The Scottish Review is published weekly by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland

Editor: Kenneth Roy
Deputy Editor: Islay McLeod

* SR accepts no advertising or sponsorship and depends on the financial support of readers. To become a Friend of the Scottish Review, and support our inquiring journalism with a donation of £30 or more, click here

* For a list of our Friends, click here

* For our free SR anthology, click here

* To subscribe free to the Scottish Review, click here

* To find out more about us, click here

* This week's banner: The beach at Millport. Photograph by Islay McLeod

23 July 2014
The dark
side of the
glorious stick
Kenneth Roy

The webcam following the itinerary of the glorious stick through the highways and byways of neverendum Scotland was a splendid idea in principle. Daily on the BBC, it showed us the homes of our long-ago childhood. Not that I'm suggesting the stickit organisers were so bold as to schedule Bonnybridge. There are limits. In my case they were called Camelon.

But we didn't need the glorious stick as an excuse. The clever Scandinavians have devised an art form called Slow TV in which long journeys are shown in real time. A leisurely tour, picking up the random sights and sounds of a small country on the edge of Europe, and increasingly on the edge of its own vile temper, would have been fascinating.

But the stick had to come too. Successfully piloted by the world's greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, the baton relay has somehow metamorphosed into a respectable symbol of international fraternity, if not actually an icon of sorts for our world of bread and circuses. Any self-respecting thoroughfare in Scotland has now been blessed by it.

The spectacle of the stick, though slightly bizarre to the semi-detached onlooker, has had an incidental and unlooked-for benefit. It has reintroduced us to a species of public sector worker that had been invisible for years. We have seen for the first time in a long time what a policeman looks like.

Some officers (I merely report from personal observation) appeared overweight, and even the fitter were so weighed down by weaponry and gadgetry that hot pursuit of the neighbourhood flashers – we have a few, even in deepest Ayrshire – was a vision too implausible to conceive. The flasher is relatively unencumbered, after all, while the elusive constable carries the burden of the world around his or her waist.

They did a fine job of looking after the glorious stick: I'll give them that. No feat of athletics was involved; it wouldn't have earned them so much as a bronze medal at the current passing event – more political than sporting in its long-term significance – which is disrupting the traffic in Glasgow.

When some wee jakey rose in subversive spirit to grab the stick in Portland Street, Kilmarnock, near the dental surgery where I habitually have my teeth drilled as a pleasant distraction from the neverendum and other competitive games, a member of the constabulary walked no distance at all in order to fell the offender – managing, as the BBC bravely reported from the frontline, to keep the inanimate object 'out of harm's way'.

Some days later, in Forres, there was a second attempt to kidnap the glorious stick with the same extreme result. The assailant on that occasion was promptly locked up. I expect that, as I write this, charges of treason in Kilmarnock and Forres are at an advanced stage of preparation.

The involvement of Police Scotland in the stick protection exercise has been impressive. The slogan 'Keeping People Safe' may be something of a joke, but no cost has been too high to keep the stick safe.

Dare we question the expense (to say nothing of the absurdity) of all this? We dare not. Police Scotland is the most profoundly anti-democratic public body north of the blacksmith's shop at Gretna, its power pretty well unchecked. The former local accountability has gone, to be replaced by someone named Sir Stephen House.

And who created Police Scotland? Why, none other than the Scottish Parliament to which greater powers are to be given, whatever the result of our forthcoming date with destiny. The all-Scotland authority came into being at around the same time as our legislators endorsed a sinister plan for the appointment of a state guardian for every child, creating a network of snooping apparatchiks which, one imagines, will suit the purposes of Police Scotland very handily indeed.

Though there is no obvious channel for public dissatisfaction with Police Scotland, few go on pretending to like it. While one newspaper recently exposed the routine arming of officers, others reported the increasing use of stop and search powers. The closure of local police stations without an opportunity for proper consultation has been widely criticised, and in rural parts of the country, particularly in the Highlands, the idea that one policing size fits all is seen as not only impractical but insensitive to distinctive local circumstances.

What is Sir Stephen House's reply to all this? He need not trouble himself. He is abune us a'. The result is an arrogant self-belief. One of his senior officers, Superintendent David O'Connor, is so impressed by the perceived success of Police Scotland – perceived by Police Scotland if no-one else – that he has proposed a 'far-reaching review of the public sector's structure'. As Mr O'Connor puts it: 'If we can prove that moving to a single force can be done relatively pain-free, then you have to ask what next?'.

What indeed? He wants to see fewer councils, fewer health boards, fewer sheriffdoms; he believes there is merit in less of everything. The presumption is staggering. Yet he seems to have a powerful ally in the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who would also prefer fewer democratically accountable bodies cluttering the landscape. The only growth industry in the public sector looks likely to be state guardianship of our children, usurping the role formerly enacted by dodgy couples known as parents.

I had assumed – it has turned out to be a dangerous assumption – that the Scottish Parliament would encourage the extension of local democracy. Instead, we see disturbing examples of a concentration of power, a political will for growing centralisation. I fear it may get worse before it doesn't get better.

Yet, as we have watched the procession of the glorious stick, we have not been protesting. Rather we have been cheering in the sunshine. Unless we are careful, that is how meaningful democracy will end in the radical new Scotland – acquiescently in the listless heat of a summer afternoon, the most minor rebellion quashed, as the crowd goes on waving its patriotic flag of choice.

To become a Friend of the Scottish Review, and support our inquiring journalism with a donation of £30 or more, click here