Getting Rid of the BTP at All Costs

  British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit:  Gordon Joly  via  Flickr   CC

British Transport Police officers on duty in the London Underground. Image Credit: Gordon Joly via Flickr CC

     This week in Scotland saw one of the more controversial aspects of the Smith Commission being brought up for discussion: the possible breakup of the British Transport Police, the specialist law enforcement force which is responsible for the policing of Britain’s railways.

     For those not familiar or needing a refresh, the Smith Commission was created in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum which saw the majority of Scots deciding to keep the United Kingdom together. In the closing days of the campaign, the three main pro-Union parties promised in the Daily Record (via the famous/infamous “Vow”) that with a “No” vote to separation, the devolved Scottish Parliament at Holyrood would receive more powers to exercise in Scotland, as opposed to the UK Parliament at Westminster (with Scottish representation as there always has been) exercising those powers in Scotland as part of the overall United Kingdom. With separation rejected, the commission was formed to recommend what should be devolved and among them was the Scottish BTP functions, and this was pushed through as part of the Scotland Act 2016.

    Even before the final passage of the act, the SNP government had made clear its intentions to use this new power to absorb the BTP in Scotland into Police Scotland, the single national police force created by the SNP in 2013 by amalgamating the eight existing regional services. In September, the merger proposal was officially announced as part of the SNP’s program for government, and last Wednesday saw various police representatives in a round-table discussion about the merger plan with MSP’s on the Justice Committee at Holyrood.

    Already, three railway unions and the BTP Federation had stated their opposition to the plan, with the federation expressing anger at the Smith Commission recommendation soon after it was made in 2014, saying that it was “both unjustified and unjustifiable.” Their main concern has been the potential loss of the BTP’s specialism and expertise, which make it unique from a force based in a particular geographic area, as well as the integrity of cross-border travel safety. For this reason, the BTP has offered to continue its services as a separate force in Scotland, but with oversight from Holyrood, rather than Westminster.

     However, the SNP government has continued to press forward with the scheme in the belief that since all other policing in Scotland is under the jurisdiction of Police Scotland, then the Transport Police should be the same way and that integration would “ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland.”

     The more generous remarks given on the subject in favor of the SNP’s position came from Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the merger could work and that his force could police all the railways despite this being “massively complicated” and admitting that there would be “massive transition issues.” His statement broadly echoes that of the Scottish Government saying that specialist skills of the BTP would be maintained and could be achieved “from within our national police service.”  He also gave assurances that staffing levels would be maintained and potentially supplemented by Police Scotland officers.

  BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit:  Dave Connor  via  Flickr   CC

BTP badge from Dave Connor's Scottish Law Enforcement Insignia Collection. Image Credit: Dave Connor via Flickr CC

     Such assurances were not enough for Nigel Goodband, chairman of the BTP Federation, who said that some of the experienced specialist transport officers would rather quit their jobs than not be BTP officers and that therefore, neither the SNP government nor Police Scotland could promise that the quality of service and expertise would be maintained. Some of this attitude stems from controversies with regard to the formation of Police Scotland and its handling of policing, and in its submission to the Justice Committee, the BTP Federation regarded the force as “still very much in its infancy” and that “no evidence to date has been able to state clearly what, if any, advantage there would be in dismantling the current BTP model of policing in Scotland and integrating it within a geographical routine form of policing.”

     BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock emphasized this point by stating that the BTP exists because its “specialism is so valued by the [rail] industry and passengers” and that railways required different policing from that of general law enforcement, which is specifically why it is difficult to merge into a geographic force (and why the federation is concerned about the possibility of transport officers being used to bolster Police Scotland). He was backed up by Nick Fyfe of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, who pointed to a “distinctive culture and ethos in policing the railways.”

     This culture and ethos is what makes the BST unique and allows it to transcend borders to provide a consistent specialist service, and for that reason, the federation is also concerned about the annual 21 million cross-border passengers and whether there may be interruptions to the “seamless” level of service they have come to expect.

