Devolution is coming of age. It was twenty-one years ago that the Scottish Parliament first opened its doors and its 129 elected members, including myself, were sworn in. For all the puffed-up self-congratulation that appears regularly in the Scottish media, the truth has to be faced: it has in most part been, to borrow a phrase from Arthur Montford, a ‘disaster for Scotland.’
Even the most cursory research will show how the outcomes of many Scottish public services are now worse than when delivered by Scottish MPs running the Scottish Office. In particular, Scotland’s most important achievement – of providing an education system envied throughout the rest of the UK and far overseas as well – now in ruins. So poor are the outcomes now for Scotland’s home ruled children that the SNP government no longer takes part in some international studies and does not publish information on literacy or numeracy. Castro’s Cuba was never so secretive.
Like boiling a frog, the victim hardly noticed the gradual but pervasive creep of control
Labour’s devolution masterplan was politically self-serving and designed to see off the SNP threat in its heartlands. But now Scottish Labour lies prostrate after being eviscerated by the secessionists time and again, and was pushed into third place behind the more stridently unionist Tories. If ever a prophecy has been turned on its head it must be that of former Labour Scottish Secretary, George Robertson who said in 1995, while in opposition, ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.’
Yet while the record of devolution – and especially the SNP over the last thirteen years of its rule – in public services, economic growth and controlling the deficit – is scandalous, the greatest change is how the Scottish state has become more centralised, with, for example, national police and fire services. And, hand in hand with this, an open effort to manipulate people’s lives. Like boiling a frog, the victim has hardly noticed the gradual but pervasive creep of control coming first from Alex Salmond but then superheated by Nicola Sturgeon.
The first obvious sign of the SNP’s desire to control people’s behaviour was the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which dictated what songs could or could not be sung at football matches. In its original form it was admitted singing the national anthem when attending football could possibly be judged as breaching the law. Another SNP policy was its attempt to appoint a public sector ‘named person’ as a state guardian for every child up until the age of eighteen (even though at the same time awarding sixteen and seventeen-year-olds the opportunity to vote). Fortunately the Offensive Behaviour Act was repealed when the SNP lost its overall majority in 2016 and the named persons policy was withdrawn after a successful challenge in court drove the parliamentary procedures into the sand.
An utter lack of contrition characterised the SNP’s determination to defend both these state controls at every stage of public objection.
Now, other than the threat of secession itself, Scottish people are being put most at peril by the SNP’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, described by Dundee criminologist Stuart Waiton as ‘possibly the most authoritarian act in any liberal democracy across the world.’ It cannot be said clearly enough: if a government abroad was doing this – Orban, say, in Hungary – all English-speaking, right-thinking people would be up in arms because of it. But since it’s happening in devolved Scotland, complacent English liberals, in politics and the press alike, just patronisingly pat the Nats on the head and pay no attention to what they’re actually doing.
If passed in its current form, Sturgeon’s bill will build on current hate crime legislation by adding new categories of those who can take offence and report their concerns to the police, new places where this offence-taking can happen, and it even includes the prospect of criminalising actors for what they say on stage.
The list of ‘hate’ protected groups will now cover characteristics of race, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity, while the SNP intends to add sex or gender to this list in future. It also makes ‘abusive’ speech a crime in and of itself, when applied to any of the foregoing protected groups – including speech and materials in one’s own home. Not just individuals but organisations will be scrutinised, including the media and universities. The restrictions are so badly framed that the final decisions will be left to courts to define and decide.
Beyond the virtue signalling to harvest votes of minority groups, why are the nationalists doing this?
First it has to be understood that the SNP has had these tendencies in its völkisch DNA. In its embryonic form it campaigned against conscription to fight the Nazis and its eventual leader of 1960-69, Arthur Donaldson, wrote of the SNP becoming Scotland’s Vichy rulers once England was defeated by Hitler. He was interred for six weeks during the War before being released without charge and despite his allegiances there is still an annual lecture in his name at the SNP conference. Perhaps we should start judging ‘progressive’ politicians like Nicola Sturgeon on the heroes of theirs that they very pointedly don’t cancel?
Nowadays the SNP so beloved by liberals outside Scotland is defined by its strict internal discipline and love of secrecy. Elected politicians who are even modestly critical of the party or its leadership can expect to be immediately suspended. When potentially sensitive government meetings are held SNP ministers often have no minutes taken while Nicola Sturgeon sought to double the maximum response time Freedom of Information requests require (only to lose the vote in Holyrood).
The fear that even mild criticism of nationalist figures may led to a criminal records is tangible
Already the Scottish print and broadcast media is in most part cowed; reports of bullying editors to change or suppress stories are commonplace; STV tweeted out a video of children thanking the First Minister Sturgeon as if it were North Korea; the BBC produced an excoriating documentary of the SNP government’s care home pandemic scandal – but broadcast it at 10.45pm on a Tuesday night rather than the prime time that the greatest avoidable cause of Covid-19 death deserved.
What search for the truth will exist if this Bill’s restrictions on free speech become law?
The irony that this anti-hate Bill is published at the same time SNP politicians who deny racialism yet parrot Scottish exceptionalism, while encouraging xenophobic anti-English protests at the border, is not lost on opponents. The fear that even mild criticism of nationalist figures or policies may end up leading to criminal records is tangible.
The possibility of being able to intimidate opponents into silence during the run-up to a referendum, or to take control of debate and discussion were Scotland to secede, cannot be ruled out as a motive given the SNP’s past and current support for censorship.
The SNP is however given a free pass by many NGOs that would otherwise be critical were such powers being sought by a Berlusconi, an Orban or a Trump. By its constant virtue signalling via social media the SNP asserts itself as Clan Chief of Wokeness and, oblivious to how the new powers might one day be used against them, they duly rally to the waving of saltires.
Will the Bill pass? The chances are that it shall – thanks as ever to the Green Party, whose members give Sturgeon her working majority and are known pejoratively as the SNP’s gardening section. Fortunately there is an extra-parliamentary campaign ‘Free to Disagree’ that hopes to put backbone into opposition MSPs and give the public a voice to defend their liberties of speech and expression.
Without such groups, where Scotland will be in twenty-one more years is the stuff of nightmares. And nightmares we may not, by law, be allowed to talk about by day.
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