Why resistance doesn’t have to be unconventional

In an age where resistance brings to mind images of banners, marches and the odd yellow reflective vest, there is still a case to be made for traditional channels of dissent.

In 2005, I started school at Arbirlot Primary, a school of 25 pupils, situated in the middle of the Scottish countryside. That same year, the local authority decided that they would shut the school, despite the devastating effect it would have on both the children and the community. As this video explains, Arbirlot itself is a village of no more than 25 houses with no shop, post office or pub: the school constituted the main hub of activity. From school plays to charity fundraising events: the whole village had a stake in ensuring its survival. So, what did we do? Down tools and march? Build barricades and set fire to the streets of Edinburgh? No. Parents and community members took the path of conventional resistance in response to what they saw as unfair action by the council

The community used the first method in any conventional resistance campaign by launching a petition in the Scottish Parliament later that same year, with the support of local representatives, demanding more scrutiny and accountability for councils that attempt to shut down countryside schools. This quickly gained nationwide support as it became clear that our village was not unique. In fact, in 2005 alone, 75 small and rural schools were under threat. The potential impact on the lives of children and communities alike could have been devastating. Furthermore, the arguments councils had for such action were often flawed and based on information which was simply untrue. Rather than relying solely on emotional arguments, campaigners carried out detailed analysis of the council’s reasoning and found concrete evidence

After busy years of meetings round my parent’s kitchen table and speaking to numerous other parents throughout Scotland, and appearances before parliamentary committees, this petition became law in 2010. This ensured that any council wishing to close a school had to do so through traditional channels and after full consultation with local people. It also resulted in the establishment of the Scottish Rural Schools Network (SRSN), which continues to support schools and communities facing similar problems to this day, as far afield as Tasmania, Australia!

However, it appeared that we had still not done enough as less than a year after the passing of the legislation, Arbirlot and several other schools loomed under the threat of closure once again. This time, the councils did carry out a full consultations.

I remember filling out the form with as much nuance as a 10-year-old could manage, to the effect that I and the 17 other pupils at that time wanted the school to remain open. Following the consultation process, to the surprise and dismay of everyone, the council said that they were going ahead with their plans and would close the school, uprooting all of the children currently studying there.

This is where the second method of conventional resistance comes in: Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

In the UK and many other democracies, citizens have the right to request access to much of the data used in decision making processes. SRSN made such a request and discovered the shocking yet incredibly amusing fact that 711 out of 865 completed online forms supporting the council’s plans had come from one computer – inside the local authority’s headquarters.

Not only that but, in an apparent  attempt to cover this up, some responses had been routed via an ex-Soviet base in Kazakhstan.

The exact details and technicalities of this still remain a compelling mystery, despite a police investigation. The revelation made it into the national newspaper, shaming both the council and its ruling party, and forcing the government to take action.

Photo: The Sun

To ensure such a scandal would not happen again, the coalition of parents returned to the government with a proposal: take the power of consultation away from the council and put it back into the hands of the people. In 2013, this became law and disputed school closure proposals must now go before an independent review panel made up of parents (including my own father) and experts who truly understand what is at stake in each case.

Why does this incredibly specific piece of legislation from rural Scotland matter? On a personal and perhaps selfish note, this process is part of the reason why I decided to study politics. I saw the positive effects that engagement in the political system and effective representatives (which I hope to be one day) can have on the demos in a democracy.

But secondly, and more importantly, I believe that it shows how conventional resistance can work and how, in my opinion, representative democracies should function. Democratic channels are there to be used and not enough people know the power that they, as citizens and voters, hold.

Where the options exist, do not discard conventional means of resistance. Picket and protest, but remember that democracy is for the people and by the people. Make use of the representatives you elected. Use the laws and rights your constitution has imbued every citizen with. Use every tool in the people’s arsenal.

If you really want to make concrete change in a democracy, be specific. Find concrete examples of things you disagree with, and see whether the conventional channels of change have truly failed or if they are merely neglected. Some of them may actually work.