Scottish Parliament: Strict security zone at Holyrood poses threat to the fundamental democratic right to protest – Martyn McLaughlin

Blink and you will miss it, but if you walk along the Canongate Wall at the Scottish Parliament, you will find a modest concrete panel sunk into its granite, with two lines from Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian engraved on the surface.

“When we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament-men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns,” it states. “But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon.”

At the time Scott penned those words, they were an expression of exasperation at the then century-long absence of a Scottish legislature. Little did he know they would become a cautionary tale when the parliament finally reconvened. It is one the current intake of MSPs would do well to heed.

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Much has already been written about the legislative steps which will expose protesters at Holyrood to the threat of criminal prosecution, but two key questions remain unanswered – why is the measure deemed necessary, and how is it considered proportionate?

From 1 October, the campus of buildings and the external landscape designed by the late Enric Miralles will become a designated site under section 129(1) of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa).

In short, it will become a criminal offence to set foot in the sprawling area “without lawful authority”, punishable by up to a year’s imprisonment following summary conviction, or a £5,000 fine.

The designation is the brainchild of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), the cross-party management body of Holyrood. Its chair, Alison Johnstone MSP, has said the designation is necessary to maintain a “functioning parliament”, and that it will permit the right to protest “in a manner which does not impede parliamentary operations”.

Ms Johnstone has been in situ at Holyrood for a decade, which makes the subtext of her letter all the more galling. Anyone reading it would be forgiven for presuming that the foothills of the Royal Mile are routinely engulfed in chaos and full-scale rammies.

Protesters could be subject to criminal prosecution for setting foot on the Holyrood estate without permission. (Picture: Toby Williams)

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The presiding officer pointed to an “increasing level of disruptive activity” at the legislature, including protests on the building’s roof which require a “specialist policing and emergency services response”.

This appeared to be a reference to an Extinction Rebellion demonstration in March, when a 61-year-old University of Edinburgh research fellow clambered onto the building and unfurled a small banner. He later descended from the roof and was arrested. The storming of the Bastille this was not.

Which is not to casually dismiss how seriously the SPCB can, and should, treat their obligation to safety and security. The recent sombre anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks was an occasion to reflect on how we are still battling the twin dangers of domestic and international extremism.

But it was also a chance to consider how civil liberties have too often been curtailed in service of that fight. It is hard to see how the SPCB has struck a balance between the two.

In tandem with Police Scotland, it has spent a considerable amount of time and money upgrading parliamentary security in recent years. In the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing and the Westminster terror attack in 2017, the force carried out a comprehensive review of Holyrood’s resilience. SPCB, in turn, approved a major three-year programme of investment which concluded last month.

It included the replacement of the vehicle-blocking devices outside the parliament with more robust mitigation measures, extending perimeter security fencing, and the creation of a so-called ‘rejection lane’ for unauthorised vehicles.

Pointer, a Glasgow-based security firm, replaced Holyrood’s security system, transferring CCTV networks and intruder detection devices to the new network. The work did not come cheap – the bill came in at £1.9 million.

All of this was in addition to the enhanced security that has been put in place at Holyrood over the past two decades, such as the installation of screening equipment and archway metal detectors at the building’s entrance.

The SPCB may reason that more must be done, and without sight of the full security assessment, it is difficult to scrutinise its decision-making. We know, however, that at least one of its members was against the designation. Maggie Chapman, the Scottish Green MSP, described it as “totally inappropriate.” Her party has since echoed her concerns.

One mystery is why the threat is deemed so severe as to require the new legal status of the parliament under Socpa, one of the most extreme and contentious pieces of legislation introduced this century.

Famously, it was devised by the then Labour government as a desperate attempt to deal with Brian Haw, the late veteran peace campaigner who took up residence in a bedraggled tent in Parliament Square in 2001, and stayed there for the best part of a decade.

Others convicted via the new powers include anti-war activists Maya Evans and Milan Rai. Their crime? To stand by the Cenotaph and read aloud the names of British service personnel killed in Iraq.

Concerns were also raised in Scotland when two activists became the first people to be convicted under Socpa after a peace protest at Faslane. The fact a sheriff chose to admonish them was telling.

Leaving aside the delicious irony of a pro-independence devolved parliament asking the Home Office to assign it greater legal protection, Socpa flies in the face of Scotland’s long and storied tradition of protest. This is, lest anyone forget, a fundamental democratic right.

A backpedalling SPCB may insist the new powers will be used lightly, but it will be in the gift of the police to decide that. Their very introduction sets a worrying precedent and should be resisted at all costs.

Remember that when Mr Miralles designed the parliament, he struck upon the cluster of low-lying buildings as a means of joining it to the land. It would, he said, take the form of “gathering people together”. The SPCB should bear that in mind.

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