Police Scotland may struggle if extremists capitalise on winter of discontent – Tom Wood

Last month our Chief Constable Iain Livingstone made public his worry at the increasing violence against Scotland’s police officers. And it’s not just the police – fire, ambulance, and even accident emergency staff are suffering too.

Police are facing an increasingly volatile situation as extremism on social media spills over into real life, says Tom Wood (Picture: John Devlin)

The headlines are stark. Police officers are attacked on average 20 times a day. In the first quarter of this year, before Covid, there were over 1,700 attacks on police, a rise of 23 per cent on a five-year average. The Chief is right to be worried, for all the indicators are that things will get worse before they get better.

But what is behind it? Why are we sliding into a new age of intolerance not seen since the 19th century?

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As usual, there is no single cause but a culmination of factors superheated by current events.

For one thing, the toxic political divide on both sides of the Border has polarised and coarsened debate, with social media dripping unfiltered poison to an extent never seen before. This does not signify a change in human behaviour, the lunatic fringe has always been there – they just didn’t have an unfiltered public forum before.

The temperature has risen to the extent that once benign public events, marches and demonstrations, now regularly have an explosive element.

It only takes a few extremists in a crowd to spark trouble. We have seen it in recent anti-racist demonstrations and climate change protests. Police public order deployments have risen sharply in the last year.

And then along came Covid and the severe restrictions that have been imposed on our freedoms. Now over six months in, and facing a long winter of lockdowns, the mood in many places is resentful and rebellious. A mixture of being fed up, frustrated, and fearful makes for a combustible combination.

It all adds up to mean that the coming months could be a severe test of our traditional policing model.

‘Policing by consent’ sounds like a strapline from a cheesy ad campaign, but it’s much more important than that. It is the very foundation of our policing system, that allows a single-tier service to operate without a National Guard or a Garda Civil to back it up.

There are over 300 members of the public for every police man or woman in Scotland – policing by consent is not just desirable, it’s a cold, hard necessity.

If the escalation of violence continues or increasing numbers ignore Covid restrictions, the old model of policing will come under increasing strain.

Fortunately, so far, there are only a small minority of miscreants and Covidiots – the ones who won’t take a telling! They have always been with us. Were it otherwise there would be little need for a police service at all.

We are also fortunate that so far Police Scotland has been able to deploy sufficient resources quickly and effectively.

But, be in no doubt, it is a fine margin, and as we enter a long hard winter of discontent, it behoves us all, particularly our leaders, to consider our language and behaviour carefully.

‘Policing by consent’ means we all have a responsibility to help to keep the peace.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable.

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