Protest is precious

by | 14 Sep 2021

In an era when scrutiny of the powerful in Scotland is at a low point, we can't afford steps which reduce the opportunity for effective public action

When I’m asked to explain my belief in the merits of smaller states one of the examples I give first is how Iceland overthrew its government twice and forced another Prime Minister to resign, all in under ten years, all peacefully, all through direct public action.

It is why I’m really glad to see there is some serious kickback on the Scottish Parliament’s decision to give the police greater powers to disperse protesters from outside the Holyrood building.

What Scotland needs without any shadow of a doubt is much more accountability of Scotland’s ruling classes, not less. And with an emaciated media, who else but citizens are going to do this?

In 2008 the Icelandic government was caught deep in the mess of the financial crisis with what looked from the outside to be something like the merger between government and the country’s powerful corporate interests. (Sound familiar at all Scotland?)

What resulted was the ‘pots and pans revolution’. Nights of protest led to a very significant proportion of the country’s population descending on the Icelandic parliament building with pots and pans. They virtually surrounded it and hit the pots and pans with spoons – and kept going until the government fell.

From there they headed off and built a crowd-sourced, grassroots constitution which was a remarkable and very credible piece of work, supported by 66 per cent of the public in a referendum (but subsequently subverted by the ruling classes again…).

So when in 2016 another Icelandic Prime Minister was caught up in ugly tax dodges revealed by the Panama Papers, the process kicked off again. An ice cream shop close to the parliament produced a flavour of ‘protest ice cream‘ named after the scandal. Consisting of lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream with a dusting of liquorice it was described to customers as “sour, with a strong dose of arrogance and laced with lousy excuses”.

This became the focus of more mass protests (this time the theme was that they brought and waved red cards) and the position of the Prime Minister became untenable. Even after he fell the campaign continued as others in the government were also implicated.

So when Icelanders were horrified 18 months later by the involvement of yet another Prime Minister in seeking to restore various civic rights (in secret) to a man who had raped his step daughter on an almost daily basis for 12 years, no-one had to protest – the other parties in the coalition understood what was happening, walked out and the coalition fell.

I have never met a senior politician who doesn’t say in public that they respect the right to public protest but in private thinks that there are at least a dozen more important things

To this day Iceland is the only country which overthrew its government on the spot over the financial crisis. It is the only country to jail the head of a bank over the scandal and it is one of the few countries where a senior politician resigned over the Panama papers.

I give these examples to explain that my belief in smaller democracies is absolutely not because they are free of scandal or corruption or failure or gross error – those happen everywhere humans exist. It is that they are much, much better at uncovering these scandals and holding those responsible to account.

Most of what has led to the fall of governments and politicians in Iceland has happened and continues to happen across much of Europe – but it is hidden, covered up, excused. That is why the capacity for citizen protest is a right so overwhelmingly important to the concept of our democracy that it cannot be degraded any more than it has been.

Because oh god has it been degraded. I have never met a senior politician who doesn’t say in public that they respect the right to public protest but in private thinks that there are at least a dozen more important things – national security, commerce, the right of parliament to operate undisrupted, the ‘threat’ of public disorder…

This has never been more important. In the last few years Scotland’s ruling class has discovered and made remarkably liberal use of the redacting pen. ‘Looking after your own’ is the watchword of far too many senior public officials. Agencies that are supposed to hold government to account openly collude with the government to smooth over anything that might create ‘bad PR’.

Scotland’s democracy is in a worrying state and one of the reasons I started this site is because it is not discussed even nearly enough given the current dominance over public life in this country of those responsible for its gradual erosion

When the Scottish Government has many more press officers than the entirety of BBC Scotland has journalists, it is increasingly going to be for citizens to step forward.

Make no mistake, the police already have more than enough powers to manage and if necessary disperse protests outside parliament which are creating public disorder. This will come as a surprise to some of our ruling classes but the police are not your private security force. They work for us, as do many (though not enough) of that ruling class.

If Scotland stands by and let this happen, one more step on the road to our total dominance by a ruling class is taken. I hope the kickback leads to a rethink. If it doesn’t, I hope at least that more people in Scotland can see the increasingly authoritarian direction our country is taking.

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