“It will be an offence to enter the area without lawful authority. That simple fact will deter protest, don’t you think? A sheriff won’t listen to a defence that “I read on Twitter that it would only be enforced in extremis…” Roddy Dunlop QC
Holyrood Parliament is changing its legal status to make it easier for the police to remove demonstrators, whether angry or peaceable, individual or group. This is a full-frontal assault on collective freedom of expression, a people’s parliament ring-fenced from the hoi polloi. Before going into detail about the imaginary threat to a building already well protected against terrorist bomb attack, and by breach of the peace laws, it is worth comparing attitudes to democratic assembly elsewhere.
Three examples – Pompidou Art Centre
When the innovative architect Richard Rogers (thought English but born in Florence, Italy) was commissioned by the Parisian authorities to create a high quality arts building in a run-down district of Paris, the Beaubourg area of the 4th arrondissement of Paris, near Les Halles, he created a modern masterpiece for people to use. The Pompidou Centre for the modern arts, including contemporary music, was to be as much an architectural attraction as the activities within it. Rogers drew up plans for his now famous inside-out building.
The first condition was, it had to be a living space for people to work in and visit. The second stipulation was it had to have a large area for people to congregate outside, accessable to the non-ambulant, to meet, talk, debate politics, play music and entertain. Discussion and art was not to take place behind closed doors alone. The city gave Rogers a vast area of land to create the ideal, which he did to international and local acclaim.
To accommodate his brief, Rogers created a very large sunken public area along one side, the area surrounded on three sides with stone steps where people can sit, or use as an auditorium. In other words, a modern version of the Greek amphitheatre. Both assembly area, building and the town around them have been a rip-roaring success. A poor area was rejuvinated almost overnight. restaurants, cafes and shops sprang up, and old residential buildings renovated. The world came to see the unusual Pompidou structure. And if people protested some political matter they used the open public space, not crowd around the centre’s main entrance.
Second example – Alexanderplatz
A second example, surrounded by tall modern buildings, the historical Alexanderplatz in Berlin. The wide square is famous for being the traditional seat of city government. The Rotes Rathaus, or Red City Hall, is located there, as was the former East German parliament building, the Palast der Republik. On May 1st, 2015 a sculpture of four large bronze chairs, three holding people standing on them, the fourth empty, was unveiled by Patrick Bradatsch together with artist Davide Dormino. The first speaker to use the empty chair, the journalists and those who joined the event, made clear the fourth chair was for public protests, or a kind of weekly speaker’s corner, the entire square free to groups to use for similar purposes.
The sculpture ‘Chairs of Courage‘, has the power to make people grow and change their point of view. The chair has a double meaning. It can be comfortable, but it can also be a pedestal to rise higher, to get a better view, to learn more. You can be a person with a topical point of view and a megaphone, or a revolutionary radical. You can use the sculpture to shout about the price of beer or the unlawful incarceration of whistle-blower Julian Assange. (History is rarely kind to contemporary revolutionaries.) It takes courage to act, to stand up on that empty chair and face the public with your grievance.
Third example – Athens Assembly
Finally, there is the seat of democracy itself, in Athens, Greece. The ancient Greeks were the first to create a democracy. The word “democracy” comes from two Greek words, people (demos) and rule (kratos). It is generally accepted the Athens Assembly used nothing more than a large rock on which anybody of any status in society, rich or poor, property owner or stall holder, male or female, with a complaint or protest could stand upon the flat-topped boulder, lay forth their point of view at set times in the week, for a limited number of minutes.
The elected members of the Assembly were obliged to attend and hear out the complainers, or those offering praise of some issue, one after the other. Those protesting about a new law they disliked for some unacceptable reason, or the price of sheep, did not have to apply in advance to speak as nowadays, nor were they banned from speaking if making negative comments. Dissidents complaining of corruption were given similar respect. They were heard, the essence of democracy.
Holyrood got the short straw
Now let me turn to our seat of government, the Holyrood Parliament. We have the rudiments of a representative democracy. It is not yet a constitutional democracy, and of course, it remains a sub-democracy burdened, some argue suffocated, by colonial rule.
The Spanish architect Enrico Miralles Moya – why a Scot was not chosen remains a mystery – was intent on making the building his magnum opus, his all-time signature statement. Nothing in the building was to contain art that was not his art. To accomplish that he created walls fixed at odd angles. Massive ceiling struts were exposed causing visual dissonance. He managed that though confined to a too small footprint by Donald Dewar, the inaugural Labour First Minister. He insisted Miralles’ concept was stuck at the bottom of ther Royal Mile on far too small an area to contain his design of three ‘upturned Scottish fishing boats’. Talk of a public meeting area outside the parliament was soon gobbled up by expanding buildings.
Miralles was warned of impending disaster, Dewar too. Miralles ignored the experienced advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission, an august body (now disbanded), that reviewed architect’s plans for sensitive conservation areas – where were MSP’s car parks? what happens when MSP numbers increase? That is why we have a Parliament that cannot contain the work of indigenous artists not resting on an easel, nor barely accommodate groups outside. And now our parliamentarians want dissidents off the street.
The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), is made up of 5 people: 2 Greens, 1 SNP and 1 from the other parties. MSPs Maggie Chapman, Jackson Carlaw, Claire Baker, Christine Grahame, Alison Johnstone asked Priti Patel to designate Holyrood a “protected site” to allow police to remove demonstrators in “the interests of national security”. (See actual legislation red below.) I repeat, this request came from our elected representatives accountable to us when we are not in a war situation.
