Jim Sillars: Free, open debate is best antidote to hatred

Jim Sillars

Is the hammer of the law the best way to tackle human failings, or is the cleansing, disinfecting air of open discussion more likely to be successful? I opt for the latter, because while the law can shut mouths, it cannot shut minds, and it does no good for false ideas and prejudice to fester underground.

It is in the arena of the collective Scottish mind that we need to confront the remains of ignorance, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance. