SNP and Tory clampdowns on 'hate speech' and extremism descend into farce – Brian Wilson

The row over Tory donor Frank Hester’s alleged comments about black women blew up, with impeccable timing, just before Michael Gove published the government’s new definition of extremism

At both Holyrood and Westminster, clamping down on “hate speech” is flavour of the week. Who can be against it? Yet rapid collisions with reality have, in both jurisdictions, exposed the risks of legislation based on political opportunism.

The first of these is absurdity. In Scotland, we have very recently been told our centralised police force plans to no longer investigate “low-level crime” due to lack of resources. Police stations are closing by the score.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Yet we now have the same Police Scotland obliged to promise investigations into every “hate speech” complaint lodged at 300 “reporting centres”. When you have the Glasgow sex shop and the North Berwick mushroom farm, who needs police stations?

Fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker would have been furious over the row involving Tory donor Frank Hester (Picture: BBC/Mike Hogan)Fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker would have been furious over the row involving Tory donor Frank Hester (Picture: BBC/Mike Hogan)
Fictional spin doctor Malcolm Tucker would have been furious over the row involving Tory donor Frank Hester (Picture: BBC/Mike Hogan)

‘Recipe for disaster’

Nothing seems to have been learned from the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act debacle when comparable legislation proved as unenforceable as it was redundant. All such offences are already covered by legislation if the will and resources exist to prosecute them. They don’t, as can be regularly witnessed.

Piling on another layer of legislation is, as the Scottish Police Federation say, “a recipe for disaster” creating an undeliverable expectation. Joanna Cherry KC, MP predicts the Act will be “weaponised” by the trans lobby and other well organised interest groups. Of course it will.

Freedom of legitimate expression in some areas of controversy will be inhibited while entrenched prejudices which pervade Scotland will continue to be ignored or excused. Changing that will be driven through education which is a long, hard process that gains no headlines allied to existing sanctions which are available but largely unused.

The new legislation is a waste of time and will, in due course, go the same way as its predecessor. For the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, the beginning of the end was when a sheriff described it as “mince”. How long till we hear a similar pronouncement?

Tory donor’s apology accepted

With impeccable timing, the Tories have rushed through their own deterrent to hate speech and other extremist activity by coming up with a new “definition”. It did not take long for the law of unintended consequences to kick in, the spectre of Frank Hester emerging with impeccable timing.

Where is Armando Iannucci when you need him? I couldn’t help imagining the expression of Peter Capaldi’s Malcom Tucker on being informed by some terrified underling of Mr Hester’s alleged utterances. “He said what...?” followed by many expletives not deleted.

Unfortunately, the spin operation which ensued was not of Tucker standards. If a severe racial slur plus the suggestion a woman MP should be “shot” do not constitute “hate speech”, it is difficult to imagine what does. Yet Mr Hester is to be exonerated on grounds of “contrition”, says the Prime Minister. Not even Armando could make it up.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Ten, or is it 15, million quid to Tory funds buys a lot of forgiveness as well as coinciding with some bumper NHS contracts. In the court of public opinion, it’s harder to sell the line that “extremism” can simultaneously be “clamped down on” and also washed away with “contrition” if enough money is involved.

Terrorism a serious threat

I heard Michael Gove being asked if those responsible for lighting up Big Ben with “from the river to the sea” would have fallen foul of the new definition and hence the law. It’s a pretty straightforward question but his interminable reply, without providing an answer, should find a way onto Have I Got News for You?

Does no existing law cover it, if there is a desire to prosecute? And if the Secretary of State cannot offer guidance on what the government intends to deliver, then how are the police or anyone else to know? Maybe the police should just be answerable for their own judgments in exceptionally sensitive circumstances.

There is a lot of extremism out there and it is a solemn duty of the state to protect us from it. Anyone who doubts that should think London Underground, think Glasgow Airport, think Manchester Arena and give thanks for the protection we are given from other attacks by factions who despise democracy. Only fools pretend they don’t exist or come under many banners.

But that protection does not derive from headline-grabbing political interventions which are more likely to undermine than support responses to such profound challenges. Defining extremism and dumping it on the police to decide what to do about it is a gimmick rather than a serious approach to a massive societal issue.

Scotland’s sectarian shame

Back home, Police Scotland have issued an excruciating ‘Hate Monster’ video cartoon to accompany the Hate Crime Act. It tells us, ex cathedra: “We know that young men aged 18-30 are most likely to commit hate crime, particularly those from socially excluded communities who are heavily influenced by their peers."

Well, up to a point. I couldn’t help being reminded of an excellent Desert Island Discs programme a couple of weeks ago, featuring Lady Rae, a former Senator of the Court of Justice with a fascinating story to tell. The worst prejudice she ran into was when she went to the Scottish Bar, then an almost exclusively male domain in which anti-Catholic bigotry was as common as misogyny.

Caught in a dinner where such banter was being exchanged, she pointed out that she was herself a Catholic from her mother’s Italian heritage. “You’re not a Fenian (expletive deleted) then, so that’s OK,” one of her learned colleagues assured her. Lady Rae left.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It was a cameo which should remind us that “hate speech” in Scotland has been with us for a long time and the vast majority of it still, I guess, is of a sectarian nature. Neither is it by any means restricted to the lower orders of society. I doubt if these are the inconvenient realities which the new legislation has in mind.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.