Independence, Scottishness and Armed Cops

Few issues of principle have taken the foreground in the Referendum debate.  Instead it has remained obsessed with one question, ‘Will we or won’t we be better-off?’ and this in turn dissolves into statistics which are no sooner heard than forgotten.  Few of us want to clutter our heads with figures about Scotland’s contribution to the UK economy, the funding our universities receive from the UK Research Council or the number of barrels of oil that still remain under the North Sea.  Apparently the nett result of such calculations is that Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and this, claim the partitionists, is clear proof that we can go it alone; to which the clear-headed might surely reply that, on the contrary, it is clear proof that Scotland has done very well under the Union.  We ain’t broke, so please don’t fix us.

But sometimes you can hear in the distant background murmurings of what does sound like a question of principle: what is Scottishness?  Some recent opinion polls have suggested that more Scots ‘feel’ Scottish than feel British.  But just how much can a feeling decide?  I can normally tell why I feel euphoric and I can usually explain why I feel down.  But how would someone explain why he ‘feels’ Scottish?  Can someone who never wears a kilt and who never eats haggis, never speaks Gaelic, never converses in Scots, never plays shinty, never drinks Irn Bru and never sings ‘By yon bonny banks’ ever ‘feel’ really Scottish?  Apparently yes, just as someone who doesn’t have a stiff upper lip, doesn’t like Yorkshire Pudding and doesn’t hate the French can still feel British

So, if you say you feel Scottish, tell me what you mean.  Most of the time I just feel like me, and I ‘feel’ I was made neither in Scotland nor in Britain, but in Lewis (which distinguished me from a Skye-man) and in Laxdale (which distinguished me from a ‘townie’).

Anyway, for once Mr Salmond and I agree.  He has kicked the whole debate about Scottish-ness into touch and decreed (as his wont) that while only Scots may vote in the Referendum a Scot is simply someone whose name appears either on the register of local government electors or on the register of young voters (specially created for the Referendum).  Scottish-ness has nothing to do with it.  On the contrary, provided they are resident in Scotland, any British citizen can vote, any Commonwealth citizen can vote, any citizen of the twenty-seven EU countries can vote and even members of the House of Lords can vote.  On the other hand, a Gaelic-speaking, haggis-eating, kilt-wearing Sgiathanch born in Portnalong of Harris parents but now living in Carlisle, cannot.  In the sadness of exile he probably feel more Scottish than any Stornowegian, but that counts for nothing.

But there is one quintessential component of Britishness which is now under serious threat: our unarmed police force.  Police Scotland clearly have no idea of the shock and revulsion provoked by the discovery that firearms units have been deployed in over a hundred incidents in the Highlands; and deployed not because the police and the public were known to be in danger from armed criminals but because this is now routine procedure.

If the police think this reassuring they should think again.  When, fifty years ago, I first saw gun-carrying police at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York I shuddered; and when I saw them again a few weeks ago at Heathrow I still shuddered (and wondered, What kind of man would pull that trigger?).

But I shuddered even more when I realised that the police insist that this is none of our business.  It is, they say, a purely operational matter.  What is worse, the Scottish Government meekly acquiesce in this arrogance, and any Opposition politician who protests is simply waved away.

We have been dreadfully naïve.  None of us ever thought that the Chief Constable of the Northern Constabulary had the authority to deploy armed cops in routine situations.  Now we wonder who gave it to him; and we wonder even more who now gives it to Police Scotland.

Because this is not a merely operational matter.  It is a matter of fundamental principle; so fundamental that it cannot be left to the police themselves, any more than the decision whether or not to deploy nuclear weapons could have been left to the Royal Air Force; and, above all, so fundamental that politicians cannot wash their hands of it or let their protests be brushed aside by Chief Constables.

The police can have no more authority than is conferred on them by the state.  Yet there has been no public consultation on what is nothing short of a major revolution; no parliamentary debate; and no Government Act.

It is not as if the state were usually coy about flexing its muscles and calling professions to heel.  The routine operations of doctors, teachers, geneticists, nuclear scientists and even farmers are hedged about by countless regulations.  Even with regard to the police, government sets budgets, determines staffing-levels, insists on ethnic and gender diversity, and specifies targets for speeding-convictions.  Government has also authorised the police to deploy armed units in situations of extreme emergency.  But to arm them routinely is not a matter for the police.  It is a matter for the people, and the people should make plain that they will not permit the police to walk our streets carrying hand-guns.

No one wants to minimise the dangers the police face in their commitment to protecting the public, but there is little reason to believe that the policy adopted by Northern Constabulary would have saved the life of P. C. Yvonne Fletcher outside the Lybian Embassy in 1984.  Nor would it have saved the life of Angus MacKenzie in Govanhill in 1969 or the lives of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in Manchester in 2012.  Even less could routinely armed police have prevented the Dunblane massacre in 1996 or the murder of an 85-year old lady a few doors up the road just three weeks ago.

What it will do is increase the likelihood of such tragedies as the shooting of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, in London in July 2005: a mistaken identity, an armed policeman, a lost life.

A mistake which will haunt the officer concerned for the rest of his life.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 8 August, 2014.