The SNP’s Hate Crime Bill seems to have created a rare consensus in Scotland, with just about everybody agreeing that it is at best naïve and at worst plain dangerous.
The legislation, which aims to outlaw speech that is likely to stir up hatred, could charitably be regarded as well-meaning.
The Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf, said the Scottish Government was aiming for zero tolerance of hate crime, which is increasing in Scotland. The problem with his new law, however, is that in trying to make bad people nicer it will also potentially make good people villains.
If passed, the bill will criminalise those judged to have spoken abusively or offensively, and could imprison them for up to seven years. It goes further than similar laws in England and Wales, where intent has to be established for a person to be criminalised for their behaviour.
Critics of the bill have focused on its challenge to freedom of speech – a right preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights – if the measures are enacted in their current form.
Shut down debate
In fact, the proposals are so extreme, and so open to interpretation, that they would effectively shut down debate on every controversy.
The comments made by JK Rowling on transgender rights could be classified as a hate crime, as could a comedian’s jokes, a minister’s sermons – or a newspaper columnist’s invective.
The free exchange of ideas is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, empowering individuals to question the state and hold it to account.
Yet this right is being steadily eroded in democratic societies like ours, not by laws but by campaigns of intimidation, on social media and in the wider community.
A recent study found that academics with right wing or pro-Brexit views are self-censoring for fear of being ostracised in a growing climate of discrimination.
The Policy Exchange think tank reported that university professors on the right, a minority group, were refraining from publishing or airing their opinions for “fear of the consequences” to their careers.
Victims of no-platforming
There may be little sympathy for these dons on their campuses, but they have fallen prey to the same brand of intolerance that has also silenced firebrands such as Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, both victims of no-platforming.
Whatever your attitude to any of the above, once it becomes acceptable to undermine the sanctity of freedom of speech, then anyone or any point of view is fair game.
Perhaps the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill might have achieved more support if it had sought to target a specific Scottish problem: the spreaders of hate in its own movement, for example.
If it could stifle once and for all the most toxic elements of Scottish nationalism and make stirring up hatred of unionists a crime, it might not be a complete waste of time. But that is a political perspective.
The most learned opponents of the bill have slayed it as being “wholly unnecessary” because in the existing hate crime legislation, judges already deal more severely with offenders if they are motivated by, say, race or religion.
Alistair Bonnington, former honorary professor of law at Glasgow University – and Nicola Sturgeon’s one-time lecturer – slammed the legislation as “daft” as well as naïve.
“This is yet another example of the SNP’s failure to understand fundamental principles of Scots law,” he said this week, referencing other instances of “stupidity”, such as the Named Persons legislation and the “outstandingly idiotic” law forbidding sectarian singing at football matches, which was later rescinded.
“Fundamental human rights freedoms, such as free speech, are not understood or respected by the Scottish government,” he said.
Opponents of the bill
Among those who agree with him are the Law Society of Scotland, the Catholic Church – which fears the bill would criminalise possession of the Bible, the National Secular Society, and the Scottish Police Federation, which warned that the legislation would see officers policing speech.
“The bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private,” said the federation’s general secretary Callum Steele.
How can the SNP counter such diverse and well-informed opposition? Its only course now is to abandon this frightening law completely.
But the fact that the bill has even reached this stage should be a wake-up call that the present government cannot be trusted with what it terms our “shared freedoms”.
A nationalist regime by definition seeks to shape public opinion in its own image and its notion of prejudice is not necessarily objective.
To avoid slippage into the scarier territory of historic nationalist movements, that banned outright what they did not like, Scots must stand up to this unprecedented threat to their freedom and demand their right to speak their minds.