The demonisation of political protest


By GA Ponsonby

Three SNP councillors are in the news today after they filmed themselves symbolically burning a copy of the Smith Commission report.

The councillors said they were expressing their frustration and anger that pledges of more powers given by the three pro-Union parties prior to the independence referendum were not reflected in the commission’s recommendations.

Former Renfrewshire Council leader Brian Lawson and colleagues Mags MacLaren and Will Mylet, recorded themselves setting a copy of the report alight outside the authority’s Paisley headquarters.

In the video – posted on YouTube and later removed – Councillor Mylet says: “The Smith Commission report. This is exactly what we think about it. No real powers for Scotland yet again from Westminster. We’ve been lied to yet again. There you go Gordon Brown. Cheers.”

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their actions, no sooner had the video of the three councillors appeared on video than pro-Union politicians went into outrage overload.  The burning of a piece of paper prompted attacks on the SNP by Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie and Labour MP Anas Sarwar.

Sarwar said: “This is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour from three SNP councillors.

“Scots will rightly be disturbed that public representatives feel they can go around burning documents, even ones which their party signed up to.”

Rennie added: “This is a test for Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership. Will she tolerate this or send a strong signal to her members that there must be no more inappropriate stunts like this?”

The Unionist criticisms found their way onto BBC Scotland with the broadcaster treating the incident so seriously that it prompted headline news bulletins and was considered the second most important story in Scotland.  The coverage focussed exclusively on the reaction.

Today the BBC Scotland morning phone in programme Morning Call jumped on the Unionist narrative.

It should be noted that BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell once flamboyantly ripped an SNP manifesto to pieces on live TV but escaped sanction and criticism.  More recently a Unionist mob attacked Yes supporters in Glasgow and burnt the Saltire.

There is something worrying about the latest shrill cries from Unionists.  There is what appears to be a concerted attempt by Unionists to pick on a lawful protest and try to use it to smear an opposing party.

Burning pieces of paper in a symbolic manner has been part of political protest for decades.  Indeed Labour party members themselves used to organise and take part in the symbolic burning of poll tax bills. More recently we have witnessed some people burning their Labour party membership cards in protest over the Iraq war.

Are these now to be banned in the new ‘One Nation’ Britain being forged by Labour?

Other forms of protest have alse been attacked by Unionist politicians.  Recent peaceful marches and protests that took place outside the BBC HQ in Glasgow were targeted by Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians.  Men, women and children who took part were demonised as intolerant nationalists intent on bullying hard working journalists.

Days ago the online site Wings over Scotland was attacked by Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie who demanded the First Minister distance herself from the pro-independence site.

During the referendum campaign Labour MP Jim Murphy appeared to call for independence supporters to be banned from taking part in TV debates.

Speaking to the Daily Mail last January, Murphy told the right wing newspaper of his concern about independence supporters: “… who hide behind the safety of their computer keyboards in their bedrooms will come out into the public as the referendum comes closer”.

The Labour MP suggested they should be prevented from attending debates saying that allowing them to attend public meetings or TV studio audiences was: “The last thing we need.”

“These people are as determined as they are obsessive and they will think nothing of attending every meeting and getting tickets for every TV and radio debate.” he added.

The report burning certainly wasn’t in the spirit of conciliation expressed by the First Minister last week, and the SNP responded to the criticism of the symbolic burning by issuing a bland statement:

“The SNP has been clear we will always welcome new powers for Scotland.

“While we believe the Smith Commission proposals fall far short of the powers Scotland needs to thrive, it is important that we continue to make the case for more powers in a constructive way – as we always have done in the past.”

We are in the post-referendum period and the pledges of the No campaign should be under scrutiny. The BBC – supposedly balanced and impartial – should be spearheading a forensic examination of the pledges and promises that it helped promote. Instead the corporation has allowed itself to become a platform for pro-Union smears and embellished nonsense.

The following short video – which includes language some may find offensive – makes the point rather forcefully.

If political discourse is to be restricted to those deemed acceptable to mainstream politics and their media friends then how do those of us with no access to either participate and make our views known?  We are witnessing a creeping demonisation and that should be resisted.

When Unionists dismissed as ‘a joke’ the burning of the Alex Salmond effigy which contained many symbols of Scottish culture, I asked what the reaction would be if people turned up outside BBC Scotland and burned their TV licences.  I think we now know the answer.

It should be noted that Salmond made no complaint about the effigy stunt.


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has condemned the report-burning as “unacceptable behaviour” and told ITV Border: “The councillors in question will be left in no doubt about my views of their conduct.”

It has been reported that the SNP is planning to suspend the councillors pending an investigation

GA Ponsonby is currently writing a book on the BBC’s role in Scottish politics and the referendum campaign.