For the Scottish National party, the phrase ‘nanny state’ is not so much a criticism as an aspiration. This is the party that wanted to assign a state guardian to every child born in Scotland through its ‘named person’ scheme, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership, there have been repeated attempts to regulate the eating and drinking habits of people, including proposed bans on two-for-one pizza deals and minimum pricing on cheaper alcoholic drinks.
It makes sense, then, that the party’s paternalism should extend to the question of free speech. Scotland’s new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill was ostensibly proposed to repeal outdated proscriptions against blasphemy, but will instead usher in a range of new blasphemy laws by stealth. Most controversially, part two of the Bill pertains to the offence of ‘stirring up hatred’, which criminalises anyone who ‘behaves in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner’ or ‘communicates threatening, abusive or insulting material to another person’.
Moreover, the Bill explicitly allows for intention to be put aside. If behaviour or material is ‘likely’ to stir up hatred against any protected groups (defined by age, disability, racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, transgender identity or ‘variations in sex characteristics’) then whether or not the perpetrator intended to do so is immaterial. Even an actor playing a bigoted character could be prosecuted under the proposed laws. An entire section of the Bill is devoted to the ‘public performance of a play’, which specifies that actors and directors can be found culpable if members of protected groups find the material offensive. So if you are troubled by the anti-Semitism of Shylock’s detractors, or the Islamophobia of Tamburlaine’s decision to burn the Quran, you can complain to the Scottish police. Next year’s Edinburgh Festival should be interesting.
The implications for stand-up comedy are similarly dire. As practitioners of an art form that often teases the limits of public tolerance, comedians frequently find themselves involved in free speech battles. The dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop QC, has already warned that stand-up would not be exempt from the SNP’s Bill, and that even an old-fashioned ‘Scotsman, Irishman and Englishman’ joke may be perceived as discriminatory. Certainly, some of the more subversive acts that regularly appear at Comedy Unleashed, a night I co-founded in London, would be at risk of prosecution should they venture north of the border.