Freedom. There’s a word that’s been used a lot this year, and one that continues to weigh heavily on our minds. The pandemic has seen curbs on our ability to go about our lives as we normally would. We’ve seen limits on the number of people we can meet, the places we can go, the buildings we can work in. There has been a lessening of freedoms in various areas due to coronavirus which, although broadly accepted by citizens, has proved painful and costly to many.
Time will tell what the lasting consequences of successive lockdowns has been for our society. A backlog in operations in hospitals, and the suspension of cancer screening and other vital healthcare interventions is one hugely serious implication. We are facing a mental health crisis, spurred by isolation. And restrictions on businesses, coupled with seismic borrowing by the treasury to prop up furlough schemes, means a huge burden of debt.
This Christmas, we are not restricted from meeting together in our homes as we were last year. This is something. Although, with a surge in Omicron cases, businesses are facing new restrictions on how they can operate, Hogmanay celebrations are off, and sports venues face significant limits on the number of fans allowed to attend matches. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet when it comes to coronavirus restrictions. But we’re closer than we ever have been before.
At the start of 2021, ‘freedom’ was a regular word in our discourse for a different reason. Scottish society was at the tail end of a debate on hate crime proposals that threatened to seriously restrict freedom of speech and expression. I led a campaign against the Hate Crime Bill, supported by various individuals, academics, and civil liberties groups. Many others in Scotland also warned against aspect of the plans: lawyers, police officers, journalists, secular and faith groups, creatives, and politicians. It was big news, dominating headlines most weeks.
After much heated debate, and months of engagement with the Scottish Government, critics succeeded in convincing Ministers to narrow the scope of the legislation and drop some of its worst provisions, including a line targeting theatre productions. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act, although not yet enforced, is a different beast to the proposals first laid before Holyrood last year. As originally drafted, the plans threatened to curb merely offensive speech and writing, significantly restricting freedom of expression in the media, arts, and wider society.
As I was thinking about what to write about in this article, the last before I break for Christmas with family and friends, it struck me that we ought to be thankful for the democratic freedoms we enjoy in Scotland – freedoms that are denied to many in the world today. Despite some incursions on our civil liberties through ill-considered legislation like the Hate Crime Act, we enjoy huge privileges in terms of free expression, a free press, an accountable political system, and academic institutions where free thought is – generally speaking – still allowed.
Our society isn’t immune from free speech incursions, of course. There have been worrying instances of speech being shut down on university campuses, and public figures being harangued for expressing ‘wrong’ views. I note the experiences of women like Professor Kathleen Stock and J.K. Rowling this year as prime examples of the illiberal culture that has come to the fore. ‘Cancel culture’, as it sometimes known, is a real threat. We must strongly uphold the right of all people to express their opinions.
Many others in the world do not have this luxury. Today, it emerged that a statue at a university in Hong Kong honouring the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre has been removed. Hong Kong’s political elites decided it is “politically sensitive”, threatening to damage the reputation of the Chinese Communist Party. This move was a fitting metaphor for the new political order in Hong Kong. The Chinese Government has muscled its way into the region, previously an island of democratic freedoms at the bottom of mainland China, and has imposed sweeping, authoritarian curbs through a National Security Law.
Citizens in Hong Kong have fled in their thousands. Those who remain are ordered not to criticise the Chinese state. Many have simply “disappeared”, carted off to prison cells as subversives. Earlier this year I spoke to Christian Hongkongers who had escaped to the UK. Their family members back home report silent officials attending church services to listen in for any sign of dissent. It’s a terrifying ordeal for Christian believers. At a time of year when they want to celebrate the birth of Christ and share the good news of the Gospel, they face fines, arrests, and worse.
The plight of Uyghur Muslims has also been well-publicised in the last twelve months. China is accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide against its Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the North West region of Xinjiang. Human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls “re-education camps”, and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison. It’s a terrible situation, that’s unimaginable to us in the comfortable West.
Our freedoms have been affected this year in many ways and it has been tough. I don’t at all want to understate the difficulties restrictions have meant for many Scots, isolated from family members and friends, facing business closures and many more hardships. However, I am glad that some of the most fundamental freedoms remain in place in our country: freedom of expression; freedom of religion; freedom of assembly. We are blessed to live where we are in Scotland, and I hope and pray we will remain free in years to come.
Jamie Gillies is a campaigner and political commentator. He Tweets at @jmgillies