The saga of the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill is drawing to a conclusion. This week, Holyrood will cast a decisive vote on the embattled bill. Introduced just ten months ago, it seeks to consolidate existing hate crime laws and create new offences on the ‘stirring up of hatred’ against certain groups. These proposals would make ‘threatening or abusive’ behaviour which ‘stirs up hatred’ on the grounds of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics a criminal offence, punishable by up to seven years in prison, an unlimited fine or, for the extremely unfortunate, both.
The proposals have proved highly controversial and understandably so. In our society, the term ‘hatred’ is malleable. It means very different things to different people. Many accusations of ‘hatred’ don’t exactly chime with the dictionary definition of the word which, by the way, is ‘an extremely strong feeling of dislike’. Not merely ‘dislike’, not ‘disagreement’ and not ‘dismissal’ of one’s views.
Soon after the SNP’s proposals were published, a diverse and somewhat unlikely array of critics emerged: the police, lawyers, academics, journalists, actors, authors, comedians, churches, secularists, civil liberties groups and feminists. These groups warned that the ‘stirring up’ offences were vague and far-reaching. They risked casting the net too widely and eroding freedom of expression.
In response to this initial firestorm of criticism, which even encompassed the likes of Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, and author and pal of Nicola Sturgeon Val McDermid, the government made several concessions.
In September, Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf announced that committing a stirring up offence should require ‘intent’ on the part of an offender. As originally drafted, mere ‘likelihood’ of stirring up hatred was all that was required for a prosecution – an alarmingly low threshold.
Two months later, after the publication of a critical parliamentary report on the plans, Yousaf conceded more changes.