11 November 2020

The SNP talks a good game, but it peddles fake liberalism


Disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good than whips or scourges, either of the literal or metaphorical sort. –  J S Mill. ‘On Liberty’

Soon after an attack on Glasgow airport by suicide bombers in 2007, the Glasgow comedian Billy Connolly did a stand-up routine in which he excoriated Islamist terrorists and suicide bombers. He held up to ridicule the promise of paradise with a number of virgins (‘one newspaper said 53. That seems to me to have involved a committee’) and imagining a suicide bombing instructor saying to his pupils – ‘Right, lads, I’m only going to show you this once’. He developed some of the lines and themes further for later shows, including one where he dismissed all religion, telling the audience to ‘take your Reformation, the Vatican and Mecca and fuckin’ piss off’. It’s hilarious.

Hilarious, if you are not a believer, or are a believer but with a liberal sense of humour – that is, you can separate your faith from the joke and not believe the former has been damaged. The liberal sense of humour acknowledges that everything can be made to seem ridiculous; that objects of piety can be flipped, especially by one as caustically brilliant as Connolly, to be sources of mirth. But for that, religion has to be not so much an institutional faith as a private set of beliefs: the institution can take the gibes, the private beliefs remain untouched.

Brian Leach, a 54 year-old meeter and greeter at an Asda supermarket in Dewsbury, was fired last year when a colleague complained about his sharing a clip of Connolly’s anti-Islamist comic rant. Asda, a British-created company now owned by the US Walmart chain, commented that “we do not tolerate any form of discrimination from colleagues or customers’. The ‘form of discrimination’ for which Brian Leach lost his livelihood was passing on a comic clip where a mainstream comedian mocked terrorists.

Scotland’s government has now entered this area, presumably with some sense of what it is doing. In April this year it introduced the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, defining what a hate crime is deemed to be, that is, “an offence aggravated by prejudice”. The offence is caused if prejudice is shown to exist, and is directed – physically or in speech or publication – at another, on grounds which include age, disability, race  or nationality, religion and sexual identity. A further clause states that “evidence from a single source is sufficient to prove that an offence is aggravated by prejudice”.

Billy Connolly, most famed of Scots entertainers, would seem to fall squarely into the criminal camp with his routines on Islamists (he has an uproarious dwarf routine which owes nothing to political correctness, and which would lengthen the charge sheet). If a 54-year old man can be fired for passing on his joke, how can he escape a calling to account for its origination?

The Bill underscores the SNP’s particular kind of illiberalism. It has posed itself as a modern, open, liberal party on every issue – immigration, race, gender, membership of the European Union and more. Yet that has recently appeared to slop over into the new, or ‘woke’, liberalism – the kind which switches the emphasis from freedom to constraint. ‘Woke’ privileges victims and their hurt above these classic freedoms: they do not believe, as liberals do, that there is no right to be protected from insult.

John Stuart Mill defined in On Liberty these freedoms which still underpin the speaking and publishing worlds in democracies. Unlike predecessors such as John Milton, John Locke and Adam Smith, who had called for speech and publication freedoms, he refused to allow exceptions to accommodate religion. Everything had to be open to challenge: he writes that being offensive does not constitute real harm.

Today’s foremost disciple of Mill seems to be French President Emmanuel Macron, particularly in his reaction to the recent murders in Paris and Nice. The first of those victims, school teacher Samuel Paty, was beheaded for discussing cartoons of Mohammed published by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in 2012. Macron has committed himself – in the face of strong Muslim criticism, most bitterly from President Erdogan of Turkey – to protect the freedom to “write, think and draw” as continuing pillars of French democracy.

Scotland’s nationalist leadership goes in the opposite direction. As the Scottish Secular Society has pointed out, the legislation on Hate Crime in England and Wales does not criminalise “abusive” speech or publication, only “threatening”. The Scots version also criminalises the “likely outcome” of a putative crime as well as “intent”, the English and Welsh legislation limits that to “intent”. These are large and deliberate differences: widening the scope for arrest, and for a judgment which might brand the mis-speaker a criminal.

Nor does this latest essay in limitation of freedom surprise. A bill seeking to appoint a “guardian” for every child met a storm of protest that this would damage the parental link and the family’s autonomy. The Supreme Court judged that it would breach privacy and ruled that it overreached the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. It has, thankfully, not been re-presented.

All of this underscores the way that nationalism – even that which badges itself as liberal – operates at an even  more emotive level than conventional politics. It thus moves more naturally into citizens’ private sphere, looking for gratitude from those who see themselves as victims, even at the expense of free speech. True liberalism must live in a society of conflicting, and conflictual, opinions. The SNP’s version, in the Hate Crime Bill, is fake.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.