In the last ten years, the Scottish Parliament has churned out some poor legislation. Needless laws – generally in the sphere of social policy – have been cooked up in consultation with favoured lobbyists within Holyrood’s miniscule political bubble and ramrodded through a parliament that is largely toothless given the dominance of Scotland’s ruling party. Our statute book is beginning to resemble a school jotter, adorned with the doodles of a political class more concerned with keeping up appearances in elite circles than resolving major problems facing society.
Some won’t like that characterisation of Scottish political life. It’s bleak, I admit. However, it’s hard to deny that decision makers have been tinkering with faddish and unnecessary projects as the country comes apart at the seams. Whilst Scotland has experienced shockingly high drug deaths, rising child poverty, falling standards in education, and the stagnation of infrastructure, policy gurus have prioritised cracking down on football fans, spying on good families through compulsory ‘state guardians’, criminalising mums who smack their kids, and watering down free speech.
I’ve had a front row view for much of this as a campaigner and journalist who opposes overreach by the Scottish state. I cut my teeth campaigning against the deeply unpopular Named Person Scheme. Although a key part of the plan was laudable – a single point of contact linking key agencies – serious problems were apparent from day one. Critics warned that vague definitions in the law and official guidance would inspire over-the-top intervention in families, engender a Soviet culture of mistrust across professions, and lead to unlawful harvesting and sharing of sensitive data.
These criticisms were ignored as the scheme was steamrolled through parliament. Even when problems began to emerge in real life, Ministers continued to bury their heads in the sand. Instead of engaging with criticism, supporters of the ill-devised policy blasted critics as callous “scaremongerers” who didn’t care about children. It took a legal intervention and years of campaigning by outside lobbyists and brave members of the public to finally see this policy brought to heel. It was struck down by judges for contravening families’ human rights.
“It’s hard to deny decision makers have been tinkering with faddish and unnecessary projects as the country comes apart at the seams”
A few years after the Named Person debacle, I worked with academics and parenting experts to oppose a law criminalising parental smacking. There was no evidence that existing laws were failing to protect children. Critics believed an over-broad ban on ‘all physical discipline’ could see social workers flooded with trivial cases, and good parents treated like criminals. These legitimate and demonstrable concerns were ignored. The stakeholders in this campaign also discovered how laughable committee scrutiny can be at Holyrood.
The committee set up to scrutinise the bill was chaired by the daughter of the MSP who proposed it. MSPs openly laughed at an eminent child psychologist who raised concerns. The result was a law that doesn’t rule out parents being criminalised for very mild discipline. To make matters worse, pleas to allocate significant resources to awareness-raising about the law were not answered. The relevant Minister set aside just £20,000. Many parents will be in the dark about this legislation. They may only find out smacking is illegal through a police officer chapping their door.
Most recently, I worked with a broad coalition opposing the ‘Hate Crime Bill’. Vague ‘stirring up hatred’ offences in the bill were so problematic they inspired a backlash in the arts, journalism, academia, and policing and united groups as polarised as the Roman Catholic Church and the National Secular Society in common concern. Ex-MP Jim Sillars, who I had the privilege of working with, described it as “one of the most pernicious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever produced…in modern times in any part of the United Kingdom”.
Given the sheer scale of opposition to these plans, you’d have thought they might have been withdrawn for a rethink. A new, higher threshold for offending was eventually added. However, bill supporters were only prepared to go so far, and the committee given oversight of the bill ultimately shot down helpful amendments. The result is a Hate Crime Act that remains unclear, with free speech provisions that are nowhere near as robust as they should be. It still hasn’t been brought into force given problems of interpretation behind the scenes.
The Hate Crime Bill inspired a backlash in the arts, journalism, academia, and policing and united groups as polarised as the Roman Catholic Church and the National Secular Society
The impetus for the policies outlined above seems to have been a desire to appear modish and posture to certain constituencies rather than meet any real need in society. The Named Person scheme was a waste of desperately thin social work resources. The smacking ban also looks like it is wasting professionals’ time. The Hate Crime Act threatens to drag police officers trying to solve actual crimes into political disputes. And the bad news is – this trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. There are at least three new projects in the works in the same, demoralising vein.
The Scottish Government has committed to a ‘buffer zones’ law that will criminalise pro-life people who stand near abortion clinics or hospitals. Peaceful gatherings have been happening for decades without controversy. And any actual harassment or abuse can be dealt with under existing laws. Again, this isn’t arising from need. It’s about sending a message – posturing. It will likely damage civil liberties and create a dangerous precedent if it isn’t struck down by a legal challenge. If that happens, more taxpayer money will be doled out on costly, and unnecessary court battles.
Proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to allow children and adults in Scotland to legally ‘change sex’ under a system of ‘self-declaration’ are also unnecessary and dangerous. The tiny cabal of lobbyists demanding this change are in thrall to a scientifically illiterate ideology that demonstrably harms children. And they care little for women’s sex-based rights enshrined in existing legislation, which would be holed below the water line under the proposed system. Lawmakers with any sense would distance themselves from such groups, not obey their diktats.
Plans are also being drafted for a ban on “conversion practices” following a report by an advisory group involving many of the same people shaping GRA reforms. Abusive and harmful coercion of LGBT people is odious. Nobody is disputing that. But so-called ‘conversion therapy’ is caught by existing criminal laws. The advisory group wants Orwellian new legislation to stop parents counselling their children against assuming a new ‘gender identity’ and prevent people of faith in places like the Roman Catholic Church espousing orthodox teaching on sexuality and biology.
“The impetus for the policies outlined above seems to have been a desire to appear modish and posture to certain constituencies rather than meet any real need in society”
I realise how depressing all this sounds. It’s a snapshot of a bigger society where good things are happening. And its consoling to think that many in Scotland – in the Christian church and much more widely – are beginning to say ‘enough’. People are tired of the patronising, unnecessary, and unworkable social policy diktats. They are angry at the manifold injustices that are conveniently ignored in each election cycle: drug deaths; poverty; sexual crime; homelessness; the list goes on. They want to see more ambition from those in power, and less group think.
Something substantial needs to change in Scotland or I suspect that the years ahead will be dark indeed. We need the Lord’s mercy. And we need more people with zeal, compassion, integrity, and wisdom to stand up and be counted.
This article first appeared in The Scottish Catholic on 28 October 2022