Anti-lockdown protest Holyrood Square

Why we must protect protests at Holyrood

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I DISLIKE protests. Not necessarily the causes for which they are held or anything like that; I just dislike crowds, noise, enthusiasm, and slapdash artwork and that’s pretty much all I see when viewing the coverage of them from the cosy solitude of my desk.

I have, in my lifetime, been to exactly two things that have come close to being protests. I attended Edinburgh Pride, the crowds at which made me so irritable that I had to leave and meet my pals later in the pub, and Glasgow Pride, during which it was only a warning from a police officer that stopped me from punching a homophobic bigot with an hilariously small loudspeaker. Essentially, should I be invited to a protest in the future – my answer is always, “no thanks, but good luck” followed by something about being “there in spirit.”

But it’s not about me. I, and many others, may not enjoy being part of them but protests are fundamentally important to our society and our politics.

Every cause worth having, from racial equality to LGBTQ+ rights and the emancipation of women, has a corresponding iconic protest or rally with which it is identified and for good reason; protests can provide an aesthetic, a focal point, a zeitgeist-seizing moment, and a soundtrack to many of the great social shifts that liberal societies should be proud of.

This is why you should be outraged whenever that right is infringed upon, restricted, or made even just one notch more difficult to put into practice.

This is also why you should be outraged about the fact that the Scottish Parliament is planning to do exactly that.

On October 1, the Scottish Parliament will be designated as a “protected site” by the Home Office, via the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. Once this euphemism, so bland that Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud to have come up with it, is translated, this means the police will be given extra powers (a red flag in almost every case) to break up “disruptive” protests on the grounds of the Scottish Parliament.

Note, if your protests isn’t at least a little bit disruptive, then you’re not really protesting… you’re just outside.

There may be some solace available in the fact that, this time, Scotland isn’t the first bit of the UK to make a stupid decision. Westminster and the Welsh Senedd have both received the “protected site” status and therefore the police can effectively act like overzealous bouncers at both parliaments, chucking people out whenever there’s the merest suggestion or possibility of a hint of trouble.

One of the great, and in my mind conclusive, arguments against arming our police officers is that if we were to give them guns then then they would find a reason to use them. The same must surely be said of these powers. Protests outside Holyrood, while they are on occasion a bit rubbish or daft (see the shit Nationalist remake of Hi-Dee-Hi! from 2016, for example) they very rarely involve any criminal activity or descend into any legitimately dangerous rambunctiousness or disorder. They often reflect the city they take place in – nice, considerate, a bit twee, slightly snooty, and safer than most places Edinburgh? Protests at Holyrood, with some notable exceptions, are the Waitrose of protests. In this sense, the “protected site” status for the Parliament is very much a solution to a non-existent problem – the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body might as well have taken steps to wage war on the palm trees or wild tigers around its estate.

We have heard reassurances from, among others, Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone and her fellow Corporate Body member Claire Baker, stressing that this does not constitute a ban and that the power to clamp down on protests at Holyrood would only be used under the rarest possible circumstances. I have my doubts. Maybe this won’t constitute a ban per se but it will have a chilling effect on protesting at Holyrood.

Surely if protesting is to be welcome, encouraged, and as free and open as possible it must be at its freest on the doorsteps of those in power?

If you can’t protest there, then what’s the point of doing it anywhere else?

There have been dissenting voices, thankfully. There have been noises from the Green benches (no, not those ones… the ones with an EH postcode) and a motion was passed at the recent SNP conference declaring that “the parliament belongs to the people of Scotland and must remain fully accessible to the public”. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, has also spoken up forcefully and eloquently on the issue. In a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Chief Executive, the Edinburgh MSP criticised the move, along with the decision to give Westminster the same designation, and called for a thorough explanation. I hope he gets it.

This is, fundamentally, about freedom and the drip, drip, drip way in which it can be flushed away. Protesting, unpleasant as it can be at times, is a fundamental part of life in a liberal democracy and we should resist any and all actions that erode it even one bit; especially when done under a tissue-thin veneer of security concerns.

If we don’t resist this, and other affronts to civil liberties, then we’ll all too soon become those of us who in terms of freedom and security Benjamin Franklin correctly decried as deserving neither.

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Photo courtesy of Serge Cornu / Shutterstock.com

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