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This is Rigged’s Scottish Parliament paint protest was no stroke of genius

Police Scotland officers attend the protest at the Scottish Parliament. Pic: Chris Marshall

This is Rigged’s Scottish Parliament paint protest was no stroke of genius

Even as oil and gas protesters pelted the public entrance of the Scottish Parliament with paint, out came a man with a hose to start spraying it off. 

The red splatter was watered down before it had the chance to set. It was practically a metaphor. Because the message the four activists from This Is Rigged wanted to send hasn't made the splash they intended it to.

Despite muted welcome, there's been something of a collective sigh, or perhaps a collective grimace over the Tuesday afternoon paint party at the parliament's public entrance, even amongst some other fossil fuel activists. "You are targeting the wrong government," said Aberdeen councillor Kairin van Sweeden, who took the UK Government to court over oil and gas subsidies in a high profile case just two years ago. "Please put your energy into targeting those with the real power here, the monetarily sovereign Westminster government."

Van Sweeden wasn't alone in her sentiment. When This Is Rigged shared footage of their act online, with four members arrested and charged, plenty of commenters questioned why the group had gone after the devolved government and not the one in charge of oil and gas extraction - especially when its Edinburgh offices at Queen Elizabeth House were just half a mile away. Facilities staff there must have clutched their squeegees in relief when they realised their glass doors were to be left smear-free.

There was some explanation by the group. Yes, the action followed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's announcement in favour of at least 100 new oil and gas licences, they said, but the Scottish Government's silence on new oil and gas is "deafening." "They must vocally oppose all new oil and gas or they are complicit," the group said in a statement.

Being vocal is something This Is Rigged knows all about. Indeed, its noisy outbursts from the public gallery were so successful in disrupting First Minister's Questions that new security restrictions were introduced for all visitors to the session. Mobile phones must now be locked up outside the chamber, tickets cannot be booked without names and addresses, admission is denied without ID.

Bringing those rules in, Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone called them "deeply regrettable". After all, the accessibility of the parliament is rightly championed by parliamentary authorities and MSPs alike. Unlike Westminster, there is no ring of steel around the cavernous, labyrinthine building; visitors can simply walk in off the street and we are often reminded by those with seats in the chamber that theirs is the 'people's parliament'. But on Tuesday afternoon the building was closed to the public and its free tours were cancelled. As Police Scotland officers approached the protestors, tourists who'd planned to pop in wondered what was going on. They weren't the only ones.

Direct action has become a feature of environmental protest thanks to groups like Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and Animal Rebellion, which are variously known for stopping traffic, splashing soup on paintings and pouring out pints of milk in supermarkets. And in forcing tighter restrictions on access to Holyrood, the tactics favoured by This Is Rigged have succeeded in effecting some change, but one of those changes is a six-month ban on attending parliament for each member who has disrupted proceedings there. That's not exactly the target it was aiming for.

And in effectively locking themselves and everyone else out of the building, aren't they painting themselves into a corner? Successful protest movements build consensus and take the public with them because they're as well-targeted as they are well-intentioned. That's not the case here. 

During a summer in which the impact of climate change is becoming ever more apparent, Sunak's announcement has drawn considerable heat and there are legitimate questions about the Scottish Government's response to the climate crisis after several missed emissions targets, as well as its approach to Just Transition. But on oil and gas licences, they are the wrong target and if This Is Rigged really wants to build public pressure against further extraction, it needs to go back to the drawing board.

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