Police, Security and the State

The Bella Caledonia article can be accessed here.

Newroz’, the Kurdish New Year will be celebrated in Portobello High Street this Sunday, on the 24th March. Earlier in the week Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish President, in response to the Christchurch Mosque attacks, created controversy by warning anyone planning to carry out such an action would be sent back in coffins, “like their grandfathers”.  He was addressing a rally to commemorate the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, when the Ottomans repelled Allied forces, including both Australian and New Zealand troops known as the Anzacs.

Oddly, these two apparently unrelated events help illustrate some of the underlying political contradictions which now arise for modern Scotland.  On the one hand, Scotland strives to be a welcoming place for a range of cultural identities, as it continues to become more ethnically and culturally diverse.  On the other hand, under the auspices of counter terrorism and anti-immigration rhetoric, Police Scotland continue to enforce the authoritarian objectives of a British State, whose current ideological position contradicts the civic nationalism that often sets Scottish public attitudes at odds with those in England.

Ongoing investigations into political policing in Scotland has uncovered some concerning facts regarding the on-going treatment of Edinburgh’s Kurdish community over the last three years. The principle issue here is that immigration and counter terrorism laws are ‘reserved’ to Westminster.  This raises an important question for those advocating a progressive Scotland, especially those with aspirations for independence.  That question is: what is to be done to extricate the Scottish Police from the deep-seated ties, generated over centuries, which bind it to the imperial and corporate interests and ambitions of the British State.

Why are the Kurds being targeted by Police Scotland? 

In our investigation into what appears to be ‘political policing’ under the guise of ‘counter terrorism’ we were told by members of the Kurdish community in Edinburgh that they believed the UK’s relationship with Turkey was the reason they had been singled out for attention by Police Scotland. The fact that the Glasgow Kurdish community, which is mostly from Iraq, as well as the Kurdish community from Syria have escaped police attention, would seem to confirm this view.

Turkey has a much closer relationship to the UK than many people might think.  When Theresa May became PM the first visit on her itinerary was to the US to meet Donald Trump.  Her next stop was Turkey to meet her second closest ally Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is also worth noting that arms sales by the UK to Turkey have topped almost 2 billion GBP since 2008 with Theresa May being responsible for signing off on deals worth almost half a billion.  Indeed, Turkey has been viewed as an important alternative trading partner, should the UK crash out of Europe without a deal.

The targeting of the Kurdish community in Edinburgh has coincided with the opening of the Turkish Consulate in the Capital, before which, not one single police intervention had affected the Kurdish community. Lastly, it should also be noted that Erdoğan’s most recent visit to the UK to discuss trade deals and the purchase of fighter jets, was followed by a series of dawn raids of the homes of Turkish Kurds living in both London and Edinburgh.  Clearly these very lucrative arms and trade deals come with additional costs to the UK.

Police Scotland and the British State

There are clear political and economic imperatives for the UK to want to be seen to appease the Turkish government in order to bolster trade relations. It has to be remembered that the police in any state, are always the state police, and like all other state institutions are used to further the state’s interests.  The issue for the contemporary state is that it has to work hard to obfuscate the fact that its institutions have been appropriated by vested interests, and no longer act in the interests of its citizens.

Having restructured Britain as an off-shore haven for large scale tax avoidance and having handed a disproportionate level of power to a small group of economic elites, the British state, not entirely unlike its European Neighbours, is in a state of crisis.  Caused by the ceding of power to those at the top of the socio-economic structure, these crises cause the state to compensate by expanding its law and order function at the bottom.  The purpose of this is twofold.  Firstly, it must prevent the real threat of public disorder through the expansion of the process of criminalization and the powers of the police to deal with political dissent and social unrest. Secondly, faced with having to regain some of its lost legitimacy, the state and its key institutions collaborate in the manufacture of a ‘threat’ that only the state can offer protection from.

