FOR kids growing up in Glasgow, the police motto – Semper Vigilo – probably feels like a banal fact of life. Day and daily, officers cross your path. CCTV cameras sprout from every lamppost. You don’t bat an eyelid at matchday battalions and hardly flinch at the urban soundscape of sirens. The police presence becomes everyday.

Growing up down a long stretch of the B8024 in rural Argyll, by contrast, police constables were as elusive as pine martens. Unless black ice or excess alcohol ditched a stray car, or one of the local teens got into a scrape after a fifth bottle of Hooch, you would never see these mysterious specimens of humanity. There was no local copper operating out of a police box. The nearest station was a half hour’s drive away. In public, at least, the community was self-policing. Folk kept each other right.

These contrasting experiences have dogged Police Scotland since its creation. How can you reconcile disembodied rural policing with the intense, law and order business of keeping greater Glasgow in line? A national force needs national policies. Can it really be clamping down on brothels in one city, and turning a blind eye in another? What kind of subsidiarity can a single force live with? What kind of subsidiarity is it capable of?

The tart answer of many of Police Scotland’s critics is: none at all. Some have dubbed this “Strathclydeisation”. In creating Police Scotland, they argue, Scotland’s biggest and most active police force effectively annexed its neighbours, displacing their regional identities and operating cultures. Whether or not this indictment of police practice after 2013 is convincing, as anxieties go, this worry is not one limited to the regulation of those who protect and serve. It taps into something more culturally profound.

Literary theorists have described the same phenomenon as “Clydesideism”. Writing in the late 1990s, Christopher White argued that “in the last three decades, and especially since 1970, there has been what one might call a ‘hegemonic shift’, so much so that the city of Glasgow, and the West of Scotland more generally, are accused of exerting an unfair dominance, where representations of Scottishness and Scotland are concerned”. In the 1980s, another scholar of Scottish literature, Cairns Craig, expressed concerns that “what is worrying in the contemporary situation is the way that the death throes of industrial West-Central Scotland have become the touchstone of authenticity for our culture”.

Twenty years after devolution, 26 after the fall of Ravenscraig, it is curious how little this cultural window seems to have shifted.

Unease about Police Scotland taps into this deeper well of feeling and the quiet tensions that are always present between centre and periphery. Having grown up in something more akin to the Wasp Factory, the life and times of Taggart felt a million miles away. Few Glaswegians, in my experience, notice the tension.

The carnaptious debate on the single force casts another sidelight on Scottish political culture: we still behave like folk with conflict anxiety. The acting Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone, gave an interview last month in which he lamented the politicisation of the service in the wake of the force mergers. “I would like to take policing out of the constant political debate and discussion,” he said, and to “go back to policing as an apolitical public service based on human rights. Core policing in its essence is apolitical”.

I have some sympathy with the acting chief’s feelings, if not his reasoning. I’m sure the public scrutiny which has been trained on Police Scotland and the authority have been uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m sure being barracked by MSPs in the Holyrood committee room isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Personnel reports from Tulliallan which would have struggled to make page eight on the Argyllshire Advertiser now command noisy front pages in national titles, urgent questions in Parliament, and gruelling evidence sessions in Edinburgh. You can understand why a jumpy senior officer might think back fondly on the quieter, more anonymous days of Lothian and Grampian forces. One of the perverse – and for the service, painful – successes of the single force is that it has dragged all of these awkward issues out into the public domain.

It would be easy to caricature Livingstone’s comments as a modern version of King Louis’s l’etat, c’est moi – a heady tonic of self-righteousness with high-handed disdain for democratic accountability stirred through. But that would be a strained reading: I suspect there’s something more elemental to the unease he expresses.

Scotland often tells itself it is a flyting nation – up for the political argument, always eager to go toe to toe. But the truth, I’ve found, is rather different. Exaggerated pantomime opposition, we’re happy with. Tribalism, we thrive at. The quiet word in the ear comes naturally. But great national conversations? We seem to find those hard going. Our political culture remains often startlingly uncomfortable with properly ventilating controversial issues in public.

Consider the Deputy Chief’s comments on armed policing. While recognising Holyrood has a “legitimate interest” in whether officers carry tasers or firearms when going about their business, Livingstone stressed “the practice of armed officers in Scotland is almost identical to the practice in England and Wales, yet I can’t remember the last time there was a debate on armed policing in Westminster”.

The implication, of course, was that Holyrood has an unhealthy and disproportionate interest in whether constables are going about their business with deadly weapons on their hips. But the question of whether we arm the police is a political question to its bones. The use of force against citizens is a political question. Who we detain, and charge, and prosecute – those are often political questions too. Since Cain killed Abel, there are some crimes that all reasonable people would see punished – but as the ongoing debate about the fate of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act underscores, the enforcement of the criminal law can be anything but “apolitical”.

Despite this mayhem at the top of the force, and despite the superheated language of “Stalinist centralising” rattling around Holyrood, a recent Panelbase poll confirmed that only a quarter of Scots reckon their policing is worse than the rest of the UK, while another quarter reckon the situation’s better north of the Border. Some 43 per cent of Scots wouldn’t put a gnat’s crotchet between Police Scotland and English and Welsh policing. That’s one small point of comfort for the Scottish Government – but here’s another.

The ructions which have accompanied the birth of Police Scotland are democratically healthy. Of course, some of the political scrutiny will be exaggerated. Of course, sometimes the police will find themselves fending off unfair attacks, gingered up for political purposes. Of course, this will be resented by officers, whose own room for political manoeuvre will always be more limited than their critics. But I’d rather have an unruly Holyrood whose scrutiny of the police service is sometimes excessive and unfair than a pliant parliament, which meekly defers to the judgment of senior officers. Discussion is a radical thing, and rowdy assemblies remain the best guarantee of liberty we have.