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Jamie McGowan is a student and legal researcher from Scotland, working in bioethics, medical law and human rights. He is an advocate for free speech and free market economics.

Over the years, the Scottish National Party have been known to pride themselves with loud roars of populism, appealing to people of all ages and all classes for the vote.

They bagged the elderly vote with free prescriptions and free bus passes. They bagged students with free university tuition. They even bagged middle aged adults by freezing council tax.

However, soon enough they would go one step too far: they tried to win over the punter’s vote by taking away our football chants. Huge mistake.

In a religious sense, pluralism is good, and the many religious institutions of Scotland would surely agree; acknowledging differences yet respecting each other all the same is important in a society which guarantees religious freedom.

But what the SNP have offered the Scottish people was not pluralism. In fact, what they offered was the abolition of pluralism; the eradication of diversity. This eradication of culture and religion was nothing more than the mashing up of all cultural and religious groups into one big fat ball of indifference; and this indifference was exactly what the Offensive Behaviour in Football Act sought to impose.

Last week, in an historic vote against the government, the Scottish Parliament repealed the Offensive Behaviour in Football Act, which was introduced by the SNP in 2012. This act was the SNP’s first ground-breaking act in their quest for an authoritarian, progressive utopia. Now, we can say with confidence that it has failed.

Firstly, the legislation has just not worked. In the last three years, charges under the Act have been on a constant increase, going up by 32 per cent between last year and the year before. On the whole, the Act has only further encouraged sectarian violence.

But the catastrophic results of the legislation are less important than the dangerous rationale underpinning the legislation: a rationale that restricts freedom of belief and expression.

James Kelly MSP called the Act the “worst piece of legislation in Scottish Parliament history”. He’s almost right. The last piece of horrifically anti-religious legislation we saw from a Scottish legislature was probably the “Act preventing the grouth of popery” of 1700.

Naturally, times have changed since then. In fact, after the Catholic Emancipation of the late 18th Century, Scottish society thrived on its differences. They actually gave birth to one of the movements which formed our modern understanding of Human Rights: the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Scottish Enlightenment took place in the face of what was a very pluralistic society. Papists were still seen as undesirable, Presbyterians miserable, and atheists unpalatable. Yet in the face of this sour diversity, a movement that would prize freedom of thought was born.

What matters in this discussion is less the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment itself, but more the environment which set the scene for it. Granted, at the time Edinburgh and Glasgow were both still powerhouses of the new Presbyterian religion. Yet nonetheless, the dissenting minorities continued to exist, and exist in relative peace.

My attention turns specifically to the regular meetings of three specific men of that era; a Catholic bishop, an atheist judge, and a Presbyterian mason. These three men were known well for spending copious amounts of time in each other’s company. They would settle down for evenings filled with intellectual discussion on matters of life and society, enjoy a few drams and bond over their shared values. In fact, in a letter, the Presbyterian mason even said that this ‘popish bishop’ was the “finest cleric character I ever saw”.

That ‘popish bishop’ was actually Bishop John Geddes of Edinburgh, who was notorious for his defiance of authority and openness to dialogue. Who was the mason? It was the bard himself, Rabbie Burns.

The fact is that pluralism has always been present in Scotland, and we cannot treat pluralism itself as an issue. People will follow contrarian ideologies, and they expect that they have the freedom to do so without intervention from the state.

This has not changed in the modern age. Some people wish to pledge vehement allegiance to a football club and to the religious or nationalistic prospects which it represents. Their freedom to do so is a fundamental right. So long as it does not involve physical violence, the free expression of their ideas must be protected.

Violence, on the other hand, is something which a legal system can objectively measure, so that justice can be imposed based on objective reality and evidence. Involving emotive and arbitrary matters like speech will only corrupt Scotland’s precious independent legal system with a tsunami of bad law.

Sadly, however, the poison of the armchair philosopher has already started to seep into our legal system. The Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on the introduction of ‘hate speech’ legislation, which would mean that we no longer treat criminal actions as crimes because the action itself was criminal, but rather we start to measure criminal actions by who committed them and why they were committed. Which is hardly what one might consider equal treatment under the law.

This is, of course, the ‘sleekit’ agenda of that same authoritarian progressive brigade. It would give judges the seat of moral adjudication, allowing the courts to pontificate on what views are acceptable and unacceptable in society. Ultimately, this leads to the quiet eradication of diversity of belief and the silencing of those who dissent from the SNP’s secularist agenda.

This legislation has, unfortunately, only further polarised the issue of sectarianism in Glasgow. Fans often now feel criminalised for having an opinion, and the rest of the Scottish people are left resenting sport and its tribalism. This is not healthy.

Rest assured, the method in the Nationalists’ madness was not only founded on a secularist abolition of religious or cultural difference, they were also founded on the eradication of anything that might be the expression of Irish Republicanism or British Unionism – which would be rather convenient for the Scottish Nationalist cause.

Objective harm comes from physical action, not from singing songs about a 17th Century battle. We have to insist that physical violence and speech are a complete dichotomy. We have to insist that free speech implies a subsequent freedom to offend, to disturb, and to shock. We cannot allow our Government to seriously take a view that physical violence is in any way, shape or form equivalent to the expression of belief – however radical that belief may be.

Scotland was once a bastion of free thought. For the defence of that freedom, we must stop criminalising fans, and resist this tide which seeks to destroy pluralism and the genuine celebration of difference.

34 comments for: Jamie McGowan: The SNP went too far with its law against sectarian songs

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