It surely shakes Edinburgh’s status as a capital city that its bus network was finally closed in its entirety yesterday by criminal violence. Can you imagine such a fate befalling London or Paris or anywhere other than downtown Mogadishu? The scale of the outrage is stupendous and it merits a minute or two of deep thought. So lie down Edinburgh and get ready for your psychoanalysis.
Lothian Buses had terminated all of its services from seven thirty pm following weeks of attacks upon vehicles and assaults upon drivers. Rocks have been thrown at windows and through them. The mania is not confined to a single area of the city, since the south-eastern suburbs and Clermiston out to the west have both numbered amongst the hotspots. Access to the Royal Infirmary has been particularly affected, with eight buses being targeted in one evening.
The Edinburgh Evening News describes the attackers as “vandals.” If these kids have used violence to disable a gigantic chunk of the city’s infrastructure then they are probably nearer to meeting any dictionary definition of “terrorists.” The city’s police have not been idle: eighteen people have been arrested and charged. Where the languor that is suggested by their bizarrely named Operation Proust becomes evident is in their disinclination to guarantee the safety of bus routes.
The drivers were already flirting with danger by assuming customer-facing roles during a pandemic. Now they are expected to ply the afflicted routes, alone, visible, and utterly defenceless. I am not suggesting that we go back to the olden days and treat these buses as though they were stagecoaches that should arm themselves against the depredations of highwaymen. Yet the decision to shut down the service altogether is an incredible capitulation, almost akin to a military surrender and an ignominious retreat.
We are telling these teenagers that they are powerful – so powerful that the city’s public transport network, and hundreds of individual journeys, have to be reorganised around their nihilistic violence. This power is not something that they enjoy as an innate property, as though they are some mighty, city-wrecking force like Godzilla or Osama bin Laden. It is instead a power that we have decided to give to them. No end of trouble will result from this, since the city has essentially revealed its vulnerability before every insect. This is not so much the tail wagging the dog as the fleas being allowed to issue it with orders.
Until now we have got unusually far into a Tychy article without encountering any hint of conspiracy. It is admittedly in the obvious interests of Lothian Buses to explore reasons for suspending its services (and the buses are being so far resumed today). Passenger numbers have collapsed during the lockdown, with tens of millions of pounds in profits escaping capture. The Scotsman claims that Edinburgh City Council, the majority shareholder, has lost over £12 million in dividends.
These days, Lothian Buses is running only essential services and you are probably now familiar with the sight of the desolate buses, each decked out with its two or three lonely passengers. During the dead of winter, the windows of the buses had been kept open, as a ridiculous COVID-busting measure to “increase airflow,” which had demoralised the few passengers left even further.
It is fun to imagine Lothian Buses in an implicit, strategic alliance with the hooligans, but it seems more plausible to me that in yesterday’s shutdown the city had simply lost its nerve. Any blow to the city’s infrastructure should be immediately a matter for central government to deal with rather than just the local police. Enough police should be deployed to ensure that buses can run safely, that the drivers are protected, and that nurses who are travelling to the Royal Infirmary do not get hit with rocks and broken glass. There is nothing authentically illiberal or authoritarian to such a call: it is the government’s most basic function and essence.
People who live in the south have explained to me that the area where the criminals are active is too large and wooded to be effectively policed. I would reply to this that the police are fully capable of operating on such a scale when it comes to enforcing the lockdown. The bus suspension sits very guiltily next to another news story from yesterday, a story in which the police were all of a sudden confident and resourceful again. Hundreds of people had gathered on the Meadows to enjoy the spring sunshine and to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. The sort of police crackdown that should have been launched on the attackers of the buses came to be deployed instead against these hapless merrymakers.
The public health justification for this crackdown is either insincere or incoherent. There is already something distinctly retro about clearing large outdoor gatherings. Last month, Edinburgh University’s own Professor Mark Woolhouse had told a Westminster hearing that there was “very little evidence of outdoor transmission” and that “there’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach ever anywhere in the world to the best of my knowledge.” But if the lockdown is a factory for the mass-production of new criminals, with more and more ordinary behaviours being processed into criminality, then the police can be perhaps forgiven for missing the rock-hurling psychopaths amidst all of the sunbathers and al fresco Guinness sippers.