Scotland's organised crime gangs have become dangerously emboldened and pose a growing threat to civil society – Russell Findlay MSP

Crime sells. Gritty gangsterism excites TV documentary makers, inspires big-budget box sets and flogs newspapers.
Even in sleepy Strathaven, famous for its hot air balloon festival, organised crime gangs to rival the Italian mafia are making their presence felt (Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Even in sleepy Strathaven, famous for its hot air balloon festival, organised crime gangs to rival the Italian mafia are making their presence felt (Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Even in sleepy Strathaven, famous for its hot air balloon festival, organised crime gangs to rival the Italian mafia are making their presence felt (Picture: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

However, ‘true crime’ tropes portraying the ‘underworld’ as edgy and sexy serve to glamourise and sanitise the desperate, dangerous and ugly reality.

This week, Councillor Graeme Campbell opened his heart to BBC Scotland about the ordeal he has been put through in recent years.

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On three occasions over two years, his home has been targeted. In one attack, a masked man doused family cars with acid and smashed a window in the dead of night. In the other two incidents, Graeme’s cars were torched.

During the most recent attack six month ago, the flames spread. Graeme and his wife Fiona were awoken by a fireball ripping through their upstairs hallway. Their home was destroyed and they count themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives.

This softy-spoken and decent family man, originally from Northern Ireland, has proudly served the Avondale and Stonehouse ward on South Lanarkshire Council since 2007.

Viewers of the BBC’s The Nine heard that he has been forced to leave his adopted community of Strathaven and does not intend to seek re-election in next year’s local elections.

How did it come to this? The shocking situation is that a Scottish politician has been driven into exile by an organised crime terror campaign which the authorities appear powerless to do anything about. There have been no arrests.

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I was working as an STV News journalist when I first met and interviewed Graeme last year, following the second attack on his home. The third came in June 2021, just weeks after I was elected as a new Scottish Conservative MSP.

I felt instinctive empathy. Six years ago, just before Christmas, I was targeted due to my journalistic work by a hitman dressed as a postman who came to my front door and threw sulphuric acid in my face. I am lucky not to have been maimed or killed.

Having attempted to support Graeme through these tumultuous times, I was also interviewed by the BBC. My contribution included the assertion that “everyone in Strathaven knows who is behind this and what it’s about”.

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Sleepy Strathaven, famous for its hot air balloon festival, is no Sicily. But make no mistake, our domestic gangs are just as vicious and venomous as the Italian Mafia version.

I have raised Graeme’s case directly with Nicola Sturgeon in the Holyrood chamber, and she said all the right things in response. But I remain perplexed at the absence of widespread outrage towards low-life criminals waging war on democracy.

Organised crime is not some abstract entity. It is all around us, woven through the fabric of Scottish society and in every community, urban and rural.

The Scottish government’s Serious and Organised Crime Taskforce says there are around 112 active high-level groups, comprising approximately 2,400 members.

The majority of these groups deal in narcotic smuggling and supply, amassing vast fortunes from Scotland’s tragic and spiralling drugs death toll, while laundering the proceeds through outwardly legitimate business.

The sums of money generated are obscene. Official government data puts the annual cost of to the Scottish economy at £2 billion.

Police Scotland and the Crown Office have scored some stunning successes in recent years, not least thanks to international law enforcement’s cracking of an encrypted phone network used by dozens of Scottish dealers.

However, it is my view that these gangs have become dangerously emboldened.

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I believe that what happened to Graeme and myself reveals deeply worrying truths about how crime in Scotland has evolved and how the justice system needs to wake up to the threat.

Forget the supposed old ‘rules of engagement’ of civilians being off limits. Crime bosses siting at the top of the tree now think nothing of targeting legitimate sections of society.

Consider the following catalogue: a solicitor slashed outside Glasgow sheriff court; a prison officer’s suburban home shot at; a legal authority watchdog stabbed on his Edinburgh doorstep; lawyers and police officers corrupted by dirty money; knife attacks on crime magazine delivery drivers; the home of Celtic’s former chief executive and other legitimate businessmen firebombed.

What Graeme has suffered was no outlier, but the natural evolution of a cocky criminal class who seem to think they can act with impunity.

Dozens of crime gangs are suspected of targeting public sector contracts, while the Scottish government, Police Scotland and the footballing authorities have joined forces to expose the insidious infiltration of gangsterism into our national sport.

Disruption of these gangs is a vital tactic of modern policing, but I believe that much more can be done to go after the money being accrued.

Proceeds of crime legislation introduced at the turn of the millennium was supposed to bankrupt the most serious criminals – the so-called Mr Bigs beyond the reach of criminal prosecution because they remained at arms-length from incriminating evidence.

However, it has long been clear that the ambition of this law has fallen short. The crime gangs make billions and, in response, the state seizes millions. It is no longer a meaningful deterrent, if it ever really was.

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This SNP government loves ordering reviews, they’re one of Scotland’s few growth industries. But Sturgeon and her Justice Secretary Keith Brown need to wise up and realise that urgent action, not talking shops, is required to put these bullying creeps in their place. Give the police, prosecutors and courts what they need. If they don't, other politicians will surely become targets.

Russell Findlay is a Conservative MSP for West Scotland, Scottish Conservative shadow community safety minister and deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament criminal justice committee

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