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Hate Crime Act: Scotland can't legislate for tolerance when politicians fail to lead by example

Humza Yousaf’s efforts to make Scotland ‘Tory-free’ sit uneasily alongside legislation designed to tackle intolerance and bigotry.

This is my latest column in the Scotsman, published today, 2nd April 2024.

Idon’t watch much football on TV but a few weeks ago I found myself glued to an exciting quarter-final showdown between two leading English clubs, with contentious incidents, emotions running high, and a dramatic winner in the last seconds. It was frantic stuff but what impressed me most was not the football, but the demeanour of the opposing managers in the post-match interviews.

Both men were gracious about their opponents, reflecting on their own performances while complimenting their rivals. There was obviously a mutual respect between the managers, but I suspect there was more to it than that. Both certainly realised that their behaviour influenced many of their supporters. Knowing that their words counted, they aimed to set a good example. It was good to see, and a stark contrast with the recent behaviour of some of our political leaders.

About the same time, the First Minister of Scotland made a keynote speech at his party’s conference in which he declared his desire to eradicate an entire opposition party from our land. We should not been surprised I suppose, his predecessor had previously declared that she detested the same party. Regardless of the strength of political feeling, is this a respectful or inclusive way for a national leader to behave?

An understandable fear

Words matter for political leaders, even more than football managers. What kind of example was this intolerance setting, and what kind of respect does this show the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who happen to have different political views. In a progressive and inclusive Scotland, we surely deserve better.

Which brings me neatly to the latest legislation to regulate our behaviour. Holyrood’s recent record in drafting new legislation is, to say the least, undistinguished and the Hate Crime and Public Order Act 2021 seems to be no exception. It was apparently without irony that the new law came into being on April fool’s day, but its flaws were already apparent, drawing criticism from across the social and political spectrum.

The new law criminalises threatening or abusive behaviour that is intended to stir up hatred against people based on age, disability, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Note the word ‘intended’, for this is important, as is the omission of sex and political views as protected characteristics. The understandable fear is that the new law will be used as a cudgel by aggressive minorities to bludgeon critical views into silence.

Enough law

There will undoubtedly be some attempts to weaponise the new law and we can only hope that Police Scotland exercise maximum discretion to ensure the new legislation is not hijacked as a vehicle of spite and intolerance. For our police have more important things to do and are already inundated with fresh challenges.

Besides, there is already adequate provision in law to deal with abusive behaviour, with aggravations for certain categories of victim. In fact there is enough law, full stop. Our police and courts just need time and space to enforce them all.

The new hate legislation is another example of a solution looking for a problem, it will create division not heal it. The truth is that we cannot legislate for good manners or tolerance, only setting an example can do that.

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