Murdo Fraser: Justice meets culture wars in Scotland 2021

Last week Marion Millar, a 50-year-old accountant and mother from Airdrie, was arrested and charged with offences contravening Section 126 of the Communications Act.
The 'Women Won't Wheest' sticker that was judged by police to be 'controversial'. PIC: Contributed.The 'Women Won't Wheest' sticker that was judged by police to be 'controversial'. PIC: Contributed.
The 'Women Won't Wheest' sticker that was judged by police to be 'controversial'. PIC: Contributed.

A complaint had been made to the police about social media comments made by Millar, which, it has been claimed, were homophobic and transphobic.

Marion Millar is a feminist, who believes in the biological definition of sex. She now is accused of a hate crime for stating her views.

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The laws around contempt of court make further comment on Millar’s case problematic, but the charges against her follow on from a ludicrous incident involving the police in Kirkcaldy just a few weeks ago, who posted a tweet expressing concern

about “controversial stickers” appearing on lampposts in the town.

The stickers in question bore the slogan “Woman Won’t Wheesht”, and were, it seems, placed on behalf of a feminist group. Following ridicule on social media, the Police tweet was swiftly removed.

Are we really now in a place in Scotland where the police will interfere in legitimate expressions of free speech? Such a scenario is exactly what critics of the SNP’s controversial Hate Crime Act warned about during its passage through Parliament.

Ironically, the provisions of that Act are not yet in law, but we are already seeing action against so-called hate crimes apparently being stepped up.

There is clearly a great deal of confusion around this issue, as was highlighted in a report last week by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, who stated that a lack of an overall strategy on hate crime was undermining confidence amongst victims when reporting incidents.

HMICS highlighted a lack of training and issues with data collection affecting the Police’s ability to respond to the issue.

We should not be surprised that it has come to this. During the passage of the Hate Crime Act, the Law Society of Scotland warned that it lacked clarity, while the Scottish Police Federation said that the new laws would be “too vague to be implemented”.

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I know rank and file officers in the Police are deeply concerned that they are now being put in the firing line in relation to culture wars over trans rights. The view has been expressed to me that they joined the force to protect the public and catch

criminals, not be part of a Stasi-like thought police using the force of the law to clamp down on free speech, and silence legitimate opinions.

All this comes at a time when there are wider concerns about the justice system. We still have the continued fallout from the malicious prosecutions of the former Rangers FC administrators – a fiasco that has already cost the public purse some £24 million in compensation and legal costs, and where the total losses to the taxpayer could well exceed £100 million.

The departing Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, had to concede the need for a judge-led inquiry into the shambles, although the failures here occurred under the watch of his predecessor in office, Frank Mulholland.

We also had the Alex Salmond affair, where the dual role of the Lord Advocate, both as the Scottish Government’s chief legal advisor, and head of the independent prosecution service, was brought into focus. Wolffe had to defend the Scottish

Government’s handling of the judicial review claim brought against it by the former First Minister, a failure which cost over £500,000 in public funds, and where serious errors in the handling of the case were exposed by the recent Parliamentary Inquiry.

James Wolffe has now moved on from the Lord Advocate’s position, and we await the appointment of his successor, one who will have a decision to make, it seems, on whether future legislation for another independence referendum falls within

Holyrood’s powers.

It is essential, therefore, that this is not treated as a political appointment, but someone is found of the highest legal standing and independence of thought.

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Perhaps we should not be surprised that the whole justice system is in such a mess when we consider the conduct of Humza Yousaf the new Health Secretary in the Scottish Government, but who in his previous role as Justice Secretary faced a backlash after jumping on what is now known to be a fake video of Rangers FC players celebrating their league victory with anti-Catholic abuse.

It would be extraordinary in any jurisdiction for a government minister supervising the justice system to pre-judge an issue in this way, and yet Yousaf has offered no apology to the individuals he smeared with his premature and intemperate comments.

This is, of course, the same Humza Yousaf who not only refused to condemn protesters who took to the streets of Glasgow to prevent Home Office officials going about their legal business, but actually agreed with the proposition that it was his

place to delegitimise the UK rule of law within Scotland.

It takes just a moment’s reflection to realise what a significant, and deeply irresponsible, statement this is for any Justice Secretary to have made. Essentially what this SNP Minister was saying was that individuals who disagree with particular

laws, or the current constitutional settlement, are entitled to ignore those laws and take to the streets to prevent their enforcement.

We now have a new Justice Secretary in the form of SNP veteran Keith Brown, and it can only be hoped that he takes a more responsible attitude to his role than did his predecessor. He certainly has a significant task on his hands in terms of restoring the confidence of both public, and police officers, in a justice system that increasingly

appears to be unfit for purpose.

Murdo Fraser is the Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland & Fife.

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