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  1. Politics
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3 April 2024

JK Rowling is right to scorn Scotland’s new Hate Crime Act

The SNP sees itself as a vanguard of progressive values. But this priggish law is at odds with the notion of a free society.

By Finn McRedmond

The town of Salem, Massachusetts, has become synonymous with the witch hunt, but between the 16th and 18th centuries the Scottish engaged in the persecution of witches at a rate far higher than their American counterparts. Thousands of women were tried, many burned and killed. A mode of censoriousness – and keen policing of the public realm – is written deep into the contours of Scottish history.

This historical episode is a simple explanation for how Scotland earned its reputation for vituperative puritanism. The introduction of the Hate Crime and Public Order Act on 1 April will do little to disabuse the world of this prejudice. The legislation criminalises “threatening or abusive behaviour” intended to stir “hatred” at certain groups, defined by age, disability, sexual orientation, religion and transgender identity. The bar for offence under the act is anything a “reasonable person would consider to be threatening or abusive”. Private conversations held in one’s home are fair game under the act.

Similar proposed legislation in Ireland has been set aside for now: the resignation of Leo Varadkar and more pressing anxieties on immigration have taken precedence. Now, the reception of the Hate Crime Act in Scotland might cause the government to abandon it altogether.

The disquiet at the new measures has been predictable: the Scottish broadcaster Andrew Neil proclaims the law an “Orwellian nightmare”; the Economist suggests it will have a “chilling effect on free speech”. There is general concern that the act will be vulnerable to malicious weaponisation by activist groups, and that it might overwhelm an already beleaguered and underperforming police force. The appointment of 500 so-called hate crime champions and the establishment of “third-party reporting centres” have a distinctly dystopian hum.

Defenders of the measures – namely its progenitors in the Scottish National Party – are insistent that this is mere overreaction to a well-intentioned law. The SNP leader Humza Yousaf has tried to mollify anxieties with the claim that the threshold for prosecution will be “very high”. The Scottish Victims and Community Safety Minister, Siobhian Brown, has offered her own reassurance: “You have to be really threatening and abusive” to be convicted of a crime, she said.

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These woolly definitions of what constitutes “hate” do little to ease fears. Even if the rate of prosecutions is low, critics are unified: the mere existence of the legislation will create a climate of self-censorship and snitching, indirect penalisation of dissent and a flattened culture of one-note social liberalism. Exactly what this will mean for Scotland’s artistic production – not least the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – will soon be seen.

At the centre of the debate, as is so often the case, sits JK Rowling. The looming concern for Rowling and other gender-critical feminists is simple: being transgender is listed among the protected characteristics, but there is no similar stipulation for women. “Freedom of speech and belief are at an end in Scotland if the accurate description of biological sex is deemed criminal,” Rowling said, before goading the Scottish police: “I look forward to being arrested when I return to [Scotland],” she posted, after tweeting a series of posts referring to transgender women as men. The Telegraph’s Suzanne Moore added: “Arrest us all!” Shock-jock journalist Douglas Murray said if they come for Rowling, “then they can come for all of us”. The romance of martyrdom remains a potent force.

The SNP – much like its fellow woke nationalists in Sinn Féin on the far side of the Irish Sea – has nonetheless come to see itself as a vanguard of progressive values. Both parties maintain pretensions of ultimate tolerance while demonstrating a rather superficial commitment to its tenets. In Scotland, this hypocrisy was on full display when Kate Forbes made a bid for the SNP leadership last year and was traduced because of her conservative religious values. The leader of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, marched under a banner that read “England get out of Ireland” on St Patrick’s Day in 2019.

In his history of puritanism, Hot Protestants, Michael Winship writes that John Knox – a luminary of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland – believed the role of Christians was to admonish and instruct their fellow citizens. The SNP’s Knoxian influence is stark. But equally as vital to Scotland’s intellectual history is its position as one of the centres of the European Enlightenment.

And so the nation is pulled between two ideological poles: puritanical laws at odds with Enlightenment values; one nation guided by Knox and another by 18th-century ideals of freedom and a rights-based order. It seems the SNP, with its priggish legislation, has not just disrupted the tenets established by the likes of David Hume and Adam Smith: it has taken a sledgehammer to them.

In 2018 Ireland voted by referendum to remove a ban on blasphemy from its constitution. It seemed like a capstone, marking the end of history, and the ultimate assertion of a liberalised country where there could be no possibility of a return to something more insidious. This is a dangerous and ill-founded assumption – in Ireland and elsewhere. In Scotland, the witch hunts continue in the form of a new mode of puritan excess.  

[See also: Scotland is missing elder statesmen]


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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown

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