Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On 30th September I watched the ‘No Protest Ban at Holyrood’ protest, and I was bemused. Having not properly read the event description on social media, I thought this was a protest referring to the (now largely forgotten) anti-protest legislation in force currently in England and Wales. And so, I dismissed them as probably being English and failing to comprehend the fact that Scotland does not have the same legislation. As it turns out I was wrong, and they were ahead of the game.
As of October 1st, new legislation has indeed been introduced which designates the Scottish Parliament grounds as being a ‘protected site’. This means that disruptive protests may not occur outside the Scottish Parliament. According to the BBC, the justification behind this ban is that, because protests are an ‘almost daily occurrence’, they are incredibly disruptive to the workings of government.
That protests occur almost daily is, however, false; protests are not an almost daily occurrence outside the Scottish Parliament. From my own observations as a resident living very close to the Parliament, there have only been four protests in the last month. We may wonder as to why the BBC has made such a dire reporting error, but we can only hope that it does not contribute too much to the already greatly demonised presentation of activists in the British media.
As it stands in Holyrood, the Police now have extra powers to break up disruptive protests. All of this turns on what we mean by ‘disruptive’. The intention behind a protest is that it is disruptive, that it brings the passerby (or preferably, an MSP) into some kind of critical self-awareness which disrupts the business-as-usual autopilot thinking of the everyday. If you are a part of a non-disruptive protest, then you are not protesting at all—just merely standing around.
To which, we now turn to the fact that the Police have yet more powers. The fact that this legislation has been passed concurrently with the enquiry into Sarah Everard’s death and Cressida Dick’s at best bizarre, bus-hailing advice, sends a truly ambivalent message to people living in Scotland.
This appears as the Scottish governments, albeit more lenient, response to Westminster’s protest ban earlier this year. But a crucial difference is that the introduction of the new legislation was not made by a parliamentary vote. The Scottish Parliament Corporate Body, which is made up of four representatives of the major parties and a presiding officer, made the decision. It bypassed a parliamentary vote because the members of the SPCB voted unanimously in favour.
In response to the criticism that the SPCB’s decision appears profoundly anti-democratic, Labour’s Claire Barker has said that this is not a ‘ban’ per se, nor will it lead to criminal charges being brought against activists. However the National contradicts this, saying that to be on parliament grounds ‘without lawful authority’ could lead up to a sentence or fine of up to £5000.
Theoretically this protest ban (which maybe it is not depending on who you speak to) can be retracted in Parliament, but so far nobody has done so. This itself is startling, for anyone would be forgiven to think that this represents all the leading party’s tacit ascent to the protest ban.
So, here we sit surprised and alarmed (once again) at how quickly such legislation can be brought into force. Most didn’t even know the SPCB existed, and it has acted without a mandate from parliament or the people. Nor has there been proper advertising to explain the changes publicly. Its unnerving underhandedness goes to show that, whatever happens over the border, can also happen here.