Reactions to Violence

In 2005, when the neoliberal circus of the G8 was held in Gleneagles, the Scottish left organised through the G8Alternatives (G8A) coalition and achieved a degree of (strained) unity between various left factions, Green and Socialist politicians, democratic socialists, trades unions and left-leaning environmental and anti-poverty NGOs. The coalition did not include the Anarchists who organised separately through Dissent!, or many of the more liberal NGOs who felt more comfortable in Make Poverty History. It also, with few exceptions, did not include a mobilisation of the primary victims of neoliberalism, the poorest section of the working class. The experience of resistance to the G8 left a series of lessons from which the left in Scotland needs to learn, concerning nonviolence, class and civil society.

A crucial event in the preparation for the G8 was G8A’s response to the usual media’s scaremongering that protests would inevitably lead to violence. Representatives from G8A arranged a press conference and pledged their commitment to nonviolence. As Friends of the Earth, for whom I worked at the time, was a member of G8A and a key participant in the press conference, I was enthused, and looked forward to the development of a strategy of nonviolent resistance to the neoliberal bandwagon which was about to ride into town. I was disappointed. Its public advocates merely reproduced the common misunderstanding that nonviolence simply means ‘avoiding violence’.

For the first decade of the 21st century, the Scottish Centre for Nonviolence resourced activists through a wide range of educational, training and support functions. The founders of the Centre, Helen Steven, Peace worker for the Iona Community, and her partner Ellen Moxley were to be awarded the Gandhi International Peace Award for their lifetime’s work challenging nuclear weapons and other forms of militarism through their strong commitment, sophisticated analysis and practical implementation of nonviolence. After it closed, resources for the Scottish Centre were passed to Scotland’s for Peace, a coalition of civil society groups committed to removing weapons of mass destruction from Scotland. The UK, which with France constitutes Europe’s the nuclear weapons states, maintains its nuclear arsenal in Scotland at Faslane, where a peace camp has been active for nearly 30 years.

The Scottish Centre for Nonviolence contributed to the skills and intelligence used by many activists who have invaded, blockaded, disrupted and decorated the Faslane home of the UK’s weapons of mass destruction, as well as other activists whose direct action has been focused on the perpetrators of militarism, colonialism and environmental destruction. As was demonstrated by G8A however, nonviolence remains misunderstood as meaning little more than the avoidance of violence during protests. The growth of ‘Nonviolent Direct Action’, important though this is to the politics of dissent, has somewhat distracted from the core lessons of the nonviolence of M.K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, which we would do well to refresh.

For Gandhi and King, nonviolence involved mobilising the oppressed and revealing the violence inherent in their oppression. As a result of the movements that they led, British colonialism and American segregation were exposed as the brutal shoring up of privilege which they are. The sham claims of benign or paternalistic motives in the interests of Indian ‘untouchables’ or African Americans collapsed.

Nonviolence is not just the avoidance of violence, it is the opposite of violence, it is anti-violence. In 1930 when Gandhi and his followers marched to collect salt in breach of the British colonial salt tax, they deliberately provoked a violent response as police beat the protesters and they refused to react. King’s black students deliberately rode the Greyhound buses through areas controlled by the Ku Klux Klan and overtly racist police forces, knowing that they would provoke violence. Nonviolence does not avoid violence. Nonviolence removes the sticking plaster over oppression and touches the wound so that it hurts.

In Scotland, the task of a nonviolent movement is to identify oppressions whose violence is hidden, and to provoke it to expose itself.

But Gandhi and King also used nonviolence as a mobilising tool for the oppressed. The advocates of nonviolence in Scotland are generally not those who are experiencing the worst of oppression. We are the middle class, educated professionals who populate the NGOs. Whilst there are honourable exceptions, the primary victims of oppression, those who experience poverty, are left out of the movement for nonviolent resistance. Work is needed to build and maintain alliances between the civil society and those at the sharp end of oppression.

For example, when Scottish devolution was confirmed, Friends of the Earth Scotland launched its campaign for environmental justice and a fledgling environmental justice movement was mobilised. The campaign combined traditional policy lobbying with mobilisation amongst those experiencing the worst pollution – primarily those also experiencing social and economic injustice. This took Friends of the Earth out of its comfort zone, for a while, as it responded to the needs of those living in poor housing on contaminated land beside polluting operations, often working for low wages in polluted workplace environments.

When he came to power, the Labour First Minister Jack McConnell was persuaded to adopt policy on environmental justice, with a view to challenging the pollution of the poor. Research sponsored by the Scottish Executive confirmed correlations between social deprivation and key sources of environmental damage: industrial pollution, extractive industry, contaminated land and water and air pollution (Fairburn, 2005). During that time, a major legislative opportunity emerged to deliver environmental justice on the ground, in the Executive-sponsored Planning Bill. When it was eventually passed in 2006, whilst it included some concessions to communities who would be affected by polluting developments, it essentially reflected the interests of business. Civil society and affected communities combined had failed to match the influence of business on a Labour-led coalition Executive.

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s approach to environmental justice won support from radical environmentalists across the world, through its attempt to synthesise local environmental injustices with the global and intergenerational. Scotland’s resource consumption remains between three and 10 times higher than a globally equitable distribution would demand but our natural resource base could be used, with appropriate investment, to reduce this considerably.

However, since the election of the SNP minority government in 2007, Friends of the Earth drew back from leading an environmental justice movement and focused more on its membership’s priorities of a more technical approach to climate change and green lifestyle initiatives. The environmental justice movement became even more fragmented but continued through the activities of diverse groups including Scottish Hazards Campaign, Scottish Coal Action Group, Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland (GAINS), Planning Democracy, Scottish Friends of Bhopal and the cross-border network So We Stand.

The experience of Friends of the Earth resonates with many left-leaning civil society organisations, seeking to advocate on behalf of the working class victims of poverty, with a supporter base in the professional middle class. Civil society needs to be an important component of movements for social justice in Scotland, yet as with the state, civil society is highly contested terrain. Scottish civil society maintained a strong if conservative identity during the union of the parliaments through its soft nationalism of Kirk, law, education and media. More progressive elements of civil society were behind the push for, and ultimate shape of, devolved political structures through the Scottish Constitutional Convention, Consultative Steering Group and Civic Forum. However, civil society’s radical wing remains fragmented, often transitory and disconnected from the people with most at stake in a transformed Scottish future. A degree of incorporation of civil society into the corridors of power can lead to partial but significant successes, as has been demonstrated by the women’s movement’s achievements in government policy on violence against. However, the