A senior judge has recommended adding gender and age to the list of hate crimes in Scotland.
In 1967, in a speech at Newcastle University, Dr Martin Luther King said: “While the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and even the heart may be changed in the process.”
Less than five months later, Dr King was shot dead by a racist escaped prison inmate in one of the world’s most notorious hate crimes.
In a report published yesterday, the Scottish judge Lord Bracadale quoted Dr King’s words as he laid out plans to reform legislation designed to tackle the “serious and insidious” stirring up of hatred against different groups of people.
Currently the law covers a grim list of prejudices based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity. To those five, Lord Bracadale suggested it was time to add gender and age.
Given the tidal wave of revelations about sexual harassment and violence against women prompted by the MeToo movement, the former category is clearly long overdue and uncontroversial.
Nicola Sturgeon has warned the level of abuse that she and other leading female figures have received, particularly on social media, could discourage other women from going into politics. So, in addition to being a crime against the individual victims, it is also a crime against democracy.
But the idea that age should now be included will take many by surprise. This is a list that reflects the groups that an overly large minority of Scots appear to gain pleasure from hating and every prejudice on it shames Scotland. To learn that elderly people should now be protected by the law in a similar way – in the opinion of a senior judge – represents a new low. Elder abuse ranges from neglect and dehumanising treatment in care homes to breach of financial trust, bogus workmen and straightforward violence.
Some will protest that “morality cannot be legislated”, as Dr King admitted was true in his 1967 speech. But he went on to argue that while the law “cannot change the heart ... it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me; and I think that is pretty important also”.
If elder abuse has become so prevalent that it should be treated as a hate crime, we perhaps must consider whether Scotland has become a heartless society.