the polls on voting intentions. What’s more, Mr Miliband would appear to be in a strong position to pick up the votes of disaffected Liberal Democrats who have never been able to come to terms with their party’s coalition agreement with the Conservatives.
Undoubtedly, of the speeches made during party conference season by the two candidates to be the next Prime Minister, Mr Cameron’s will be judged the finer. But personalities alone do not a victory make.