By Kath Murray

THE former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill recently cautioned that the appointment of Phil Gormley as Chief Constable of Police Scotland was political, a decision that "probably says more about the perception by some of Police Scotland than his own capabilities as an officer, excellent though they are". It was, Mr MacAskill wrote, “a choice as basic as knowing your ABCs – ‘Anyone But a Constable from Scotland'." Wrapping up the appointment in what looks like nationalist sentiment is, I think, unhelpful and I’m not sure what value it brings. There is also, perhaps, more than a touch of irony here, given the previous appointment of Sir Stephen House by Mr MacAskill, whose perceived "Metropolitan" policing methods have generated considerable ire.

Still, putting personal politics aside, there is a more pressing and strategic point here about experience and responsibility, one which Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority do need to address. In a nutshell, the problem is that by default, senior Scottish officers do not possess experience of overseeing a force at the chief constable level. Relatedly, in the absence of opportunity, there is also a risk that talented senior officers in Scotland will look south of the Border for promotion.

Compare for example, the commissioners of the Metropolitan Police. Since the late 1950s, each commissioner cut his teeth in a smaller force before taking on the top role. Likewise, Sir Stephen previously oversaw Strathclyde Police force. As the second largest police force in the UK – together with the added complexities of geographical breadth, diverse communities, a £25million deficit, a challenging IT project and a raft of other scandals – it seems fair to suggest that a similar rule of thumb might apply to Police Scotland.

Clearly, it would be preferable to appoint a chief constable with long-term experience in, and understanding of Scottish policing. There are also Scottish divisions that are larger than many English forces, including Norfolk, Mr Gormley’s old stomping ground. However, the crux of the matter is the exceptional degree of responsibility that the position of chief constable entails – which is of course, ratcheted up in a national police force. As Professor Robert Reiner puts it in his excellent study of English chief constables, the "chief constable is a Lone Ranger, without even a Tonto to help him out". Insightfully, Prof Reiner also describes how, chiefs in England and Wales are in many ways subordinate to the Home Office, a dynamic that for all the discussion south of the Border, seems likely to impede full centralization. As Prof Reiner observes, "why should the Government relinquish a position which gives it power without responsibility?"

In Scotland, reform undercut this advantageous political position, thereby swiftly exposing the accountability and scrutiny deficit in Scottish policing, as well as overly close relations between the chief constable and ministers, putting both in the firing line. Reform meant that politics and responsibility were no longer at one remove and both played out in public, as suggested by the rapid turnover of key appointments; by the replacement of the chief constable, the Justice Secretary, and as the disempowered chair of the Scottish Police Authority within less than three years of the single service.

Returning to the points raised by Mr MacAskill, arguably the current strategic challenge is to carve out a way for senior Scottish officers to gain the relevant experience necessary for taking on the role of chief constable. Otherwise, it looks as though for the foreseeable future, Mr MacAskill’s ABC dictum might prevail, albeit for different reasons than those the former Justice Secretary suggests.

At the end of the day, the issue is not one of politics per se, an overly critical media, or "English" versus "Scottish" policing, a stereotype that is both overplayed and misleading. Nor does the recent appointment, as Mr MacAskill suggests, cast a pall over Scottish policing, or even more implausibly, on Scotland. It is about the fact that in the new landscape of Scottish policing, the role of chief constable is about as demanding (and visible) as it gets. It will require experience of juggling operational competence, commanding the respect of the troops and the public, and crucially, a willingness to listen and to take on board constructive advice and criticism.

Kath Murray is the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh.