They’re right, this is Rigged
As climate protests become an everyday occurrence, provoking fury and confusion, Coll McCail reflects on the climate campaigners disruption of FMQs and the need for solidarity for direct action.
It is said that few things in politics are certain. The suited circus is supposed to offer its audience new, unpredictable entertainment. However, in recent months, one inevitable has emerged – the disruption of First Minister’s Questions from Holyrood’s public gallery.
Climate campaigners ‘This Is Rigged’ have forced the suspension of Parliamentary business on an almost weekly basis since the start of the year. Demanding an end to new oil and gas extraction and an immediate just transition, these activists have now received a six month ban from parliament. The protests have sparked ire from various different political corners, whether it be allegations of ‘disrupting democracy’ or the indignant response of Douglas Ross.
They’re right. Scotland’s climate response is increasingly ‘rigged’. The tentacles of green capitalism reach ever-further into Holyrood’s policy-making. Government ministers roll out the red carpet for foreign capital and fossil-fuel lobbyists acquire secret access to decision-makers. Responding to the interruptions, Humza Yousaf insisted disrupting parliament was not “the right way to” observe one’s right to protest. But, given Scotland’s transition looks increasingly less ‘just’, Parliament is exactly the place to protest.
By putting the Scottish Government directly in their cross-hairs, This Is Rigged have done something all too few other climate campaigns have managed. Holding Holyrood’s feet to the fire could not be more necessary. This requires the initiation of confrontation with devolution’s institutions which, in keeping with the ingrained inaction of the political class across the globe, are failing to tackle the climate emergency.
Last week, research from the Ferret highlighted that the Government Minister tasked with developing Scotland’s energy strategy had spent a decade working as the manager of an ‘emergency media response team for oil and gas companies’ prior to her election. In the past Gillian Martin has argued that fossil fuels have “huge potential” for green energy and, during this parliamentary term, has been lobbied by fossil fuel corporations at least 5 times.
In Scotland, corporate access to senior Ministers seems to be a crucial element of ScotGov’s attempt to keep big business on side. In 2021, it emerged that the Scottish Government used a lobbying loophole to hold hundreds of secret meetings with multinational corporations, wealthy individuals and special interest groups. The same investigation found that the energy sector was second only to industry in the extent of its lobbying. Indeed in 2020, Shell held one meeting with the then-energy minister which highlighted “the importance of balanced messaging in the lead up to COP26”. This is what disrupting democracy really looks like.
Among the engagements left off the lobbying register were meetings between Ministers and Sanjeev Gupta, Executive Chairman of GFG Alliance which boasts revenues of approximately $20bn. Sanjeev Gupta bought Lochaber’s smelting plant in 2016. It has since emerged that he contributed just £5 toward the acquisition. The remaining £330 million was fronted by the Scottish Government as part of a guarantee totaling £586 million. While the severity of the climate emergency grows by the day, business tycoons have government ministers at the other end of the phone and the access of energy companies is unprecedented. In this context, publicly demanding better from those who represent you is a refreshingly transparent protest.
By opposing the unrivalled access of those with a vested interest in prolonging the climate emergency, ‘This Is Rigged’ raises an important point. In spite of the ‘green’ rhetoric, Scotland’s Just Transition is being hijacked – often by the same multinationals that hold off the books meetings with Ministers.
In 2021, the Scottish Government abandoned its promise to establish a national energy company. Meanwhile, 2022’s ScotWind leasing round auctioned the rights to develop offshore wind projects to multinational corporations – including BP and Shell – for a pittance. Unsurprisingly, promises of domestic investment from the victorious corporate bidders have also been disregarded. Jobs have been outsourced and profit offshored.
Early in 2023 the Scottish Government heralded the arrival of two ‘Green Freeports’. These ‘free enterprise zones’ will provide low-tax, deregulated playgrounds for private capital, offering multinational corporations an opportunity to slash worker’s wages, terms and conditions. In March, the first tax exemption was announced. What is ‘green’ about them remains to be seen.
During the SNP leadership contest, the Scottish Government struck a £2bn deal with private finance for “landscape scale woodland restoration.” Hampden and Co, the Edinburgh-based bank, will bridge a ‘finance gap’ by providing already well-subsidised landowners with capital for tree planting and carbon sequestration. The deal is a windfall for all involved, except the public, who are left subsiding the profits of private capital.
These are just a few examples of a pattern apparently inherent to the Scottish Government’s climate response. Within the Scottish Parliament, few MSP’s are prepared to question, never mind argue for an alternative to, the free market’s ‘solutions’ to climate change. Debate on many of the decisions outlined above, if it has taken place at all, has not occurred in Holyrood, where the politics required to engage in the questions that these deals raise is undeniably absent. This makes it all the more imperative for those who believe saving the planet requires reorganising the economy to expose both the myth of green capitalism and the Scottish Government’s complicity. This Is Rigged’s action is far from a “farce” then, as it was described by the BBC’s Glen Campbell. Dismissive responses like this expose something far deeper, however.
In Scotland, democracy has been a mainstay of our national conversation for decades. Yet, This Is Rigged’s protest has exposed the narrow sense in which democracy is understood. The notion of sovereignty – whichever form it may take – receives general public support in the context of the national question. However, the demand for ownership of our future which underpins this support has not yet extended to backing for young activists demanding that their elected representatives defy the interests of private capital. Equally, this strength of feeling has not translated to Scotland’s freeports, which in avoiding regulation and transparency effectively escape democratic accountability.
This reality, in the context of a potentially receding independence debate, speaks to the need to break with the dominant understanding of sovereignty. Questions of ownership of the economy, the ability of the collective to affect change, the influence of private interest and the centralisation of power in the hands of the few must instead inform our debate. Otherwise, we risk the same alienation that Jimmy Reid famously defined as “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control.”
It’s for this very reason that This Is Rigged’s protest merits a stern defence from the left. There is, admittedly, a separate conversation to be had about the climate movement’s demand-focused model that asks for better from a system which conspires not to give it. However, the latest IPCC report warned “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” Given that, there is surely a responsibility to support the efforts of ‘This Is Rigged’ against those weaving false narratives of democratic disruption. After all, in that same Rectorial Address, Jimmy Reid pointed out an eternal truth which is worth repeating: “Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision making by the people for the people.”