Sorley Complain finds something sinister behind the cheery faces of BBC Scotland’s policing comedy.
Top-down attempts to shape Scotland’s image in the twenty-first century have wrestled with a certain tension. The desire to promote the country as a serious, grown-up player on the global stage is in conflict with the need to distance Scottish culture from less savoury aspects of nation-statehood, such as authoritarian border control and austerity politics. An awkward governmental marriage of ambition and couthie cosiness was encapsulated in Labour First Minister Jack McConnell’s miscarried slogan ‘the best small country in the world’, and the SNP have sustained it in their attitudes to both reserved powers and centralisation drives. Rhetoric on the importance of the local belies the Scottish Government’s efforts to create shiny homogeneous national institutions to rival ‘proper’ small countries like those of Scandinavia.
The tension is embodied in some of these very institutions themselves, and Police Scotland most of all. In 2010, as the plans for a single national police force were coming together, that barometer of Scottish progress, Oor Wullie, ran a strip on the controversial Armed Response Units, in which Wullie’s nemesis PC Murdoch was kitted out in SWAT-like gear, before revealing that his rifle was in fact a water pistol, Auchenshoogle’s biker gangs being of the retired Sunday pedaller variety. Since 2014, PC Murdoch’s strange blend of aspic-preserved fictional 1950s Angus and forward-thinking techno-policing has been superseded by BBC Scotland’s Scot Squad. Like PC Murdoch, our BBC heroes, from Grado’s PC Hugh McKirdy to Chief Commissioner Miekleson, serve to water down policing controversies, performing as authority figures who offer reassurance of normality and continuity in the very fact that they can be laughed at – unlike those serious wielders of force, the Met, in the far-off, violent metropolis of London. Wullie has a clip round the ear, the Glasgow ‘bams’ and wayward Aberdeenshire farmers are tidied up, and decent folk can go back to their stovies. Naughty bairns today are still threatened with the polis, but as McKirdy says, ‘it’s not always serious in the police, sometimes we get a right old chuckle’.
2014, in case you have forgotten, was also the year of Scotland’s referendum, and such image wrangling has since become more acute. A national Police Force has to be seen as effective and efficient, yet the language of community policing has never been more important, and the contrast with the Met more insistent. It’s not hard to see the political use of framing Police Scotland as an innocuous public body at the forefront of Scotland’s liberal democracy. Scot Squad alternates gratuitous footage of (Visit) Scotland’s ‘wild’ scenery with urban coppers nicking shoplifters and a gowky Chief with nothing to do but make an arse of himself in front of Jackie Bird. Chief Miekleson is temporarily menaced with the prospect of replacement by a Met hard man who threatens to whip things into shape, but this is quickly averted – nothing to see in Auchenshoogle, guv.
In Season Four, faced with protests at another of his ‘comedy’ gaffes, the Chief comments on the difficulty of ‘banging up’ activists: ‘now they all know their rights’, he eye-rolls, a dinosaur in a Scotland which belongs to its citizens. The irony, as anyone who was on the ground at the 2021 COP 26 event in Glasgow could see, is that far too few of King Charles’ Scottish subjects do know these, and that policing is hardly practised on the basis of defending them. Kettling, police violence, pre-emptive targeting, overreach of powers such as stop and search, and the harassment and following of activists was in full effect, all while Police Scotland successfully positioned themselves as ‘tolerant’ upholders of human rights, in contrast to the ‘hardline’ English forces they had invited in and were working closely alongside. This image is every bit as fictional as lovely Lorraine Kelly being arrested for keying Piers Morgan’s car (no reactionaries in Scottish media!).
2014 also saw the shooting of Michael Brown and the rise of Black Lives Matter in international consciousness. The dominance of American politics in the media often obscures rather than illuminates trends elsewhere, such as the particularities of Scotland’s own continuing history of racism. Chief Constable Sir Iain Livingstone’s outgoing admission of racism in Police Scotland in May must be seen as a victory. However, the specificities of policing in this country continue to receive too little scrutiny. In 2019, as BLM gained new public approval, Kenny MacAskill, who as Justice Secretary had been a primary advocate of centralization and arming the police without consultation, doubled down on his calls for routinely arming Scottish cops, ‘as yet more atrocities have shown the carnage that can happen [sic]’.
Of course, oppressive dynamics around violence, class, race, and sexuality are nothing new in Scottish policing, as many who remember the miners’ strikes of the 80s, the poll tax, Section 28, or the G8 protests in Edinburgh and Gleneagles will know. The National Union of Miners recorded 2,400 injuries and two deaths at the hands of police in the 1984/85 strike, as cited in a 2020 independent review. Behind the proudly stylized crowned thistle of the national force, it’s hard to see signs of a more progressive policing, if indeed such a mission isn’t a contradiction in terms. In July 2014 The Herald reported that the use of stop and search by Police Scotland was ‘significantly higher’ than by the Met or NYPD, with an independent panel raising particular concerns over its use against young children. The self-deprecating narratives of our screen coppers hide a plethora of serious questions around policing and the communities most affected by it, those written off as chavs or troublemakers when they’re not passed over in silence.
Taking off the blue-tinted spectacles certainly complicates the handy comparisons with our neighbours. If the Met will forever be the killers of Stephen Lawrence (not to mention many others), who are Police Scotland to Sheku Bayoh and his family? One of his (alleged) killers was described by his own brother-in-law as ‘hat[ing] all blacks’. The collusion and misuse of process by the police at the time of Bayoh’s death in 2015 is evidence that a bad apple points to a whole rotten barrel, as Sir Iain Livingstone’s admission of endemic racism suggests. Such comparisons are a dubious starting point in any case. Just as Scotland whataboots the Met, so the British police as a whole points to US policing as the antithesis of our community values (never mind MacAskill’s enthusiasm for ‘mobile armouries’). Contrasts between Westminster’s authoritarian tendencies, such as the draconian new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and Scotland’s European aspirations handily ignore the inhumane violence of the European Union’s Frontex force, not to mention the routine deaths in custody and on the streets in countries such as France or Spain.
Dismissing all concerns about armed coppers, MacAskill argued that an ‘old lady with a broken hip in a road accident is just delighted to receive help and a beleaguered colleague delighted with back-up’, conjuring images of PC Murdoch using Wullie’s cartie to wheel a (white) old dear to the hospital or rural PC Mackay calling on her partner McIntosh to help scare some sheep off the road. There’s that conflict again, between the humble affairs of Scotland’s quiet braes and closes and the reality of those who find themselves at the wrong end of an automatic weapon, or Taser, or nightstick, or chokehold. Those targeted for having the wrong skin colour, or opinions on monarchy, or tracksuit, may not be so delighted. Which is it, Scotland? A wee pretendy police force? Or a Scot Squad that can forcefully respond to global challenges like organised crime, inconvenient climate protestors, drowning refugees, and shielding war criminals? BLM has put abolition on the agenda in US discourse with surprising success. Perhaps it’s time for ‘progressive’ Scotland to begin its own conversation.
Sorley Complain lives in Edinburgh.