My friend and mentor the much-missed Gordon Wilson used to run Radio Free Scotland, a pirate radio station supporting Independence. It was broadcast entirely illegally, a crime the state took very seriously in the 1950’s. Some of the others involved were of the group that liberated the Stone of Scone temporarily from Westminster Abbey. That was a serious crime too. One of the most enjoyable evenings of my life, one I remember 40 years later, was a boozy dinner with this whole group at Gordon and Edith’s home in Broughty Ferry.
At the time, the state’s arguments against “pirate radio” included national security and interference with emergency services. The entirely illegal Radio Free Scotland actually gave its address as SNP HQ!
This criminal tendency did not prevent Gordon from becoming leader of the SNP and a very respectable solicitor. So how did the SNP morph from being a party that had a very elastic attitude to obeying the laws which suppressed Scotland, to being a party whose leadership cheerleaders are today, in their scores, defending on social media the imprisonment of a working class, ethnic minority Independence activist for organising an entirely peaceful and successful pro-Independence demonstration that passed off entirely without incident?
A party in government naturally has a different perspective to a party of protest. But how those in authority deal with protest, and particularly protest which does not conform to the neat template authorities may wish to confine it to, is a fascinating study. It is the difference between authoritarian government and liberal government, on a continuum. But broadly speaking deprivation of liberty for peaceful protest is acknowledged as the hallmark of a very authoritarian government.
Thus the Extinction Rebellion protests, which deliberately made no effort to conform to regulation around protests and which were deliberately designed to cause maximum disruption to ordinary traffic in London, resulted so far in no prosecutions pushing for imprisonment for protesting or blocking streets unless criminal damage was involved, and even then I am struggling to find examples of imprisonment. Friends of mine who deliberately participated in avowedly illegal Extinction Rebellion protests have been tried and received small fines.
Similarly, a great number of the Black Lives Matters protests, in the UK and elsewhere, were illegal in the sense of not being pre-planned and following police and council regulation. Some caused deliberate damage to statues etc. Again, I am not aware of any cases of people being imprisoned for organising Black Lives Matters demonstrations.
As a young man, I took part in the Occupation of the site of the Torness nuclear power station which disrupted its build substantially. Again, nobody was imprisoned. Looking at my own history, I gave speeches to illegal gatherings at Occupy London, both at St Paul’s and at Parliament square. When the Occupy movement took over universities to protest against tuition fees, I spoke to an illegal occupation at Cambridge university. The university hired security staff to prevent my speech, so the students gathered and sat in the foyer and I gave my talk from the public pavement outside the building, over the heads of a row of security staff, projecting through the double doors of the foyer. Again, nobody got imprisoned.
People do however get imprisoned for organising “illegal” demonstrations. Not in western democracies so much, and I think I have demonstrated until now not normally in Scotland nor England in recent times. But I have witnessed people get imprisoned for “illegal” political demonstration, in Uzbekistan and in then dictatorship Nigeria. It happens quite often in China. Alexei Navalny himself has been imprisoned before in Russia for organising demonstrations without a permit, as have many other opposition groups. Bureaucratic violation is the entirely common tactic against the opposition in Russia, where demonstrations are allowed but there is often some “hitch” with the paperwork.
The imprisonment of Manni Singh is inexcusable. The demonstration he organised was joyous, massive and caused zero damage and zero violence. Over 100,000 people took part coming from all over Scotland in an absolutely determined effort to express their desire for Scottish Independence. The large majority, however, were Glaswegians and represented a significant chunk of the population of the city. It was very much a family occasion.
I spoke at the event, as at the identical demonstration the previous year, and was in touch with Manni throughout the organisational period. Manni is very much an auto-didact in politics. There are aspects of his eclectic beliefs, including for example a fondness for the work of Douglas Murray, which are pretty well the opposite of my own beliefs. But Manni is a good man and, as I have frequently explained on these pages, I have never chosen my friends on the grounds they agree with me about everything. It is also true that Manni has since fallen out with All Under One Banner and its current leadership. Personally I like, as in actively enjoy the company of, all of those involved and have been saddened at my inability to bring them back together. None of which should bear any relation to jailing Manni for organising a political demonstration, but all of which has been thrown up as chaff on social media to obscure the issue.
The 2018 AUOB march was massively successful. I was the first speaker, and I have never had such an exhilarating political experience, not even when addressing the massive Stop the War rallies in London. The 2018 Glasgow march introduced AUOB as a massive political force in Scotland, and particularly in Glasgow.
Tens of thousands of SNP members take part in AUOB demonstrations. I have marched on them beside Joanna Cherry, Chris Law, Ivan McKee, and other SNP worthies. But behind the scenes, all is not the harmony that it may seem. Peter Murrell and Nicola Sturgeon are extremely wary of any part of the Yes Movement they do not control. Nicola Sturgeon has been invited again and again to speak at AUOB demonstrations, and has always refused. Even when promised by AUOB that she could choose the other speakers, and ne’er-do-wells like Tommy Sheridan and myself would be rigorously kept away (to which I had agreed).
