THE other week, First Minister’s Questions was interrupted nine times. For those keeping score, that’s a new record (the previous was six). If this was football, there would almost certainly be a crowd ban in place and matches played behind closed doors.

The latest demonstration was from This is Rigged. From protests on poverty, oil and gas, climate change, food insecurity and more, Holyrood – and in particular First Minister’s Questions – has become a hot spot for campaigners to take their issues directly to the politicians.

The Presiding Officer has an unenviable task of balancing the rights of protest and the rights of democratically elected representatives to uphold their mandate and represent their constituents.

No-one, surely, wants a crowdless chamber or the public trapped behind soundproof glass. The issues that matter to the electorate should be given space to be raised and the public should be able to watch their politicians debate at first hand.

The Scottish Parliament, as an institution, was designed to bring power closer to the people with the principles of pluralism and diversity supposedly ingrained within our governance. From the shape of the chamber itself – rounded and less adversarial unlike Westminster – the ideals of tolerance and respectful debate were built into the very design of the building. Of course, as Scottish devolution enters its 25th year with the re-establishment of our Parliament in 1999, our politicians haven’t always upheld those principles.

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What must be upheld however is the right to public protest in our streets and communities. It is non-negotiable. It’s sacrosanct. It’s the key foundation of any democracy that we can protect our freedom of speech, hold power to account and take to the streets, in our hundreds, thousands or millions, in protest.

The Scottish Parliament hasn’t always got it right, but you would be hard-pushed to say that it has become an institution removed from the voices of the people. On a weekly basis, you will find campaigners outside the gates of Holyrood fighting for a cause they believe in. You’ll find marches down the mile heading towards EH99, with banners, loudhailers and drums a-plenty, fighting for whatever change they seek to make.

For our own sins, unapologetic as they are, on a sodden, biblically drenched day in September 2022, we called upon thousands of trade unionists to descend upon the Scottish Parliament in demanding better from our politicians on the cost of living crisis. We have been back innumerable times since. It’s our parliament just as much as anyone else’s, after all.

That must continue. Direct action and taking the fight to the doorsteps of those who can help must not be outlawed or restricted.

That right is being undermined, if not degraded, before our very eyes. Rishi Sunak’s somewhat surprising announcement on the steps of Downing Street earlier this month was, to all extents and purposes, a free-to-air party-political broadcast.

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It was a desperate election pitch to a minority of the public that he – diminutive in power and voice – would clamp down on the rights of protesters who find agency and empowerment in taking to the streets for their cause. He was also continuing, even doubling down, on the dog whistle politics of many in his own party.

Rather than accept the fact that millions of people, of all faiths and races, are disgusted by the UK Government’s position on Gaza and want to show it, they are targeting Muslims alone for the worst of possible reasons.

The truth is, that whilst every instance of criminality, particularly racist criminality, needs to be challenged, the number of such incidents on the mass marches and rallies for Palestine, has been vanishingly small. This should come as no surprise. Mass marches, on almost any issue, tend to cause zero or very limited public disorder.

That’s not what the Tories and indeed, some other politicians wish to hear. Starting with Suella Braverman in November last year and now continued by a ragtag bunch of other politicians, pressure has been put on the police to, effectively, come up with more arrests. This is a totally unacceptable form of political interference in the justice arena.

We have had decades of political silence while the far right, including avowedly violent extremists, have targeted their hatred at black people and other minorities. Organisations like ours have been forced onto the streets to counter their bile. We’ll be doing so today in Glasgow, as part of the UN’s International Day To Combat Islamophobia.

It’s the deception of the century therefore for the UK Government to now call out the hateful and divisive rhetoric from the far right, the bigots and the mobs when they themselves have been up to their necks in emboldening them.

This is the same Tory UK Government that continues to demonise migrants; the same Tory ministers that want to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights and restrict our civil liberties; the same Conservative administration that labels, week after week, support for Palestine as extreme whilst ignoring the mobilisation of the far right throughout our communities.

Ultimately, whatever politicised definition of “extremism” the UK Government has now brought forward, we must proceed with our eyes open and with extreme caution.

Given they’re the ones who have now demonised those who seek to assemble; given they are the ones whipping up hatred against our most vulnerable; and given they are the Government that now, with the wide definitions set out on extremism and sweeping new powers for the police, could seek to restrict our right to assemble and protest under whatever auspices they constitute as extreme.

Let’s be clear: it is not extreme to show solidarity for Palestine.

It is not extreme to uphold our civil liberties and peacefully march on the institutions that represent our democracy.

It’s not extreme to show support for striking workers and demand better from our representatives. Make no mistake, when the Government talks about “extremists” – and bearing in mind they’re the ones behind the draconian Trade Union Act and the Minimum Service (Strikes) Bill – they’re laying the ground to restrict the rights of workers to protest.

They’re meaning trade unionists. They’re meaning ordinary working people standing up for themselves, their jobs and their public services.

Whenever there are masses in their collective, especially ones that the Tory UK Government ideologically opposes, they will, as history has shown, clamp down on their rights.

It’s yet another chapter in this sorry, tiresome culture war being waged by those we, ideally, will kick from office as soon as possible.