     This leads to something on a more fundamental level, which is that the British Transport Police is a service used and shared by rail travelers throughout Great Britain – a service which is visibly recognizable and the relatively the same wherever anyone goes, whether from Glasgow to London, or Cardiff to Manchester, or Birmingham to Edinburgh, so as to ensure that people get to their destinations safely. It is therefore representative something “British”, not only because of the name, but because of its mandate, jurisdiction, and service it provides throughout the island. The United Kingdom does not have a national police force, so the Transport Police is as close to such a force in the country.

     All of this of course, is anathema for the SNP. Its members, including at senior levels, deny that Britain is a country and seek to characterize it as just a “state” or "invented construct" run from (big, bad) Westminster without a heart or soul, little in connection to people in Scotland, and certainly not doing anything of value or significance for them. It therefore suits the SNP government to fold the Transport Police north of the Border into Police Scotland and to not only extinguish a piece of shared Britishness – the closest thing to a national police force – from the Scottish landscape, but to effectively kill it entirely throughout the whole country and have one less relevant institution linking it together.

     Despite evidence that merging the Scottish BTP into Police Scotland would be very complex (at a time when the national force is still coming to terms with its own formation), may result in the loss of specialist capabilities, and simply is not necessary for effective policing, the SNP seems content with pressing forward for the purpose of simply creating another difference between Scotland and the rest of Britain.

     This is but probably a taste of the “independence at any cost” posture taken by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she claimed that separation “transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends.” However, these are important issues which must be considered and cannot be ignored if there is to be another referendum like the one in 2014, just as the complexities and warning with regard to the dismantling of the BTP and merging it into Police Scotland cannot be dismissed. As far as can be told, the BTP works as a specialist force policing the railways of Britain, but the SNP government is pursuing a strategy of making Scotland feel as though it's not part of Britain at any cost.

     During his remarks at the Justice Committee discussion, BTP Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock asked: “If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?”

     That’s just it; there is nothing to fix.

  A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit:  C.S. Imming  via  Wikimedia Commons   CC

A BTP helmet located at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in remembrance of 9/11. Image Credit: C.S. Imming via Wikimedia Commons CC

Still Quietly No Two Years Later

     On this day two years ago, the people of Scotland exercised their sovereign will to vote No in the independence referendum which was held on the previous day. In doing so, they preserved the United Kingdom and over 300 years of shared history, culture, heritage, solidarity, and prosperity with the peoples of the rest of the realm.

     The day of the vote was remarkable for the fact there was overwhelming civic participation in form of nearly 85% turnout among registered voters, including many who had lived through life having ever voted for anything, as well as 16 and 17 year olds, to whom the voting franchise was temporarily extended for this occasion – the outcome of which would decide their future longer than anyone else.

     As it was, when the question was put to them: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, the outcome was a decisive vote in favor the keeping the UK together, with 55.3% of those who turned out voting No and 44.7% voting Yes and for separation.

     It was a great day for Scotland and for the United Kingdom as a whole, and it was a day that I shall never forget. As a person who takes a great interest in the UK and has adopted it as my second home, it was just brilliant to see unity triumphing over division, and the people affirming their commitment to be part of the same country as England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, with all of the benefits – social, cultural, and economic – which come with it.

     For the people who wished to see the Union continue, it was a moment of relief after an emotionally draining campaign that had consumed their lives for the better part of three years ever since the SNP won a majority at Holyrood in 2011 on a manifesto which included a vote on independence. Through it all, they soldiered through – day in and day out – going up against the well-oiled and well-funded campaign machine that was Yes Scotland and the SNP. They came from vastly different political, social, and economic backgrounds, but had a confident sense of having Scotland as a proud and strong part of the United Kingdom, and they did their bit – in countless ways – to keep the Union together and succeeded.

     There were pitfalls and setbacks to be sure, and more than a few falling outs as different political ideologies clashed, but they found a way to overcome their differences and work in the interest of the greater good for the people of Scotland and of the rest of the UK as a whole.

