protest

Will Moving Trump's UK Visit to a Remote Scottish Island Stop Protesters?

Last week it was announced that the visit had been pushed to October and that it would be moved to the Queen's private estate in Aberdeenshire to "deter protests."
March 6, 2017, 12:34pm

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

It didn't take long for protesters to kick into gear after it was announced in January that Donald Trump had been invited for a state visit to the UK. The president will be met by the "biggest protest against racism and hatred in our country's history," activists warned, while nearly 2 million signed a petition against Trump receiving the honor.

Last week, it emerged that the visit has been pushed back until October and, in a further twist, that it could be moved to Scotland. Apparently, this is to "deter protests" and avoid a repeat of the huge demonstrations seen in cities across the UK in January.

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Of course, nothing could be funnier, given that everyone knows Scotland is the place that has been hating on Trump since long before it was cool. It's the country where Mexican flags have been hoisted over his property, where he had that unfortunate incident involving a balloon, and where a woman who pissed on his golf course is suing him, rather than the other way around.

Game on, in other words. However, with reports suggesting that the state visit will be held at Balmoral, the Queen's private estate in Aberdeenshire, the logistics could prove difficult. The royal retreat is far from accessible, being an hour's drive west of Aberdeen and two hours from Glasgow or Edinburgh. There is only one road through the area and virtually no public transportation, and 50,000 acres of moorland and woods, plus a large river, surrounds the castle.

If Trump really is going to face one of the largest protests in British history when he arrives, how close is anyone going to be able to get to him? Should protesters give up on disrupting the visit and settle for marching in a major city instead?

There is, actually, a precedent for this sort of heavily fortified spectacle unfolding in a remote corner of Scotland. In July 2005, the world's most powerful leaders gathered at the Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire for the G8 summit, now best remembered as the motivation for the Make Poverty History campaign of Bono and white wristbands. However, some decided to go a step further than holding a concert in Wembley and were determined to take protests to the summit door.

Officers drafted in by helicopter make their way to a breach in the security fence at Auchterarder surrounding the G8 summit at Gleneagles after protesters tore down some of the panels. Photo by John Giles/PA Archive/PA Images

What followed was one of the largest security operations in British history. Ten thousand police officers were drafted in, miles of perimeter fencing and watch towers were erected, and an American aircraft carrier full of Marines docked off the Scottish coast. Schedules were cleared in Edinburgh courtrooms in expectation of high arrest numbers.

I spoke to a number of people who were at the 2005 protests to see what might be store for demonstrators during a Trump trip to Balmoral. The right to hold a march near the G8 summit was in itself hard fought, initially denied by the authorities and the subject of a long-running campaign. Despite its success, hundreds were still prevented from attending.

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Donnie Nicolson—then an Edinburgh-based activist—was with a series of buses that were prevented from leaving the city on its way to the protest. "Police vans and large numbers of cops in riot gear physically blocked the roads," he said. "This was immensely frustrating for many of us, who had campaigned in Parliament and won the legal right to hold a demonstration."

A range of approaches were used in protesting the summit, with some groups attempting to block roads leading to the venue. Although dignitaries were helicoptered in and out, this tactic had some success in preventing other staff, like caterers, from reaching Gleneagles.

"The blockades happened very early in the morning, with groups walking through the hills and attempting to avoid surveillance, although sometimes running into the military or police on land and in helicopters," said one anarchist activist, who was arrested during a motorway blockade. "The plan was to get as close to Gleneagles as possible."

When thousands of protesters turned up for an agreed march in a village close to the venue, they found the site on lockdown. "It was the largest number of police officers I've ever seen together in one place," said Marc Livingstone, who had traveled to Gleneagles with a few friends. "Ordinary uniforms, riot police, mounted police. Chinook helicopters were ferrying police around the location and flying over the protest—at times so close that we could feel the blast of air from the rotor blades."

Rebel Clown Army recruits. Photo by Simon Whittle

At one stage, however, a large section of the demonstration did manage to break off and began charging through fields to reach the hotel.

"There was a token resistance by the police to people getting into the field, which only became apparent later," said a member of the summit's Rebel Clown Army, a group who was a common site at protests in the 2000s. "I followed my crew into the field, and it became surreal. Chinook military helicopters started to arrive, disgorging riot police inside the Gleneagles fence, which was now breached."

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Afterward, as pictures of scuffles in the field dominated media coverage, there was a perception among some protesters that they had been set up.

A BBC reporter wrote at the time: "It looked to me as though the police knew all along that some would head for the fence from that point just in front of the BBC's camera position and commanders on the ground would have time to know how to deploy to stop an assault on the ring of steel."

A similar kind of frenzy may well unfold when Trump has his first visit to the UK as president, with thousands of protesters, police, and an expectant media descending on northeast Scotland. Anti-Trump campaigners have confirmed to VICE that they are already beginning early preparations for the occasion, although the precise details of the state visit are yet to be confirmed. But if he does end up at the royals' Grampian retreat, there will be a lot of expectation that Scotland will live up to its Trump-hating reputation. Whether the demonstrations will reach the scale or intensity of the anti-G8 actions in 2005 remains to be seen. If so, it may be a rough ride for all involved.

Lead photo: Anti-Trump protesters in Scotland. Photo by Colin Hattersley via Wikimedia

Follow Liam Turbett on Twitter.