The ‘hostile environment for immigrants’ and the ever present ‘terror threat’ can best be understood within this paradigm. By re-drawing the boundaries of its own authority, the state creates a distraction from the fact that the harm caused through ‘criminality’ is insignificantly small, compared to the social and economic harm inflicted by the actions of the state itself.

In a nut shell, the ‘war on terror’ is a product of a state that desperately needs to re-establish some degree of legitimacy, through the manufacture of an imagined ‘danger’, that only it can protect us from. The state creates the problem, and then protects its creation from attack by its opponents. Being an integral part of the British state’s expanding law and order function, Police Scotland is inextricably entangled in its political and ideological battles. This has had a significantly detrimental impact on some of Scotland’s minority communities.

Dawn Raids

Since 2016, members of the Kurdish community in Edinburgh have been subjected to regular dawn raids at their homes where, on average, six members of Police Scotland’s Counter Terrorism Unit turn up at around 6am with search warrants.  Numerous homes are targeted at exactly the same time and all households are subjected to intense searches which the police film, in the hope of finding items relating to the PKK (the Kurdistan Worker’s Party).  For many in the Kurdish community the Kurdistan Worker’s Party represents their entire cultural identity.  However, the left wing political group, based on gender equality and decentralized democracy, has controversially been deemed to be a terrorist organization by the US and EU.

Going by mainstream media accounts and, in particular, by Herald journalist David Leask, who interestingly has links with the Integrity Initiative, one would believe that Police Scotland are smashing PKK terrorist cells in the capital, and seizing significant sums of money destined for the funding of terror, thus preventing terrorist activities.

The reality, of course, is very different.  The raids, which have taken place each year in 2016, 2017 and 2018 have resulted in nothing more than the confiscation of some flags, keyrings, and a few books about Kurdish culture and history, as well as some traditional items of clothing. Although at least one person has been charged under Section 12 and 13 of the Terrorism Act 2000, no one has yet appeared in Court, let alone been convicted.  Most of the material confiscated by Police Scotland is actually related to the YPG and YPJ who, although ideologically aligned to the cause of Kurdish Independence , are not part of the PKK.  Police Scotland have, therefore, been confiscating material which is certainly ‘political’, but certainly not illegal.

The Kurdish Community Centre was also raided by Police Scotland and rather than a planned visit, they forced entry and confiscated a range of materials and symbols of Kurdish identity.  None of the items taken have ever been returned. This has had a devastating effect on the activities of the Centre, with around half of the community no longer attending for fear that they and their families will be identified by Police Scotland as future targets.  Children’s language classes have had to be scrapped as increasing numbers of the community stay away for fear of reprisals.

Of most concern is the evidence we gathered that suggests collusion between the Turkish police and Police Scotland, although there may be other UK forces acting as intermediaries.  Selling arms to murderous regimes with appalling human rights records is bad enough, but when your country’s police force appears to have a close ‘working’ relationship with their police force, serious questions have to be asked.

What do we do with Police Scotland?

The police press releases and the sensationalist reporting of the events (linked above) were clearly intended to have a PR effect in order to perpetuate the myth of an ongoing ‘terror threat’ in a country where the last terrorist attack was in 2007. Admittedly the police were playing down the actual ‘threat’ but the newspaper headlines all used the words ‘terror’, ‘threat’ and ‘fears’.

The manufacture of the ‘terror threat’ or the ‘dangerous other’ involves the collaboration of the triadic nexus of the state, the political class who legislate, the media who sensationalise, and the criminal justice system that polices and punishes.  This process serves a number of political objectives.

Firstly, it’s a distraction from the fact that harm resulting from criminal activities is an insignificantly small proportion of the levels of social harm inflicted upon swathes of the population by the state and its activities.   Years of needless austerity, vindictive welfare reforms, and hyper-precarity have required enormous efforts by the  triadic nexus of the political class, the criminal justice system and the media to relentlessly prioritise the minority of individually produced harms and relatively insignificant threats in order to distract public attention from the cumulative effect of the sheer weight of social harm that exists most acutely at the intersection of abject poverty, patriarchy, racial inequality and employment precarity. In short, the state uses scapegoats such as immigrants, terrorists and the poor to divert attention away from the fact that it is the state that poses the greatest threat to the wellbeing of its citizens.