     The latter point is important because these good and decent people did not wish to break the bonds that they share with their fellow Britons. They knew that the UK was an imperfect country that has its faults – as all countries do – but believed robustly and confidently that keeping Britain together was the right thing for everyone, including themselves and their families – not just in Scotland, but in other parts of the UK.

     And while the supporters of separation made lots of noise and held dozens of marches with Saltire’s – some emblazoned with the “Yes” logo – they were ultimately no match for the quiet and silent majority who turned out to vote and voted No. With little or no celebration, most of them cast their votes, watched the results with much relief, and moved on with their lives. Some of them may have celebrated in private, among family and friends, as well as online among like-minded people on Facebook and Twitter. But for the most part, they were just glad for it to be over.

     Now two years later, they have no regrets on their vote, and would do it again if necessary. They have had to deal with the noise of the separatists, who have been as loud as ever with their numbers at Westminster and Holyrood, as well as the fall-out from the Brexit vote. Still, they lost their Holyrood majority in May and the post-Brexit bounce as so far yet to materialize. In fact, there are some signs that the SNP may be sliding back, with polls showing less enthusiasm for a second referendum, support for separation relatively unchanged and most people in favor of the Union, and even Nicola Sturgeon's popularity has fallen against a rising Ruth Davidson.

     Still, the separatists aren't going anywhere soon, and those who wish to maintain the Union must be ready for anything. For today however, those supporters of the Union have mostly limited their celebration to expressing their thoughts feelings on social media and with each other. They don’t need to go out to city squares and bolster about their support for proudly remaining part of the UK. They know who they are and what they stand for, and they cherish their quiet victory. Many will spend a quiet day at home remembering the solemn, yet inspiring victory two years ago, as well as having the hope of not having to vote again on this issue so soon.

     However, if need be, they will, and hope that it will be another reaffirmation of Scotland’s proud and honored place in the United Kingdom.

A Country, Indeed

  Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit:  DaveKentUK  via  Flickr   cc

Individual British coins coming together to make the Royal shield of the United Kingdom. Image Credit: DaveKentUK via Flickr cc

     Last week, SNP MEP Alyn Smith went before the EU parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs to assert that the “UK is not a country” and called on the committee to view the UK as merely a “state made up of four countries” and to see that two of those countries (including Scotland) voted for the UK to keep its membership of the European Union in the referendum which was held on June 23rd.

     The aim of Mr. Smith was to convince his colleagues in Brussels to put aside the UK-wide vote to terminate membership of the EU and instead focus on the result of each of the home nations as if there was a separate vote held in each of them with the ballot papers asking if they wanted their individual part of the UK to stay in or leave the EU, and to therefore treat Scotland as a special case with regard to remaining in the EU as the overall UK prepares to leave.

     He pleaded with the committee members to not “turn your back on all of us now” and that under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a panel of expert advisors has been assembled to look at all options for Holyrood to pursue following the Brexit vote, and promised that this panel would before long come to the committee with “solutions” for Scottish participation in the EU. Pending such solutions, he said that the committee ought to wait before making any “precipitous move” to shut down attempts for an easy transition to Scotland being an EU member in its own right – perhaps with some of the UK’s opt-outs.

     However, despite the pleasantries exchanged between Sturgeon and some leaders of the EU in her charm offensive to win support for her position on Scotland and the EU, as well as the standing ovation Smith received for his impassioned speech to the EU Parliament, it appears that there is little appetite to deal with Scotland as a separate case from the UK with regard to Brexit since the UK is the sovereign entity which holds EU membership. That, and the fact that there are other EU countries which have separatist issues within their borders, and will not wish to have a special deal for Scotland being used as precedent for those wishing to break them up. The Spanish are almost certain to use their veto to prevent such a precedent from being established, and their legal position (as stated by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy) is that the UK as a whole must leave the EU and then Scotland – if it became independent – would have to put in an application to become a new EU member.

