Twitter Feed

‘The Politics of the Police’: Politicians and Policing in Scotland Today

The relationship between politics and the police in Scotland needs to be addressed soon…this politicisation of policing issues is very dangerous to the police, and to those who are policed. By Professor Ken Scott

By Professor Kenneth Scott, SIPR Associate.

In 1984, in the Preface to the first edition of his seminal work, The Politics of the Police, Robert Reiner bluntly stated that ‘policing in Britain has become thoroughly politicised.’  This was in the age of the Miners’ Strike, when the police were the subject of critical resolutions at Labour Party conferences and arguments over whether or not they were being used by the Conservative Government of the day for political purposes. Scotland, by and large, avoided the worst extremes of that situation, but recent and continuing controversies over Police Scotland have raised again major issues around politics and the police.

Since its inception, Police Scotland has been at the centre of a number of political controversies. Everything from closure of control centres to raids on saunas in Edinburgh, from the accuracy of police statistics to the chief constable’s housing allowance has been the subject of political comment and Scottish Parliament debate. And above all have been the long-running rows over the use of stop and search and of firearms officers appearing on routine patrols.

It has only been with the creation of a national police force, Police Scotland, that policing has moved rapidly into the political headlines. Previously, the lack of political interest had been encouraged by the fact that policing was a local government function in Scotland. The creation of a single national police service has changed that dramatically. Not only have the police moved from local structures of governance and accountability to a national one, but a national force was always going to be much more politically visible than the eight regional forces ever were.

The old tripartite system is no more. The central government role, especially as the sole source of police funding, has been enhanced, the local government role has virtually gone and been replaced by a centrally appointed Scottish Police Authority, and one chief constable inevitably will have a much higher profile than when there were eight. The less-expected consequence of this change is that MSPs have played a much more vociferous part than predicted, especially through the Justice Committee’s Sub-committee on Policing.

At the root of much of this confrontation between politicians and the police is, I suspect, a clash between two fundamental principles of police accountability.

The first, better-known and oft referred to by the politicians is ‘policing by consent’, the principle that police powers are best exercised with the support of the public.

Society allows police officers to carry out activities which others are not permitted to do, such as arrest, detain and search. The quid pro quo is that the police, collectively and individually, have to account for and explain their actions. Implicit in the principle is the possibility that the public may withdraw its consent.

For the public, ‘policing by consent’ is vital in ensuring that the police operate in a way appropriate to a democratic society. For the police, the principle is vital for ensuring public support for what they do.

In the case of certain policing strategies, the politicians’ argument has been that the public which they represent does not fully support the chief constable’s policies.

The second, less well-known principle, is that of ‘constabulary independence’. This is the right of the chief constable to have the final say in all operational policing matters. This has been strongly upheld in case law over many years and is most clearly stated in Lord Denning’s oft-quoted judgement that the chief constable ‘is not the servant of anyone, save the law itself’.

‘Constabulary independence’ is seen as an important safeguard against undue external political or other influences on policing. It is a principle that is deeply imbued in the mindset of senior officers, who are particularly sensitive to any suggestion of its being breached.

In recent policing controversies, this principle has too often been seen as an excuse invoked by ministers for non-intervention, rather than recognising that it is a basic foundation on which policing operates.

Just as the creation of Police Scotland has undoubtedly changed the landscape of police governance and accountability significantly, the relationship between the principles of ‘policing by consent’ and  ‘constabulary independence’ is also changing.

On the one hand, healthy scrutiny and discussion by SPA members, politicians and the public of how policing is carried out is essential, if public support and consent is to be maintained. However, there has to be a recognition that in many areas of policing the final say lies with the chief constable.

On the other hand, the police are right to act without fear or favour, free of external interference in operational matters. But, equally, they have to get better at explaining, justifying and accounting for their actions and policies, and to do so in a more effective and transparent fashion.

The relationship between politics and the police in Scotland needs to be addressed soon, from both sides, because, as Reiner wrote back in 1984, ‘this politicisation of policing issues is very dangerous to the police, and to those who are policed.’

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Social Share:

Other Latest News

Seldom Heard Voices: Community Impact Event 


In 2021, SIPR, Police Scotland and Scottish Police Authority funded 5 grants to support research into ‘Seldom Heard’ communities. On Wednesday 26th April, we hosted a collaborative event to present the final research projects to an audience of academics, community members, NGO members, and Police Scotland staff and serving officers. First up, Kirsty Forrester from Dundee City Council and Dr Jonathan Mendel from the University of Dundee discussed their collaborative research with BAME communities and serving officers, highlighting the need for trust. Second, Dr Andrew Williams from St. Andrews and Inspector Jason Peter from the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit presented their ‘Photovoice’ Project which aimed to encourage young people in areas of inequality to engage with their community by taking pictures. Third, Dr Julie Berg and Emily Mann from University of Glasgow and University of Edinburgh respectively presented their project’ Accounting for Complexities: an Intersectional Approach to Enhancing Police Practitioner Accountability, Legitimacy & Sustainable Reform’. Fourth, Professor James Moir and Dr Corinne Jola from Abertay University focus on the topic of empathy with LGBT youth who are care experienced or are from other disadvantaged background. Finally, Bryony Nisbet from Queen Margaret University presented her and Dr Nicole Vidal’s research into refugee and asylum-seeker experiences, trust and confidence with Police Scotland. Following the presentations, representatives from Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority were invited to reflect on the findings and recommendations, and to provide assurances of the SPA and Police Scotland’s ongoing commitment to the communities and the issues raised. Assistant Chief Constable Emma Bond, said: “This important research underlines our commitment to listening to all our communities so we can continually improve how we represent, reflect and serve them. “Providing every citizen with a just and effective police service is fundamental to policing legitimacy and to our ability to keep people safe. “A great strength of Police Scotland is that our officers and staff are drawn from different backgrounds and experiences. What unites us is our shared and non-negotiable set of values – integrity, fairness, respect and a commitment to upholding human rights. “I am grateful to everyone who contributed to this work and we are already considering the recommendations made so that we can continue to design our services to best meet the needs of our communities.” Tom Halpin from the Scottish Police Authority said “The Authority is committed to policing in the public interest, to do that we must understand public views, opinions, and concerns. The research published today will allow us to gain more insight into where to target our activity and attention to ensure we build the strongest relationships we can with all communities in Scotland.” SIPR Director Liz Aston underlined SIPR’s commitment stating that “SIPR will continue to support the dissemination of these important research findings in order to ensure that they impact policing policy and practice”. SIPR hopes to continue to support research into Seldom Heard Communities.



After seven years as a SIPR Associate Director, Professor Denise Martin has made the difficult decision to step down.

SIPR Associate Director


Following Professor Denise Martin’s decision to step down from her role as SIPR Associate Director and lead of the Education and Leadership network, SIPR is now inviting applications from prospective candidates to take on this role.

SIPR Newsletter Sign Up

You will be added to our mailing list to keep you updated with future events and activities from the Scottish Institute for Policing Research

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. For further information please read our Privacy Policy.