THERE are two tales you could tell about Police Scotland.

In one, the national force deserves every sympathy and everyone's admiration. In difficult times, with crime ever more complex and budgets ever more constrained, 17,234 men and women are coping magnificently.

The other tale is less cheering. It has its origins in the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 that saw eight regional forces and a services authority welded into a single entity in the name of efficiency, and in the appointment of one man to make sense of it all. The act explains a few things. Still, too often, you ask: "What's going on?" Then you ask, "Why?"

Begin, nevertheless, with the world as it might seem to Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, his four deputy chiefs and his eight assistants. For starters: why is theirs the only force in the entire United Kingdom deemed liable for VAT, and to the tune of £24 million annually?

Sir Stephen has asked the question repeatedly and received no public answer, to my knowledge, from the Treasury. The Metropolitan Police, the only force larger in the UK, is not billed. Police Scotland's regional predecessors did not have to cope with VAT. The chief constable and his team, told to find savings of £68 million, £64 million and £57.5 million in the first three years of the new body's existence, have to come up with that £24 million.

Police Scotland can cut and has cut, even if the public doesn't want to hear about local stations closing, or car fleets reduced. The public knows that redundancies among civilian staff leave officers stuck in those infamous back-rooms. Some will realise, equally, that whatever efficiencies there were to be had from amalgamation have already been achieved. The VAT bill remains.

For all its efforts, Police Scotland has never quite managed to balance its budget. In the 2015/16 financial year, things are coming to a head. A £57.5 million saving is required; just £46.5 million has been found. There is not a lot left to cut except the number of officers. Scotland has 326 of those per 100,000 of the population, England and Wales has 227. The SNP government is proud of the fact and Sir Stephen is forbidden to reduce force numbers by redundancy or natural wastage.

The SNP's cherished "1,000 extra police" pledge would otherwise be broken. Political rivals would seize on the fact. But none of the parties, still unable to do much about Westminster's austerity mania, has come up with workable alternatives. So the country has plenty of coppers, yet they are being forced to cope with ever-diminishing resources. In the circumstances, perhaps Sir Stephen is entitled to some praise.

That's one story. The other comes as a list: stop and search, armed police, saunas, a death in custody, and a Glasgow venue called The Arches. Most don't have a great deal to do - though Sir Stephen might think otherwise - with budgetary pressures. Instead, they touch on slippery notions of ethos, style, sensitivity, arrogance, and sensible practice. They suggest that the great force amalgamation experiment was profoundly misconceived.

Take the saunas and "massage parlours" of Edinburgh. There's history to this. When HIV-Aids hit the capital in the 1980s, it struck with a pitiless ferocity. Suddenly, traditional efforts to suppress the sex industry (and gay culture) seemed even less sane than before. For once, the council acquired common sense. Saunas were licensed in the name of "entertainment" and officialdom looked the other way. If discretion and order were maintained, few questions were asked and a problem was (more or less) managed. Workers were granted a degree of safety.

Tolerance did not long survive the creation of Police Scotland. Its attitude, in Edinburgh eyes, was a Glasgow attitude: zero tolerance. Saunas were raided, licences were suspended, and a philosophy of policing was - so it seemed in the capital - dismissed out of hand. The writ of Strathclyde, biggest of the old forces, was being made to run in places of which Strathclyde coppers knew little. It was the writ, more precisely, of Sir Stephen House.

He is not parochial. Sussex, Northamptonshire, West Yorkshire, Staffordshire, the Met: he has been around. But he took over Strathclyde in 2007 and was sworn in as Police Scotland's first chief constable in 2012. Glasgow's no-holds-barred policing is the kind of policing he understands. Also on the charge sheet are an obsession with targets and an arrogance that does not sit well, if at all, with command of a national force.

Targets in part explained the stop and search fiasco, when it transpired that Police Scotland had a worse addiction to the habit than the Met or even the NYPD, when the force was still stopping children after claiming to have ended the practice, and when it somehow erased the records on which target-driven policing supposedly is based. What became clear from the episode was that Sir Stephen could not see what the fuss was about.

The same would be said about public reactions to armed police turning up at minor altercations in Highland shops. For Police Scotland and its Chief Constable the issue was efficiency. Why have specialist firearms officers "sitting around" when they could be put to other uses? An outraged public had a better understanding of what policing by consent is supposed to mean. The new national force came close to forfeiting the trust on which it depends.

Around Sir Stephen there hangs the air of a man who cannot or will not learn. The facts surrounding the death of Sheku Bayoh in custody in Kircaldy in May are not established. What we know is that Police Scotland (with Crown Office agreement) issued guidelines in March to ensure that henceforth officers need not surrender their notebooks, or agree to formal interviews with the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, if there is the risk of criminal charges. Why the rule change? With what justification?

Contrary to evolving legend, Police Scotland did not shut down The Arches, Glasgow's most influential arts venue. The force made plenty of complaints about incidents involving drugs and alcohol, however. The city's licensing board obligingly imposed a midnight closing time and robbed the club of viability. Trouble and drugs will now migrate to less visible and less manageable places. But as with Edinburgh's saunas, "a problem" denied tolerance is not, and never can be, a problem solved.

The temptation is to lay every complaint at the door of Sir Stephen, or to blame the feeble Scottish Police Authority. But the chief constable does not "expect" to renew his contract next year - presuming he has the choice - and some new top cop will fill his shoes. Police Scotland, the force that is supposed to show an institutional understanding of city and country, north and south, east and west, will remain.

Amalgamation doesn't work, either as a theory of policing in a diverse nation, or as a practice. The old regional forces were themselves born of institutional reforms, but they retained a certain logic. If Police Scotland cannot grasp why Glasgow and Edinburgh differ, what else does it misunderstand? Granting command to any single individual simply deepens the problem.