     This is the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Europe Minister, David Lidington, as well as Sir David Edward, a former European Court judge who is a member of the First Minster’s special panel. He warned a Holyrood committee and also told the BBC that obtaining Scottish membership would be impossible to negotiate while the UK leaves the EU during the two year period following the invocation of Article 50 to start the real process of Brexit and raised concerns about “complications” such as customs duties on goods and services going between Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as the real possibility that an independent Scotland may have to start life outside the EU.

     Nevertheless, Smith, Sturgeon, and others in the SNP can be counted on to keep pressing forward with whatever morsel of an argument they can find, because what they are really after is a second referendum to break up the UK. An affirmative result in their favor is made easier by getting assurances that Scotland will have a smooth transition to independent EU membership, and this is made easier by convincing the powers that be on the Continent to view EU referendum results as those of four separate countries voting separately, rather than as one country voting as one. Hence, Smith’s assertion that the “UK is not a country.”

     This claim is one of the things which has been a source of irritation during the independence referendum and since. The purpose is to delegitimize the United Kingdom as a country – as something with a heart and soul – and instead characterize it as just a state – as a made-up construct with no soul or value beyond that of a few monetary exchanges. It’s about making people feel no sense of purpose or belonging within the UK, and with the hope that they will see it as something with little or no meaning to them to the point that they will be willing to break it up.

     The reality is that the United Kingdom is a country, with all of the attributes of a country; it has its own head of state, parliament, citizenship, armed forces, passport, currency, anthem, flag, internationally-recognized borders, membership of international institutions, and international presence via a global network of embassies.

     However, aside from these legal and bare essentials for being a country, there’s much more to the United Kingdom; the listed attributes are merely the bones which hold up the meat of what makes the UK a country.

     Indeed, it is fair to say that the UK is a state, but it is more than that, for it is a multinational nation-state; both a union of nations (just as the US is a union of 50 states) and a nation of unions built over hundreds of years which celebrates the cultures of its constituent parts, which in turn contributes to the overall culture and society of the United Kingdom as a whole and the concept of being British. What we think of today as Britishness has been brought about by the full and joint political, economic, and social union of the home nations into a single country, known as the United Kingdom. Each part has greatly contributed to that, and to remove any part would mean removing something essential about the UK.

     For my part, I have never thought of the United Kingdom as being divided according to the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish. For me, it has been one country made of different peoples with much in common, and with the borders between them virtually meaningless.

     For this reason, the UK belongs to everyone within its borders, and it is indeed not only a country, but one which has meaning and a soul embedded within it. I look at the vast expanse of Britain – from the Welsh valleys, to the green and pleasant land of England, to the Scottish Highlands, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and take wonder in the beauty of this one land – indivisible. I look at the radiance of the UK’s great cities – from Glasgow to Manchester, Belfast to Inverness, from Aberdeen to Cardiff, Liverpool to Southampton, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh to London, and remain in awe of these places that are the engines of Britain’s prosperity.

     When I hear songs like I Vow to Thee My Country, I think of the nation by which we have stood beside through decades of peace and war. When I listen to Heart of Oak, I think of great British ships that exported Britain around the world and helped to connect it. With Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope of Glory, I also think about the country that did so well at the 2012 Olympic Games by being united and which also celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its storied Queen.

     Yet for all of these great things, I am not at all blinded by visions of the United Kingdom as perfect country.

     There is poverty and economic suffering currently going on throughout the entire United Kingdom, for the downturn of recent years has caused pain for many people, and now there is Brexit with which to contend. I know that it is not entirely a land of hope and glory, but that does not mean that it cannot be or strive toward it.

     Britain has been – and is – a great country, and much of that greatness stems from the fact that it once governed the largest empire in human history. The British Empire is long gone, but positive influences from Britain around the world live on to the present day, and the UK is still a leader in world affairs. This is something in which the people ought to take some pride.

