Communiqué Scotland #6: “Attack on freedom of speech”? No, it’s just protest politics at its best
Communiqué Scotland is a weekly blog discussing Scottish politics by Ben Wray. If you would like to contribute to the blog or have suggestions for topics please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @Ben_Wray1989
Every activist knows it’s the sign of a successful protest when politicians and media hacks start trotting out the “attack on freedom of speech” line. It’s like a litmus test, when they start banging on about freedom of speech you know that you’ve had a big impact. If they don’t, it probably means your protest wasn’t important enough for them to care about it.
Unfortunately, being based in Glasgow, my role in the Radical Independence Campaign’s (RIC) emergency protest against Farage was confined to a bit of networking and social media work. But I wasn’t needed in Edinburgh – my fellow RIC activists in the capital carried out protest politics to near perfection.
The lines of attack from TV and radio have been all too predictable: ‘But surely you went too far?’ ‘Surely you can protest without causing disruption?’ ‘Do your actions not make you just as bad as him?’
Let’s stop for a second and look at that last question once more: ‘do your actions not make you just as bad as him?’ Subconsciously, the press have already accepted RIC’s narrative: that there is something bad about Nigel Farage. Implicit in the questioning is an acceptance of the ideological argument, the criticism is limited to the use of methods in carrying it out.
Media commentators have responded in a similar way. To take one example, on BBC radio 5 live on Friday night one incredulous commentator responded to RIC’s Liam O’Hare saying: “I completely agree with your argument, UKIP are racist and bigoted, but I find the way you expressed it completely deplorable.” Farage has been on our screens non-stop for months; not once have I seen him called a racist or a bigot. Suddenly its almost taken as given.
This is what those who call us a “baying mob” don’t get about Thursday’s protest: it was planned that way for a reason. The reason is very simple: it’s the only way we could achieve our desired outcome of shifting the terms of debate.
To be honest, the protest has achieved much more than we hoped. Our intention was two-fold: 1. damage Farage’s attempt to project UKIP as a legitimate Britain-wide party; as relevant in Scotland as anywhere else. 2. Use Farage as an example to show how distant the political climate in Scotland is from England: a Thatcherite, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare state Little Englander has no place in Scottish politics, and it’s about time that was represented constitutionally after our September 2014 referendum.
But Farage has been much more damaged than this. Suddenly he’s lost all of his momentum, he’s rattled and having to fight off accusations of racism and more. His performance on BBC Radio Scotland where he accused the presenter of “the same hatred he had encountered on the streets of Edinburgh” and then hung up before finishing the interview is as much proof as anyone needs that the protest has given his confidence a battering.
So if the protest was to occur all over again except this time I was present at ‘Canongaitgate’, there would be hardly anything I would want to do differently. Liberals up and down the land are lamenting us for our ‘attack on democracy’, but ordinary citizens like us don’t have the same levers as the likes of Farage to influence public debate. We have to take our opportunities when they arise to get our point across. If we don’t, we miss the boat.
Salmond showed some sense in his response to the protest by simply saying four words: “there was a context…”. This basic concept of ‘context’ in explaining why people outwith the reins of power may act differently to those with power seems almost intangible for the vast majority of the establishment.
If they refuse to listen to our explanation of the ‘context’ behind our protest, perhaps the First Minister’s response can shake them out of their liberal haze.