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Paul Vallely: Scotland is in vanguard of culture wars

12 April 2024

The Hate Crime Act is dividing the country, writes Paul Vallely


Activists protest against Scotland’s Hate Crime Act in Edinburgh on Saturday

Activists protest against Scotland’s Hate Crime Act in Edinburgh on Saturday

BARELY a week after Scotland’s new Hate Crime Act came into force, police were receiving complaints at the rate of one a minute. Among the thousands of official grievances were a fair few accusing the author J. K. Rowling of hate crimes for her repeated insistence that biological sex is not a personal preference, and just as many pointing the finger at the man behind the law, the nation’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, as the hater-in-chief, for what critics call his divisive virtue-signalling.

Clearly, the notion of “hate crime” is being weaponised by both sides. Trans activists, filled with righteousness at a law that lists “transgender” among the groups that the new law seeks to protect, have deluged the police with complaints about gender-critical feminists such as Ms Rowling, who insist that “female is not a feeling.” Opponents of the new law, meanwhile, are filing vexatious complaints against trans activists to overburden the police — who pledged in advance to investigate every incident — to discredit the law as unworkable.

Culture wars are now everywhere; so why has Scotland placed itself in the vanguard? One commentator suggested, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that it went back to the 16th century witch-hunts, in which five times as many people per capita were executed in Scotland as anywhere else in Europe: “A mode of censoriousness — and keen policing of the public realm — is written deep into the contours of Scottish history.”

Others blame John Knox for this vituperative puritanism; one Scottish university still runs a Master’s course entitled “Scottish Witch-Hunting and the Rise of a Protestant Culture 1590-1690”. Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women, certainly put the female sex in the political line of fire.

For Ms Rowling, gender is still a goblet of fire, in which “Scottish lawmakers seem to have placed higher value on the feelings of men performing their idea of femaleness, however misogynistically or opportunistically, than on the rights and freedoms of actual women and girls.”

Paradoxically, for most of the British public, transgender issues are, according to opinion polls, near the bottom of the list of topics that they care about. When asked, 77 per cent express the basic British decency that transgender people should be protected from discrimination in employment, housing, and access to businesses, restaurants, and shops. But 61 per cent oppose the idea that trans women should be allowed to take part in women’s sport, and only 40 per cent think that they should be allowed to use women’s lavatories.

Attempts to institutionalise supposedly “progressive politics” through the law are doomed to failure. The rule of law ultimately depends on a consensus that is, at present, clearly lacking. The way to alter social attitudes is not by waving a big stick; and this may, indeed, be counterproductive. Pollsters suggest that transgender negativity is growing: 25 per cent of British people admit to negative attitudes, compared with just 16 per cent in 2021.

If a new law is seen to penalise dissent, inhibit free speech, and encourage a repressive climate of self-censorship, it is, in a democracy, doomed to failure. Small wonder that 68 per cent of people polled this week think that the Scottish Government should bin it.

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