The official explanation is that as First Minister, Nicola has to represent the entire nation so may not take part in partisan political events. Yet strangely, that did not stop her attending and speaking to either anti-Brexit demonstrations or gay rights events. That an SNP leader can speak at political events but not for Scottish Independence is, ahem, counter-intuitive.
I suspect Nicola finds the company at anti-Brexit demonstrations more to her taste than she would the company at an AUOB march.
What happened with Manni is that Glasgow City Council looked to try to change the start date of the demonstration and bring it forward from 1.30pm to 11am. This was explicitly to reduce the size of the demonstration – there is no doubt about this, they directly said so, and Manni was keeping me informed in real time. And this is the simple truth – the move to hamper the demonstration and limit its size was absolutely initiated, led and followed through by the SNP group on Glasgow City Council. The SNP Glasgow city councillors are very much directed by the Sturgeon inner coterie, particularly commissars Mhairi Hunter and Rhiannon Spear. The SNP was looking to hamper the impact of AUOB in Glasgow, for its own political reasons.
The AUOB marches attract Independence supporters from all over Scotland. People come down by ferry and coach from the Highlands and Islands. I have met people on them who travelled all through the night. At the time Glasgow Council decided to bring forward the start time, it was already too late; coaches, ferries and advance train and bus tickets were already booked. We are talking about a march that took nearly three hours to pass any one spot. The chaos and disorder from trying to change the starting time would be greater than the disciplined march proceeding as planned by the organisers. That is the decision Manni took. He started the demo 150 minutes after the Council approved time.
I knew of all these problems in real time, and I made a point of speaking with the senior policeman in charge of the march. Amusingly, I recall they really were “Gold Command” or some such TV thriller designation. “Gold Command” was entirely happy and had no complaints. It had been a peaceful, orderly and very good humoured event. I was told directly.
It was the SNP group on Glasgow City Council who insisted that council officers report Manni Singh to the police and demand action against him. It was not an initiative by the Police, who had been quite happy with the demonstration.
This is a photo of an “illegal” demo in Minsk:
This is a photo of an “illegal” demo in Russia
This is a photo of an “illegal” demo in Hong Kong
This is a photo of an “illegal” demo in Barcelona
and here is a photo of the “illegal” demo in Glasgow organised by Manni Singh:
Have we seen protests from the SNP leadership about the jailing of Manni Singh? No. Yet we have seen vociferous protests from them about the restriction of demos in Russia, Belarus and Hong Kong. What we have seen, throughout Twitter and Facebook and below the line at every Scottish newspaper and pro-Independence website, is dozens and dozens of SNP Sturgeon loyalists lining up to justify the jailing of Manni Singh, indeed in some instances to salivate over the jailing of Manni Singh.
I am not going to post individual examples, but you can find them very easily if you Google search for Manni Singh on Twitter, look through the replies to this tweet from Angus Brendan McNeil, or look through this thread in the National.
It is a simple fact that, on Twitter in particular, the SNP loyalists who are tweeting that Manni Singh should be jailed for “breaking the law” are exactly the same accounts that massively retweeted Dani Garavelli’s articles denying the innocence of Alex Salmond. They also bear an extremely high correlation with those whose primary focus is on issues of sexual or gender identity, in which I include the broad range of feminism, sexual identity and gender rights.
What has happened to the SNP? It has become very comfortable with authoritarianism. It has a claque which operates both on social media and at party conference, which pursues Clinton style identity politics allied to neo-con policy. They have adopted a focus on foreign policy which accords entirely with the NATO agenda. You hear a very great deal from the party leadership about the rights of people in Belarus, Russia and Hong Kong. Yemen, not so much, and Palestine is entirely off the agenda. In fact, among the claque, enthusiastic support for the Israeli Defence Force appears to be a badge of honour.
If you look through the Twitter replies to Angus Brendan MacNeil above, you will see a prominent member of the online claque call Angus Brendan a “Tory” for opposing Glasgow City Council over the jailing of Manni. These are precisely the same people who are ardently pushing for the Hate Crime Bill and criminal enforcement of politically correct speech in Scotland. I have seen them attack great Independence supporters like Brian Cox and Elaine C Smith for pointing out the dangers of the Hate Speech Bill for the arts.
Those who cannot see the jailing of Manni, the Hate Crime Bill, and dare I say the prosecution of me for reporting the defence evidence in the Salmond trial, as symptoms of a serious underlying problem with civil liberties in Scotland today, are closing their eyes. There is a nasty intolerance about the claque running the SNP.
The reasons for jailing Manni being put forward by loyalists all over social media – he started the demo late, he didn’t have insurance, there were not enough licensed bouncers as stewards, he didn’t fill the right road closure form – are PRECISELY the reasons authorities and their loyalists put forward for banning all the protests pictured above. It is what Putin’s supporters say about Navalny.
The vast majority, 99.5%, of SNP members remain very decent and humane people who just want to see Scotland a normal free country. A very great number are realising that something is badly wrong in the party, even if opinion polls are great. Power is not an end in itself. It is only of value if you do good with it.
At the moment, power in Scotland is being abused.
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