What connects George Square, St Andrew Square and the Paisley Cenotaph?
The answer is that all three attracted crowds over the weekend. In Glasgow’s most famous gathering place, more than 500 demonstrators assembled to protest against racism and in favour of refugees’ rights, alongside a smaller contingent of Right-wing activists.
In Edinburgh, 1,000 gathered to hear author Irvine Welsh denounce a statue to Henry Dundas, an opponent of slavery abolition. At Paisley’s war memorial, an outfit calling itself the Loyalist Defence League turned up to ‘protect’ the structure from threats unknown.
These three events have something else in common. To the best of my knowledge, not one person at any of them was arrested for breaking the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, better known as the lockdown rules.
The only arrests were one for alleged obstruction and another for alleged threatening and abusive behaviour.
There is a slightly surreal quality to the open disregard of the Covid-19 control measures. I am certain I remember them being announced, debated, made law then drummed in to the public with the zeal of a Jesuit instilling the Catechism. Yet the authorities allow them to be trampled on without a hint of disquiet.
Those rules explicitly forbid mass gatherings. That includes the two rallies that graced George Square last Wednesday evening. Police had told far-Right rabblerousers (again purporting to defend statues) and campaigners against asylum seeker evictions not to congregate.
Officers were duly ignored amid reports of ugly scenes and six arrests under public order legislation.
Nicola Sturgeon called that unrest ‘disgraceful’ and declaimed ‘racist thugs’ who ‘shame Scotland’. She added: ‘If they break the law, they should face the full force of it.’ The conditional tense tells you just how bad things have got. The First Minister doesn’t seem aware that, in gathering en masse, every attendee violated one of her government’s laws.
We live in uncanny times, but dangerous ones, too. The police stand by while large groups from countless households gather, mingle, cough and sneeze in sardine-tight proximity in public places. Yet, anyone else breaking lockdown has faced a warning, dispersal, fine or arrest. Even former chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood got a visit from the boys in blue.
This disparity reeks of fear, of a top brass who suspect that, were their officers to apply the law evenly, they may not enjoy the support of ministers.
From their statements, it is clear that a number of senior politicians have more affinity for some of the unlawful crowds than for the laws they are infringing. After damning the far-Right demagogues, Sturgeon added: ‘All of us should unite to say that welcoming refugees and asylum seekers is part of who we are.’ Hardly a stinging rebuke to the rival protesters.
David Hamilton, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, warned: ‘When our politicians fail to condemn the actions of those who defy the law, we cannot be surprised that it is increasingly difficult for police officers to enforce the law.
‘The public cannot expect the police service to turn a blind eye to those who break the law in the name of a particular cause whilst demanding different treatment for opponents.’
This is the peril in having laws that apply to some and not others and leaders who can only bring themselves to criticise one set of wrong-doers. The bad reflection falls not on the laws or the leaders but on the police stuck between the two.
The danger is that the general public comes to see the police as part-time upholders of the law, selectively targeting those lockdown-breakers whose run-in with the bobbies is unlikely to make the evening news. When we are governed by caprice rather than law equal administration of justice becomes impossible.
Of course, some will be more sympathetic to one genre of demonstration than the other. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insists there is no ‘moral equivalence’ between refugee campaigners and loyalist rabble-rousers. That may be but his job is to uphold our laws, not our morals. The actions of the two groups in defying the lockdown to gather in a public place were legally equivalent, and that is what is at issue.
If the rule of law is applied contingently, it is no longer law. Uniform officers use their discretion every day and we are better policed for it, but they cannot be asked to enforce the law subject to the ethical justifications of those who break it. They are police, not moral philosophers with a Taser X2.
The indulgence of any of these rallies makes a mockery of the lockdown regulations but it is also demoralising for the police. Knowing you must look the other way when you see an offence committed by hundreds or thousands of people because those who make the laws can’t even pretend to believe in them must feel belittling.
Those protesting against racism, police brutality and statues to slaveowners are impatient for change and believe the need is too pressing to wait until lockdown is over. They consider racial prejudice a pandemic of sorts and don’t want to lose this opportunity to challenge prevailing attitudes.
I have some sympathy with this view. Last year, I wrote in this newspaper about Scotland’s ‘Empire of denial’, our collective amnesia about how prominent our role was in colonialism and slavery. I argued Scotland had to confront not only its historical actions but also racist and xenophobic attitudes that persist today. My frustration with the protesters is at least as much about tactics as politics.
Their cause is appealing. Their cause appears just. It is a cause for marching, for raising your voice, and for demanding reform. But it is not a cause that justifies putting the country at risk of a second wave of a killer virus. Covid-19 does not take a knee while you sort out the rest of the world’s problems.
The idealists disdain such thinking, just as they disdain the notion their rallies are no less unlawful than those of their political opposites. They are righteous and angry and convinced their virtue and the virtue of their cause are paramount. Idealism is like binge-drinking. It’s intoxicating but the hangover always comes.
Equal justice demands that the law be applied against all gatherings, regardless of their ideological tenor or our affinity for their objectives. The public also demands this and if ministers think their transient commitment to the law has gone unnoticed, they are very wrong.
The people I speak to want to know why protests are allowed but their churches are shut, why hundreds can flock to George Square but not one customer can set foot in their pub, why there are more political rallies to choose from in Scotland than dentists.
Too many of our leaders live in pristine silos of liberal enlightenment. In their working lives, leisure pursuits, consumption habits and social media use, they echo and are echoed by people who think as they do and think those who don’t are beyond the pale. Only in the occasional trespassing of democracy into professional politics do they catch a glimpse of the country and realise most of it lies far outwith their narrow consensus.
The country is not fretting about how to make refugees welcome (noble though that is). It is watching in an amalgam of bewilderment, horror and resentment as the rules they have stuck to are waived for those who believe their ideals trump considerations of public safety.
Three months of radical restrictions on personal liberty were predicated on the ‘serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of coronavirus’.
If the threat is no longer serious or imminent, why are we still in lockdown? If the threat remains, why isn’t everyone in lockdown?