“Attack on freedom of speech”? No, it’s just protest politics at its best

Communiqué Scotland #6: Ben Wray defends the Radical Independence Campaign's protest against Farage from the predictable complaints of its liberal detractors.

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 [email protected] 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.

2 Responses to ““Attack on freedom of speech”? No, it’s just protest politics at its best”

  1. George Mackin says:

    Yeh, it was a nice piece of shenanigans and well played the folk who challenged auld Nige’- who came out of Scotland looking like a buffoon. That said, there needs to be a debate about how the Left, in this wee island of ours, politically deal with this “know nothing” right wing populist party. Have a look at the YOU tube clips and what you will find is that the siege of Canongate was a mild mannered, good natured, auld fashioned stair-heided rammie and no one was injured apart from NF’s bruised ego… Long live the Edinburgh mob…

  2. Mhairi McAlpine says:

    “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.”

    Nah – I doubt it. The conflation of this protest with “violence”, “racism” and “the SNP” is a peddling of the line first championed by Paxman – that Alex Salmond is a proto-fascist dictator in waiting that will seize the reigns of power the instant we get independence and declare himself King of Scotland, like some kind of bizarre mash up between Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe.

    Yes, you laugh at that from within Scotland, but in England where are taught to fear the dreaded “nationalism”, as they wave their little union jacks, cheer on “Team UK” and fawn over the parasites and their obnoxious lavish parties while being told that the reason that they are getting kicked out of their homes is to make way for “the immigrants” who immediately get a luxury home with flat screen TV the moment they step onto British soil. All without irony. This “anti-English racism” tripe is a follow on from the Little Englander mentality, that they are the plucky little nation under seige from invading hordes, while shoving refugees, from the countries that they are still bombing to hell, in detention centres: declaring their countries “safe” as they drop another bomb.

    The problem *IS* with freedom of speech – it is who gets to write the narrative. UKIP are very used to writing the narrative, their press releases are picked up by a fawning media establishment, the Tories see them as both allies and rivals, consequently they have the ear of the g’ment. The mainstream media can hawk its spin to almost anything, but this piece of street theatre has brought its protrayal of Farage as a “man of the people” here to stand up for the plucky little UK against the overwhelming might of Europe into sharp relief.

    Freedom of speech isn’t about staying silent when people who are socially constructed as “having something to say” prattle on. Its about having the structural access to the means of “speech creation”. And the extent to which this is denied is evident by the number of external approved interpreters of the protest declaring “what it was all about”, rather than listening to the actual protesters, instead a veil is laid over it which fits with the culturally approved narrative – in this case “anti-English racism”, in the case of the Thatcher death parties “the disrespect of the young today”; in the case of the English Riots, “feral youth out of control”. Social media, citizen media and the ability for anyone to create media is challenging that dominance, but its amplification remains a problem.

    By seizing opportunities where mainstream media are gathering evidence for spin, we can expose the spin for what it is. Farange’s “man of the people having a pint and a natter in a pub” was exposed, the camera’s drew back and demonstrated that wider context. I called it street theatre above – which it was, but this wasn’t a spectacle, it was an anti-spectacle. It was taking the spectacle and drawing back the curtain Wizard of Oz style.

    I think this protest also achieved something else, beyond the two mentioned. Its raised the issue of Scottish Independence again within the English Left. Their preferred method of dealing with the ongoing colonisation of Scotland is ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, that “anti-English racism” is somehow equivalent to colonial exploitation, and any protest against such exploitation must fit into that “anti-English racism” box. Its really not all that surprising you get it all the bloody time from men on the left who when confronted with the ongoing patriarchy that affects the lives of women insist that no such thing exists and any protest against it is just “misandry”.

    This is rapidly becoming a time to choose for the English left. Stand with us or fuck off, and don’t claim radical credentials if you are going to snipe from the sidelines, and defend a racist homophobic right winger against your comrades because you don’t want to lose the power and the privilage that you enjoy within the UK – both as a citizen and as a member of the Left. For your “freedom of speech” to pronounce on Scottish matters and attempting to define the characteristics of the Scottish Left are nothing more than a hijacking of the narrative using colonial structures of power.

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