Secondly, it allows for the expansion of criminalization, greatly augmenting the surveillance and punitive powers of the state. The British state, which is a state in crisis, needs to find ways to create a symbolic sense of its own importance. This ‘crisis’ has arisen from the shift in traditional power relations in which corporations and economic elites have emerged with more influence over the state’s tax and spend functions than were once enjoyed by the state’s own institutions .  In this respect, among others, the state has lost a great deal of its legitimacy.

In such circumstances, states tend to make up for this deficit of legitimacy by expanding the law and order function in order to create ‘threats’ and ‘dangers’ that we need the state to protect us from. The state thus turns to the ‘creation’ of particular problems through an ever expanding process of criminalization. The state and its institutions promote these ‘new crimes’ as very serious, and then actively promote, through both state and corporate media, the idea that they are being dealt with effectively.  If you scratch the surface of these ‘crimes’ such as ‘support for terrorism’, you find that instead of smashing terrorist cells and preventing people from being maimed and killed by bombs, the reality involves the confiscation of flags and badges, a much more pathetic endeavor that amounts to little more than the policing of political thought crime.

Thirdly it allows the state to redraw the boundaries of its own responsibility, treating those at the top of the class structure with velvet gloves while applying an iron fist to those at the margins of society and those at the bottom. This is achieved through perpetuating the myth of neoliberalism over the reality of a socio-economic system that is constantly eroding the rights of individuals and diminishing their overall standards of living. The term ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ is used to distinguish between the mythical notions of neoliberalism and its reality.  The myths revolve round the idea of neoliberalism being about small government and the promotion of freedom and efficiency, when in reality it is about ‘re-regulation’ rather than deregulation through increasing levels of bureaucratic oversight that is both authoritarian, and punitive.  The state doesn’t shrink, it shifts rightward, replacing welfare and healthcare (that already has a social control function) with disciplinary workfare and regimes of conditionality built into any form of social assistance.  This encroachment of disciplinary policy into a welfare regime that already has a social control function leads to a double regulation of those reliant on the state. So what looks like the political promotion of a shrinking state, is in actual fact the redrawing of a punitive state that has surveillance and control as its central objective.

The triadic nexus of the state not only creates the ‘threat’ from the ‘dangerous other’, it also works to protect it from the state’s critics and political opponents.  The political class creates the problem, the media promotes the problem and the criminal justice system polices the problem.  Any attempt to dislodge this process will result in incorporation by the triadic nexus into the system of problematisation itself.  Take as an example Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the progressive and capable Humza Yousaf.  If he were to intervene and either question the reasons for the criminalization of the PKK, or should he challenge the actions of the police and the justice system in any way, he would, without doubt, be attacked by his political opponents and openly savaged in the mainstream media.  He would be branded a terrorist sympathiser, or an apologist for terrorism, and indirect negative inference would be made to his own ethnicity with euphemized references in the service of dog whistle politics. If he were to intervene too heavily he may even be subjected to the attentions, if only covertly, of the police.  In this way, not only do the institutions of the state create the ‘problem’ in ways that serve their own political interests, they act in ways that protect the process from attack, from being questioned and challenged by those whose political objectives oppose their own.

The ‘terror threat’ that is ever present in the media and political arena is constructed from a mythical world of appearances that, when the surface is veneer is removed, reveal an entirely different reality altogether.

