In the past couple of years, my home country of Scotland has disappointed me in many ways. First, in 2020, the encroachment of American-style "critical social justice" came for David Hume at the University of Edinburgh, where I was then studying. I played a small part in the resistance to the removal of that illustrious name from the campus tower that bore it, to no avail. (Hume’s crime? A 1700s racist footnote.) But that was the least of it: In April 2021, just over a year ago now, the Scottish Parliament passed the Hate Crime Bill, legislation so wide-ranging and so censorious that under it you could even be prosecuted for making a joke in your own home. The new law is yet to be tested, but I still feel the fear I felt on the day it was passed — and the shame for my country, too. At a stroke, and at the whim of the mediocrities who make up the Scottish government and Parliament, Scotland became, legally speaking, the most intolerant and illiberal country in the United Kingdom.
I’m tempted to repeat a (half) joke I’ve been making since the day the bill passed: that I’m moving to America as a First Amendment refugee, if you’ll have me.
Seriously, Americans don’t know how good they have it. Yes, yes, critical social justice and campus intolerance are rife in the United States. But still, America is a country explicitly founded on that most radical of propositions: free speech for all. The First Amendment’s spirit of liberty goes well beyond its legal content, far beyond the restraint of the government censor in the public sphere. To have a nation so steeped in the traditions of the First Amendment is the envy of the world, and always will be, however much the "declining America" narrative is trumpeted and willed on.
Alongside the philosopher Hume, 18th century Scotland boasted thinkers of the caliber of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, and James Hutton, the father of modern geology. I could mention innumerable other scientists, inventors, and poets, but perhaps the best way to put it is to invoke the words of the novelist Tobias Smollett, who described Enlightenment Edinburgh as a "hotbed of genius" and of Voltaire, who wrote in 1764 that "today it is from Scotland that we get rules of taste in all the arts, from epic poetry to gardening." There were some American connections, too: Benjamin Franklin prized his honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews and befriended Hume in Edinburgh, while Thomas Jefferson was introduced to his intellectual hero John Locke by a Scottish professor.
I should say that the rot set in long before l’affaire Hume. In 2012, the government tried to ban nasty chants at football matches, in pubs, and online. Mercifully, this silly law was overturned in 2016. And let’s not forget the "named person" row, when the government had to nix plans to appoint state officials to oversee every child — every single child! — in the country.
It's hard to overcome the suspicion that the 2021 Hate Crime Bill is the revenge of the legislators for the defeat of their previous attempts to insert their grubby noses far too deeply into the business of ordinary Scots. More specifically: the revenge of the Scottish National Party legislators. And here lies, perhaps, the main problem. Since 2007, one way or another, the SNP has dominated the Scottish Parliament. In 2016, it was the efforts of campaigners and non-SNP members of the Scottish Parliament who led to the repeal of the so-called Football Bill, while the "named person" provision, introduced in a 2014 law supported by all the parties except the Tories, had to be taken by campaigners all the way to the U.K.’s Supreme Court, where it was deemed to have fallen foul of the European Convention on Human Rights. The SNP has, for a very long time, favored not a safer or a nicer society but a more authoritarian one: Disturbances at football matches were already dealt with under existing law, but the SNP wanted to curb “offensive” behavior, too.
And so we return to the Hate Crime Bill, voted through (again) by everyone apart from the Tories. The bill stirred up protest from a rather motley crew in the form of the Free to Disagree campaign: For once, the Catholic Church, the National Secular Society, and radical feminists were all united. This is something, at least. But the opposition campaign failed in the end, achieving only some measly changes to the bill.
More than a year after its enactment, the law is yet to be fully implemented. In January of this year, the Times reported Police Scotland’s statement that it can’t fully enforce the new law until 2023, owing to a 76% upswing in reports of hate crime incidents since the bill’s passage. Calum Steele, the general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, which represents officers, said he expected that “large parts of the rise will be people taking offense at things they read on Twitter and don’t agree with.” So, while thieves and rapists and murderers go about their vicious business, the police force will spend a year training its recruits to sniff out offensive words and adjudicate Twitter arguments?
Who knows, then, what the future will bring? Once, we would have killed Hume for being an infidel. Now, we look set to lock up anyone who makes a clumsy gay joke at Christmas dinner.
Why should this all be the fault of the SNP? Surely, the whole Western world is facing an onslaught of censoriousness of this sort. Surely, the real problem is an authoritarian ideology, critical social justice, gussied up in radical garb. Yes, this is all true. But in Scotland, for now, the SNP is the vanguard of that ideology. That, as we have seen, has long been committed to censorship and to the abolition of privacy. Sweep it away, and we might have a chance.
What to do, what to do? Maybe independence for Scotland, becoming a sovereign republic outside of the U.K., would paradoxically defang the censorious SNP by granting its primary stated political goal and rendering it pointless. I remain uncertain. All I know is that I am committed to free speech and the most radical values of the Enlightenment above all else. I also happen to know, through my work with the Free Speech Champions project, that there is a nascent resistance to the new authoritarianism in Scotland, a resistance that might just provide the answer to the immortal question: O Flower of Scotland/When will we see your like again? And here, perhaps, rests a path forward for the moribund Unionist movement in Scotland: Instead of prevaricating on the topic, the Unionist parties could explicitly support absolute free speech and the radical Enlightenment legacy of Scotland. If we are looking for an inspiring and motivational program, what better?
But if all else fails, there is always my dream, long preceding my latest concerns about free speech in Scotland, as it happens, of becoming a citizen of that great secular democratic republic, founded, even with its many hypocrisies and contradictions and evils, on radical and revolutionary and emancipatory and universal ideals, a place where I might breathe the sweet air under what Christopher Hitchens once called “the great roof of the First Amendment.” I mean, of course, the United States of America.
Daniel James Sharp is a deputy editor at Areo magazine, a publication dedicated to free expression and intellectual culture.