Negotiating Boundaries of Tolerance: The Scottish Police Authority and the Doctrine of Operational Independence

Ali Malik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In Scottish Affairs in 2001, Kenneth Scott and Roy Wilkie, while discussing the appointments of chief constables, noted that ‘the real power in Scottish policing is probably revealed where those elements in the tripartite system [chief constables, local government and central government] interact’ (2001: 57) irrespective of the constitutional and legislative boundaries. This paper examines the nascent police governance arrangements by shining a spotlight on the status of the operational independence doctrine in the post-reform era. It revisits the Scottish Police Authority’s attempts to negotiate its own boundaries of influence since its formation. The discussion draws on the 2012 reform legislation, official policy agenda that led to the creation of the Scottish Police Authority (Malik, 2018), a select number of interviews with key architects of the Scottish police reform conducted between 2013–2016, official parliamentary reports, public meeting minutes, and HMICS and Audit Scotland inspection reports. The analysis suggests that the reform agenda did not seek to address the broad interpretation of operational independence that played a key part in diminishing the influence and performance of the local police boards. On the one hand, the Authority have attempted to challenge the scope of operational independence but with limited success. Conversely, and contradictorily, the influence of Ministers and the Scottish Government has gradually expanded. This raises important questions in relation to the essence of operational independence, when it is invoked and crucially who it is invoked against. New boundaries of tolerance and influence need to be negotiated for the Scottish Police Authority to be able to play a more meaningful and independent oversight role in police governance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)257-280
Number of pages24
JournalScottish Affairs
Issue number3
Early online date29 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022


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