Regulatory Capitalism and the Importance of ‘appearances’

This is connected to a modern capitalist phenomena where the priority is not to achieve success but to make it look as if you have achieved success. As Mark Fisher points out, the target driven logic of regulatory capitalism has encroached upon, and in many cases been incorporated into, almost all of the state’s activities. The current period is characterized by the universal obsession with measurement, the imposition of an all-pervasive audit culture and the perpetual appraisal and assessment regime within the contemporary work place.  These measures are geared towards the needs of a bureaucratic managerial class, serving a state that has had to radically redraw the boundaries of its own authority, in response to the wholesale ceding of power to corporate and individual interests. The criminal justice system has not escaped the imperatives or the logic of market.

An example of this is the revelation that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in England and Wales are giving training and advice to prosecutors to take a risk-averse approach to rape cases.  This is a measure designed solely to augment the ‘percentage’ of convictions rather that the conviction numbers overall.  Having nothing to do with justice, this is simply intended to improve the public image of the CPS. Indeed, the more you scratch the surface of appearances, the more obvious it becomes that ‘justice’, in a classical sense, is rarely, if at all, the priority of the criminal justice system.

As far as policing is concerned, there is nothing new here, since one of the most enduring liberal myths is that the law and order function of the state, through policing and the criminal justice system, exists to keep people safe.  Policing, in all economic and political contexts (liberal, fascist or communist), has always been a means of maintaining public order in the interests of those who benefit most from the status quo. The police, in every state (again in every political context), are always the ‘state police’. Perhaps the only aspect of policing that has changed over the last few centuries is the extent to which the target driven nature of the illusion of making it look as if the police exist to keep people safe has been accelerated and more widely promoted.

A good example of how the illusory world of appearances operates on the ground is represented by Police Scotland’s own Counter Terrorism strategy, taken from its own website.  The strategy is laid out as follows.

CONTEST – The strategy sets out the threat we face and our priorities for dealing with the Terrorist Threat and is based on four areas of work.

PURSUE – to stop terrorist attacks

PREVENT – to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism

PROTECT – to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack

PREPARE – to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack

What becomes clear, is that almost all of the activities of Police Scotland are focused on one small aspect of this strategy, namely the second part of the so called ‘prevent’ area (which I’ve highlighted), the aim of which is ‘to stop people supporting terrorism’.  There are a number of possible perspectives through which to view the entire problematic concept of what constitutes ‘support’ for terrorism.

The skeptical view is that the police conflate the possession of keyrings and flags with killing and maiming people in order to fulfill its ‘actual’ function, rather than the one presented to the public.  In line with the tacit principles of regulatory capitalism, the ‘actual’ function is to give the appearance of meeting the aims and objectives of their strategy by conflating actual violence with support for organisations that western governments have deemed to be ‘illegal’

Another way of looking at it is that, in the absence of any real terror threat in Scotland (compared to other European countries were bombs and other forms of attack kill people much more frequently), the police, in order to fulfil its role of ‘appearing’ to be tackling terrorism, is forced to conflate two things: terrorism with support for political groups that other political groups have deemed illegal.  This is rooted in the central issue surrounding the rhetoric contained in the concept of ‘supporting terrorism’, when the definition of a terrorist organisation is anything other that the arbitrary system of classificatory structures that designate ones opponents as being in the category of terrorist. Indeed, Nelson Mandela was deemed to be a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher in 1987, and the ANC was, according to the then Prime Minister, a ‘terrorist organisation’. Despite this categorisation, many people in Scotland (and indeed the rest of Europe) openly supported both the ANC and its imprisoned leader. This clearly undermines the notion that support for an organisation deemed to be ‘terrorist’ and actual violence against civilian populations are the same thing. Yet the above strategy of the Counter Terrorist Unit of Police Scotland seems to actively promote the impression that they are both the same and carry the same risks and threats.  They are certainly both criminalised by the state, and the difference between them may only be the length of sentence, with killing and maiming people warranting a longer term in custody than something that is little more than a ‘thought crime’.