The SPCB’s excuse that the legislation will not affect ‘peaceable’ protest is bunkum. All it takes is one individual sent to cause a ruckus among a group and the police can arrest the lot. If they do not like the look of a demonstration they will need no other excuse to move them on.
An immature administration
This is the act of a weak, frightened, immature government acting against the people. While ‘free’ speech is something of a myth – all speech carries responsibility – the assembly of lawful protest is a cornerstone of a democracy. Closing down dissent has been an accelerating trend pushed by Nicola Sturgeon’s administration for the reason of dominating political progress.
From Internet pile-ons against individuals disliked by the party, including SNP’s own MPs and MSPs, to SNP organised newspaper campaigns vilifying private citizens who use social sites, the SNP has become the party of intolerance, of exclusion. This is the hallmark of a political leader struggling to contain a rise in noisy unpopularity. The malady is of her own making. In this regard, and with a majority augmented by the Green Party, it puts the SNP in the same dishonorable category as Boris Johnson’s far-right corrupt gang, governance by the elite.
Get aff the SNP’s grund!
From next month it will be a criminal offence to remain on the parliamentary estate “without lawful authority” punishable by a £5000 fine or a year in jail after a conviction. This could apply to breaking up short-term protests, as well as preventing people setting up camps in the grounds, such as the pro-independence camp evicted in 2016. Women’s groups demanding protection of their rights are as vulnerable to arrest as much as one old man waving a stick.
The change, which will apply to all the landscaped grounds and ‘ponds’ area where most protests take place, (see map below), brings Holyrood into line with Westminster and the Welsh Senedd. As a separate nation with its own law and police force, the question arises, will Scotland’s electorate stomach this official move to censor political speech? So far, England has seen marches in its main cities, riots in Bristol.
Defining para-martial law
A friend asked me to define my profound objection to the draconian curfew. The move to block the right to protest outside our own parliament is a seriously mistaken principle. It assumes anything anybody has to say that is counter to acceptable orthodoxy is hate speech or ugly. Such laws are used to keep one section of society dominant, in this case Scottish National Party officials.
If implemented, that is the way the law will continue to be used, gathering adherents as events progress. There are plenty of act-tough members of the public who welcome severe authoritarian measures, hoping a whip hand keeps people, wives and dogs in line.
People who think censorship a healthy thing want a quiet life. This is a tactical mistake for it frustrates the dissident. The remedy is to find where the concerns come from, their roots, and offer a solution. A democracy accepts you have to listen to your opponent’s argument and learn how to fix it. By silencing honest protest and imprecise ‘hate speech’, you amplify its appeal. Instead of fining the human rights activist Craig Murray, he was given a ludicrously long sentence in prison, thus making an elderly man, a non-criminal, into a public martyr of international interest.
Banning demonstration because they upset people is infantile. The intended effect of protest is to disrupt but also to raise awareness of injustice. Restricting protests based on an undefined noise limit or visual clutter, is a clear violation of the freedoms of expression and assembly.
Up pops MI5
Only one day after this news broke the Scots-born director of MI5, Ken Douglas MacCallum – there’s always a Scot aiding and abetting the goals of the British state, never enough to run Scotland say our tormentors – was given head billing in the media of iminent terrorist attacks, as if Scotland is a hotbed of terrorist cells waiting to pounce on Stoneybridge Council’s weekly dog litter meetings. (In reality, Scotland has Tory colonial cells all over the place running our institutions or having set up offices, units of control.)
MI5 warnings of exestential threat may be a coincidence, but one can bet one’s last dollar our parliamentarians will incorporate the terrorist excuse for implementing the piss-off, go home or get jailed, laws, around a building where every window is barred with steel ‘staves’. To enforce the loss of rights, our police will be well-and-truly politicised. That is fascist territory.
Nicola is no innocent bystander
Nicola Sturgeon knows about this preposterous withdrawal of our human rights.
The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body said: “We are also operating in the context of an increasing level of disruptive activity, including protests on our roof requiring specialist policing and emergency services response, and unauthorised occupation of the Debating Chamber. Actions such as these have the potential to disrupt the Parliament’s ability to meet. Given these factors, the SPCB has, for some time now, been considering options to ensure Parliament’s resilience, including applying for approval under section 129 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) to be designated as a protected site in the interests of national security. At the SPCB’s meeting on 24 June 2021 we took the decision to proceed with the application for designation to the UK Home Office as the department with responsibility for national security.”
A time to go
It has become blasé to laugh at demands for the resignation of the First Minister for any old thing that happens to annoy belligerent attention seekers. However, in this instance, if Nicola Sturgeon refuses to condemn the legislation and outlaw it, she should be forced to leave office. The law will breach basic human rights. She is taking Scotland backwards, acting as if Boris Johnson’s stooge in Holyrood.
The last word belongs to a member of the public: “It saddens me that some members of my family are defending this action. Well I’m not, it’s wrong, and it’s the wrong message to send out about our Parliament which should not fear the people” Fiona Grahame
NOTE: Plan of the Scottish Parliament. The area contained within the dotted lines will be off-limits to protestors and political debate, which is to say, our parliament itself. The legislation exploited is: “approval under section 129 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) to be designated as a protected site in the interests of national security.”