April Fool comes early - the day the licensing law debate tipped over into absurdity

“Farcical.” That was how a leader column in this morning’s Scotsman described a new law forcing small, free events to apply for expensive entertainment licences.

Shortly afterwards, news broke that Highland Council was planning to charge a community group £153 to have an easter egg hunt. So will children be breaking the law if they roll Easter eggs this year without a licence? Yup, farcical is the word.

What next? A silly season’s worth of similar stories, potentially, if this daft, clumsy piece of legislation - part of the 2010 Criminal Justice and Licensing Act - goes ahead. One strategy being discussed by campaigners against the law (whose numbers are increasing by the day) is to flood councils with licence applications for hundreds of absurd events, such as “putting purple glitter all over the billboard outside the old social security building while my pals watch/take photos/ignore/drink beer”. In Edinburgh a day of artistic April Foolery is being considered for 1 April, the day the law comes into force.

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There has been much serious, necessary discussion about the troubling implications of this law. For Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman last week, it is a warning sign that Britain is “drifting towards new forms of an authoritarianism that once seemed in permanent retreat”.

For art historian and critic Neil Mulholland, writing in Bella Caledonia, the law is an assault on human rights that could “undermine the very idea that all Scottish citizens can and should freely participate in the production and consumption of culture”. This is not, in other words, about money - it’s about democracy and civility.

Today, though, something seemed to shift - thanks to the easter egg story, the law became demonstrably ridiculous (Easteregggate, anyone? Or is that too many ‘g’s for one soundbite?). Charging a small community group £153 to put on an easter egg hunt was, according to one of Highland Council’s own councillors, “an outrage against common sense and a shocking waste of officials’ time, community resources and tax-payers’ money”.

I suspect that Neil Mulholland and the Scotsman’s leader column don’t find themselves in agreement that often, but both went as far as to suggest the credibility of the independence referendum could be at stake here. “If the SNP are serious about separation, their assault on culture must be immediately repealed,” wrote Mulholland. “So much for freedom if Scotland is a country where you can’t organise, well, a poetry reading in a library,” said the Scotsman.

This isn’t so surprising. From the off, what has been striking about the debate over this law is how united, focused and galvanised the opposition is. A packed protest meeting at Out of the Blue in Edinburgh last week was one of the most inspiring, thought-provoking events I’ve been to in some time, and those who attended - over 100 musicians, artists, record label owners, theatre-makers, and community activists of all ages and backgrounds - seemed to feel the same, given how eagerly they have been spreading the word ever since via blogs and social networks.

One of my strongest memories of the night was the testimony of a cafe owner who had, for some time now, been putting on exhibitions, acoustic gigs and book readings. She enjoys doing it, she said, but since she already works 50 exhausting hours a week, she just won’t have time or energy to fill out complicated entertainment licence forms. So, she was sorry to say, there will be no more exhibitions, gigs and readings in her cafe. Few things demonstrated the shortsightedness of this law better - there must be thousands of people like her all across the country.

And as for the law’s supporters? Well, it doesn’t appear to have any. And for the most part, those responsible for this mess have just blamed somebody else - the government blames local councils, local councils blame the government, in a conversation that is mostly just dispiriting. To their credit, the politicians seem to be waking up to this, but the damage has already been done.

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In short, it’s becoming a national embarrassment. And if the problem isn’t sorted out soon, then by the time 1 April comes around our political leaders could be facing a day of nationwide, highly organised civil disobedience which will make them look very stupid indeed - and, with fantastic irony, all in a year which they are noisily marketing as ‘the Year of Creative Scotland’. This might be a good moment for Alex Salmond to step in.

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