Burns, Hume, Adam Smith, and others who shone in that remarkable intellectual period in Scotland’s history, were not the cradle of the Enlightenment; but it is indisputable that they were major contributors to its emergence and influence. Now, north of the border, the Scottish government has set out to divorce us from the heritage those minds gave us: to be unafraid of, indeed willing, to discuss, probe, dispute ideas and thoughts in the liberating realm of fearless free speech.
Scots are now locked in a woke chamber: virtue signalling, pandering to perceived victimhood, punishing any who assert biological fact, placing a halter of criminality on free thought when articulated by speech, abandoning common sense. It is all there in the Scottish government’s hate crime and public order bill. From the towering height of the Enlightenment, the Scottish nation’s leaders have fallen to a low where intellectual rigour is not only an unknown concept, but can put those who practice it in the clink.
As the Soviet Union showed, as does China today, and as did the Vatican over many centuries, totalitarians seek to create a dislocation between thought and speech, thus eliminating 'incorrect thinking'. Now the democracies are travelling down that road requiring us to check our thoughts before articulating them, in order not to fall into the sin of 'thought crime'. So, no one should be surprised by the hate crime bill’s aim to mould our thoughts through the medium of the criminal law, so that the range of our speech is limited to what state organs regard as acceptable.
We have been here before in Scotland, with a law meant, not to make us thinking people, but better ones. That was the threatening behaviour at football and threatening communications act 2012, in response to Rangers and Celtic supporters hurling insults at each other four times a year. It was meant to take sectarianism out of Scottish society. Some of the stuff at old firm games is vile, but breach of the peace has always been available when it got to an alarming level, and a combination of common and statute law was applied when violence took place. A senior policeman once told me that heavy rain was the best remedy of all.
Opinion polls showed public support for that act. Who wouldn’t want to end our sectarian shame? There were hundreds charged and a large number of convictions. But it didn’t work. Celtic fans still sing Irish rebel songs, and Rangers ones continue to insult the Pope. As the Herald newspaper explained: ‘Scotland cannot arrest its way out of sectarianism.’ The police interpretation of the act could be bizarre, with one fan questioned for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt. A sheriff (judge) described the Act as 'mince'. It came to be seen as a stupid act which, in employing the law to curb behaviour and speech that might be offensive, but not criminal, was counter-productive. The Holyrood parliament finally caved in to reality, and it was repealed in 2018.
But here we are again. Another dose of finger wagging use of the criminal law to make us better people – that is devoid of passion and afraid of debate. The act casts its net wide both in terms of who can claim to be a victim, and who can be caught. The definition of hate crime expands to include ‘aggravation of offences by prejudice.’ There does not need to be a ‘specific’ individual ‘victim,’ seven groups qualify for that distinction, and organisations as well as individuals can be charged as perpetrators. Actors, directors, writers, promoters of plays better watch out, and columnists cartoonists, song writers, stand up comics and bloggers too. Yes voters in 2014 who blamed the old for defeat, and rejoiced that they would die off before next one, and Remains in 2016 who blamed them for Brexit, better watch what they say in future.
Scottish ministers can add, by regulation, to the list of ‘victims.’ It seems they are thinking of ranking misogyny as a crime. No more toast to the lassies at Burns suppers. Too risky to quote the Bard, and all those jokes, well, better not. As for Shakespeare, no English theatre company should come up here to perform Macbeth; not with the lines ‘Stands Scotland where she did? Alas poor country!....almost afraid to know itself.’ Obviously a typical English insult. You can just see Nicola demanding action under clause 1 (1) (b) and 3 (ii) (b) (ii), the latter protecting us from ‘insulting’ communications liable to stir up hatred.
If this bill passes, we shall in future hear in Scottish courts the infamous Joe McCarthy question: ‘Are you, or have you ever been’ prejudiced against a whole series of groups? Scottish ministers boast of repealing the old law of blasphemy, but are blind to creating new heresies for a new blasphemy law, much wider in its sweep and more injurious to free thinking and free speech, than the old one.
Jim Sillars is former deputy leader of the SNP