Moving from the macro level (the state in crisis) to the meta level, the police force in crisis, we can begin to see a similar pattern emerging in which law and order institutions are required to create problems that they can be seen to effectively solve.  Police Scotland, like the wider state, is to a certain extent responsible for re-drawing the boundaries of its own jurisdiction.  The targeting of immigrant groups and the creation of ‘suspect’ communities make this easy. Get the mainstream media on board and, low and behold, you have successfully created a serious problem that only you can solve. When we move to the micro, or subjective level, the work of criminologist Jock Young shows the extent to which the emergence of a socio-economic situation that increasingly places individuals in crisis gives rise to authoritarian practices across a range of state and institutional professions. The less valued and the less valuable the police feel as individuals, the more likely they are to revert to forms of policing that are punitive, vindictive, and discriminatory.

Although we can see that the deliberate conflation of two things, having badges, keyrings and flags of the YPG on the one hand and being an actual terrorist carrying out terror attacks on the other, is nothing short of embarrassing, the police who are involved will have created and internalized a very different narrative.  The power that humans have, to believe in narratives that make them more important and give their life more meaning than it would otherwise have, is only now being understood by social psychologists and sociologists on the leading edge of research.  Indeed the most cutting edge research suggests that we have a strong propensity to use ‘reason’ to justify what we ‘feel’, rather than the other way round. Thus, there is no doubt that the police become an integral part of their own mythology as they perpetuate the threat of terrorism, by conflating the political affiliations of marginalized communities with violent acts of terror.

The Social Psychology of Policing

It is the most natural thing in the world, to strive to make our lives as meaningful as possible and to have others see us as being important, in short to attain status and respect. Being entirely social animals, what people think of us is a much more important factor than many if not most of us would like to admit.  Sociologists and social psychologists would go as far as saying that, we are nothing without the positive regard of others. We are symbolic creatures as much as we are material beings. Having a ‘good’ job is not necessarily having one that pays well. It has to be valued and seen as important. We constantly seek the kinds of ‘recognition’ and ‘justification’ that only the positive regard of others can bring. We all want to have jobs that are valued within society.  In these jobs we seek as much as possible to augment this value, increase our worth and make ourselves look as ‘good’ as possible. We live in an ‘economy of worth’.

In most professions ‘worth’ can be augmented though hard work, determination and success.  In other professions worth can be increased through exaggeration and ‘maximisation’. If you have a job in which you are responsible for catching ‘criminals’ then it is only natural that you would want the ‘criminals’ you catch to be as ‘criminal’ as possible.  The more ‘dangerous’ they are, the more kudos you get for bringing them to justice. The more harm they have caused, the more symbolic profits you reap when you take them in. This is the fundamental logic of practice in almost all professional settings. People constantly strive to augment whatever form of symbolic capital their particular field provides.  But the majority of professions have limits, in the form of checks and balances, which prevent people from pretending that second rate work is exceptional, or that insignificant research is world-leading.  In the field of academia, if there was no anonymous peer-review system whereby each academic’s work is scrutinised by three other experts in the field before publication, people would undoubtedly try to pass off flawed science as Nobel prizewinning research. If we are honest, we would all have to admit that if we could exaggerate and augment our worth in any situation, we would always seek to do so.  This is, as new psychological research suggests, the essence of being a social creature.  We seek the positive regard of others, and some of us more than others, will go to increasingly greater lengths to do so.

The issue with oppressive and authoritarian forms of policing is that the ‘dangerous other’ tends to be constructed as being from a group that has little to no public or political support.  The ‘demonized other’ is an easy target. Conversely, the opposite is true, since there are certain groups that are more difficult than others to bring within the ambit of the criminalizing gaze.  The evidence shows that convicting poor people for benefit fraud is very common and carries what some would argue to be a disproportionately harsh punishment.  Yet we know that bankers have committed some of the most serious cases of financial manipulation, fraud and embezzlement with absolute impunity.  Five men were arrested and charged when they placed a cardboard effigy of Grenfell Tower on a bonfire, yet those responsible for the corporate manslaughter of Grenfell’s 72 residents have yet to face any kind of formal justice.

