The deployment of routinely armed officers on Scotland’s streets was an understandably contentious measure that invited a torrent of criticism Police Scotland’s way. The presence of officers with firearms can be an alarming sight and, far from offering reassurance, it can leave some people feeling ill at ease.
Sir Stephen House, the force’s former chief constable, did a poor job of fully explaining a course of action at a time when his organisation was suffering from a perceived lack of accountability. As a result, doubts over the policy were not addressed as well as they might have been. Though it was later reversed, it was misunderstood and misinterpreted, casting doubt over the use of armed police in general in the public’s mind.
Yet the resultant controversy obscured the fact that the number of armed officers employed by Police Scotland was modest. Yesterday’s announcement by justice secretary Michael Matheson that their ranks are to increase by a third does not change that. It will see the force recruit an additional 90 officers attached to armed response vehicles, bringing the total to 365, while a further 34 trainers and specialist firearms officers will be brought on board. As a result, less than 3 per cent of Police Scotland’s 17,234 officers will be deployed in a firearms capacity.
It is a proportionate and logical increase that has been well communicated. Mr Matheson has explained that armed officers will remain restricted from routine deployment and stressed the recruitment drive is not a response to any specific threat. Instead, it is about preparedness. The Scottish Police Federation has warned that Scotland was “woefully under-equipped and under-resourced” for a major terror attack. This measure is a welcome way of changing that.
We can ill afford to be complacent about such threats and for that it reason it should be hoped that the funding is put in place to recruit these staff at the earliest opportunity. The very fact stronger measures are in place elsewhere in the UK means anyone wanting to strike might choose Scotland because it is seen as the easiest place to breach security. The attack on Glasgow Airport nine years ago should exercise the minds of those holding the purse strings. As well as protecting the public, the nature of yesterday’s announcement will help allay misgivings about armed police. It may still be alarming to some, but no more so than the threat of a terror attack.
We should accept that the extra staff is no guarantee of safety – the police can’t be everywhere. But the changes outlined constitute an appropriate response. We might not like it, but the situation we find ourselves in is not one that we would choose, nor one we can control. After recent atrocities, we discovered things would never be the same again. In practical terms, this is the legacy of that realisation. The fight against terror is a long one and none of us can be sure it will end in our lifetimes. If we accept that, in time it will become easier to ackowledge the place of armed police in a changing world.
Dark day in political history
The full circumstances behind yesterday’s horrific death of Labour MP Jo Cox have yet to emerge, but it will take some time for the shock and dismay to pass. It is a tragedy that will be keenly felt across British life and although several reports about what happened remain unconfirmed, the facts as they stand are disturbing enough.
Ms Cox, recognised by Labour colleagues and MPs of every party as a bright, talented and thoughtful politician, had been carrying out business in her West Yorkshire constituency when she was attacked. It is the kind of work every MP – and indeed, MSP – carries out diligently, engagements that are seldom reported in the media.
This is the bread and butter of an MP’s role and many who occupy the position welcome a robust discussion with their constituents about local or national political issues. It should, however, go without saying that no one should expect abuse or violence. When someone is killed while doing their job, it poses searching questions that have no easy answers.
When a politician is targeted, it strikes at fundamental values all of us should hold dear. Any attack on an elected member of our parliament is an attack on democracy itself.
We do not know for sure if yesterday’s incident is linked to the current heightened tensions over the referendum on Europe, and there may be other significant issues at play, but it is only right that the two sides have suspended their campaigns. The killing of an MP on constituency business is one of the darkest days in our political history. The shadow will loom large for some time to come.