The SNP’s hate crime bill has done plenty of damage to the party’s credibility. But it seems the party leadership is determined to make matters even worse.
The Scottish government has announced that it will withdraw an amendment to the bill that would have permitted free speech on transgender issues. This move, a capitulation to activists, puts fears about the legislation back at an all-time high. The trans debate is already one in which it is difficult to speak out for fear of being abused, so providing for free speech on this topic is critical. Failing to do so could leave people, and women in particular, open to accusations of ‘stirring up hatred’, merely for speaking their minds on issues like gender recognition reform, the protection of women-only spaces and the effects of trans ideology on young girls.
This was, after all, why the amendment was tabled in the first place. For months, women’s groups and others have worried that speech on trans issues could be caught up by this bill. The amendment would have mitigated this risk by permitting ‘discussion or criticism’ of transgender identity. It was widely welcomed and looked set to pass.
Now, instead of this sensible proposal, justice minister Humza Yousaf has pledged to build ‘consensus’ around a new free speech clause that covers all the characteristics listed in the bill: age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.
Good luck with that: coming up with a clause that allows robust speech on topics associated with these characteristics will be no easy task. In all likelihood, the final clause will be watery, ill-defined and wide open to abuse. It will satisfy no-one and anger everyone.
The government’s trans amendment was simple, reasonable and inoffensive. Yet it was too much for some trans activists. Hours after the amendment was lodged, Yousaf was accused of creating a 'transphobes charter'. Before long, the First Minister herself had issued a statement over perceived transphobia within the party. Now, the amendment has been withdrawn.
So who holds the levers of power at Holyrood? Not the elected government of Scotland, it would seem, if the SNP’s capitulation over this matter is anything to go on.
The saga over this amendment is utterly depressing. Over the past twelve months, the SNP has repeatedly assured Scots that free speech is important to them. Protecting freedom of speech and tackling hate crime 'do not have to be mutually exclusive', Yousaf has said. Yet all it took for the government to remove a vital free speech protection was a flurry of angry tweets.
This hate crime bill is flawed because it threatens to hand vocal minorities a tool with which to bash their opponents by alleging hatred. The government of Scotland is already cowering in the face of trans activists for fear of being viewed as hateful. So how will the police and the courts behave in the face of this same pressure from activists when the government’s vague hate crime legislation reaches the books? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Let’s be clear: nobody involved in this debate is advocating hatred against trans people. Trans people, just like other people, are entitled to live their lives free from abuse. But what critics of this legislation fear is that the right to challenge ideas – be it ‘transgender ideology' or anything else – in a democratic society could become difficult if this bill passes.