     It should also take pride in its cultural exports, such as James Bond, the Beatles, and Harry Potter – all of which hail from the land of Shakespeare and Burns. There are other contributions, like developing democracy and social welfare and leading the world in the industrial revolution, and still more, its venerable institutions such as the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC, Parliament, and the Armed Forces, all of which – in spite of their shortcomings – provide the glue that underpin British society and bind the British people together.

     I see all of these things, and I think to myself: what a wonderful country, this sceptered isle, or rather isles – these Isles of Wonder, which were so beautifully portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics nearly four years ago.

     I cannot help but to have admiration for what Britain has done in the past, and – as the Games themselves displayed – have hope for what Britain can do in the future, both at home and abroad.

     Over the last weekend, the country united around Andy Murray as he won his second Wimbledon title, as well as Gordon Reid winning the inaugural wheelchair singles event at the storied and prestigious tournament – providing a ray of sunshine and excitement to a country deeply divided over the Brexit vote and still reeling from the fallout. Earlier, the country united around Wales as it became the last Home Nation standing in the Euro football tournament, and in a few weeks, it will again unite around Team GB for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

     All of this is a real-life display to show that while the UK is made up of different parts and its people have multiple identities, they also come together as Britons to fuse their individual talents into a national synergy which paves the way for the achievement of great things like athletic victories. It certainly shows that Britain is hardly a clapped-out and washed-up former imperial power; her old Empire has been successfully transformed into the Commonwealth, and the country itself had carried on in modern times. It still has much going for it when the people believe in themselves and are willing to join together in common efforts to advance the country and themselves.

     When taken altogether, with the bonds linking the UK as tight as they are in the course of over 300 years as a country, a break-up of the UK will likely be far more tragic, regrettable, and painful than that of the UK leaving the European Union on several levels, not least where the economy and trade is concerned. Therefore, it is in the best interest of Scotland to have representatives at the table of the UK negotiating team to help create a deal that is beneficial for everyone (especially when considering that more Scots on a higher turnout voted to keep the UK together two years ago and the EU referendum was a UK-wide vote, which Sturgeon acknowledged by campaigning and taking part in debates throughout the country).

     Indeed, without Scotland, there can be no Britain, and the UK is not just about England, or London, or [big, bad] Westminster, or the [evil] Tories. There is a social, cultural, and perhaps even, a spiritual element to the UK that I believe gets lost in the debates about the constitution, the EU, devolution, oil, the Barnett Formula, and etc. It was that element of the UK that is truly in danger, and continues to be at risk – that element which helps to bind the people together into one as they join into a common culture with shared values and beliefs, and participate in many of the same things, while also maintaining the elements that make them distinct from each other.

     But even then, the distinctions all contribute to the social and cultural fabric of the United Kingdom, for Scottish culture contributes as much to British culture as English culture, and when you break it down further, there a varying cultures within England and Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales which enrich their respective home nation and the UK as a whole. The Glaswegian accent is as British as the Cockney and Scouser accents; Ynys Môn (Anglesey) is as British as Orkney; Yorkshire pudding is as British as haggis. When one thinks of Britain, they must – without fail – think of the country in its entirety from Shetland to Land’s End.

     There are many people, both at home and abroad (including yours truly) who value and appreciate the UK because of its diversity and because of the overlapping identities shared amongst its people. We believe that there is something special about the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish being part of the same country – with all those languages and dialects, foods, landmarks, landscapes, and towns and cities – a modern country that values its storied past and heritage, but also embraces modernity and the future, especially now in these times.

     If Sturgeon and the SNP wish to be constructive with regard to Brexit, then according to Stephen Daisley of STV, she can either “be an equal partner in a grown-up political process” and stop with the “constitutional game-playing” and indyref2 threats, or she can “pander to her excitable grassroots”, but cannot do both. A similar choice must be made by the new prime minister, Theresa May, with regard to her own hard-line Brexit caucus within the Conservative Party.

     The time is fast approaching to come together and do what’s good for the United Kingdom as a country and for all of its people, so as to ensure that it is better off and stronger going forward.