The social need to ‘appear’ to be a valued human, and the symbolic profits that come with the ‘appearance’ of doing an important job (in this case saving us all from death and destruction) plays a significant part in explaining why the criminal justice system favours the low-hanging fruit, the easy targets, the already demonized groups within society.  Add this to the political dimension whereby the state protects its own interests by protecting those whose interests it serves, and we have a deeply entrenched criminal justice system that is very difficult to challenge and change.

This is how we arrive at the situation where the police can pretend that confiscating flags and key rings is the same thing as preventing terrorists maiming and killing people.  It is the powerful combination of being allowed, unfettered and unchallenged, to completely construct your own structures of meaning on the one hand, with the political will to make the police look effective in a world where the powerful shield themselves from the criminalizing gaze by controlling not only the right to legally define what is and what is not criminalized, but to control the public discourse on crime in general.

As Paddy Hillyard points out in the introduction to Criminal Obsessions, why Harm Matters More than Crime (pg 8), “The term ‘crime’ always invokes a certain level of seriousness, both popularly and academically. However, the vast majority of events which are defined as crimes are very minor and would not score particularly high on a scale of personal hardship. The police record the detail of over 1,000 different criminal events, most of which create little physical or even financial harm and often involve no victim.”

Crime is a series of petty events, yet we labour under the illusion that the world would descend into lawlessness if the police weren’t here to protect us from ‘crime’. The astounding fact is not that we ‘believe’ that we need the police to protect us, but that the public imagination, from any quarter, simply cannot construct an alternative to the police as an authoritative state institution. The alternatives to a state police force seem to us to be entirely unthinkable. This is a remarkable fact and one in which the symbolic power of the state has excelled in its role of creating the ‘natural’ and the ‘necessary’ out of that which is entirely arbitrary and historically contingent. Thus, the question of what we do with the police in an independent Scotland is of enormous relevance.

While some of this may well be true, there must also remain hope for a progressive politics, with a justice system to meet its needs. This leads us back to the original question, one that seems to have escaped much of the debate around independence: what do we do with a British State institution like Police Scotland when we are an independent country? Do we want our police criminalising small refugee communities in order to placate tyrannical regimes, so we can trade weapons?  Is this the ethical Scotland of the future most independence supporters envisage?

We could give Police Scotland the benefit of the doubt.  Firstly, lets accept that despite their apparent autonomy, Police Scotland are still embedded in the British State and thus, inextricably connected to the interests of the powerful groups who have appropriated its institutions for their own ends.  Let us also believe that, as a result of the State’s need to regain some of its lost legitimacy, Police Scotland, whether they like it or not, have to abide by the rules conferred on the expansion of criminalisation at the bottom. Let’s further decide to believe that Police Scotland are given no discretion in the process, they are merely told support for the PKK is a criminal offence and ordered to police that, even though they have no expertise in the geopolitics of the Levant region and thus have to muddle through, confiscating key rings and flags that are perfectly legal to possess. Let us finally concede that the need to pretend that having key rings and flags can be conflated with blowing people up, arises from the fact that Police officers feel undervalued and that their role in society has lost the legitimacy that it once had. In short, the crisis of the State has similar repercussions on its institutions causing an existential problem, both for the police and its officers.

Yet, the reality is this; we can have the Scotland we want, but in order to achieve that we need to be aware of all the hidden traps and underhand tactics that will be employed by those who have an interest in ensuring things remain very much the same as they are now. In deciding the future, if ever there is such a future, Police Scotland will represent a significant part of such a challenge. If we want a radically different country that is both representative and progressive, questions of policing are as important as questions of currency, since both are inescapably political.  In this respect, perhaps there is something that can be learned from the experience of the Kurdish people, living in Edinburgh, who are celebrating ‘Newroz’. After all, they too are seeking to build an alternative, radical democracy in their case, in the Autonomous Region of Rojava.

If you have information or empirical data relating to political policing in Scotland and would like to contribute to our project, please email joe@erasmusresearch.com