The political and policy context of Scotland has undergone significant shifts in recent times. Since the introduction of Scottish Devolution in 1998 and the re-convening of the Scottish Parliament the following year, policy in Scotland has at times diverged from the rest of the UK. Much of this reflects the fact that many of the key social policy making areas, such as health and education are devolved to the Edinburgh Parliament. Education, as with Criminal Justice, while referred to as devolved matters, have always been uniquely ‘Scottish’ - following the Act of Union in 1707 they remained nominally under a degree of Scottish control. However, the pace of change in the political and policy context of Scotland has increased following the election of the SNP as a minority Scottish Government in 2007 and then as a majority administration from May 2011. But it is the outcomes of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and the 2015 General Election which have done much to further the distinctiveness of the political landscape in Scotland.
As is now well known, the 2014 Independence Referendum, though returning a ‘NO’ vote, saw 45% of the electorate vote for Independence. The 2015 General Election in Scotland saw the SNP capturing 50% of the popular vote and returning 56 out of the Scottish 59 MPs. With the commencement of the Independence Referendum campaign in 2012 until today, June 2015, the question of Scotland’s – and of the UKs – constitutional future has occupied centre stage in political debate, and this also emerges in ongoing arguments around areas of policy making which are not explicitly or obviously to do with constitutional matters or questions of national futures. This certainly includes criminal justice policy.
There have been a number of controversies around different aspects of Criminal Justice Policy making in Scotland in recent years, yet these have also been marginalised by the focus on the Independence question and related debates around further devolution. Controversies around the policing of football fans, stop and search, the presence of armed police officers on Scotland’s streets and around the now abandoned plans to abolish the requirement for corroboration in criminal trials have all worked to draw attention to the shape and direction of criminal justice in Scotland, with many critics claiming that the SNP have adopted an increasingly punitive and criminalising position and approach.
As Mary Munro has indicated, the SNP have been keen to promote their credentials as a Party that can govern effectively and efficiently. However, alongside this there is also a concern to remake Scotland as a modern, competitive society, in the process addressing long-standing social issues. The establishment of a single national police force, in the shape of Police Scotland, is not only reflective of an attempt to cut costs but also signals this concern with the future trajectory of Scottish society. It has been widely commented that the SNP in Government is characterised by a very centralising approach to policy making and that Police Scotland, a single force overseeing one-third of the territory of the UK (if only 9% of its population), represents a key example of such.
The vision of a ‘new’ Scotland offers a society in which a commitment to fairness and equity will help to reduce problems of crime. In building this new Scottish nation, long term problems around alcohol addiction, sectarianism, street crime and so on are among the key targets of policy intervention. However, this has as yet not been accompanied by a wide reaching and ranging discussion of what kind of criminal justice system would we want in this new Scotland. To a large extent, and with relatively few exceptions, sadly the debate about the future direction of Scotland has overlooked the significant position of criminal justice in any society – as a marker and as a mirror of the kind of society in which it is located. Amidst the ongoing controversies and debates around the questions of independence and/or more devolution, we need to do our upmost to re-centre criminal justice in these debates.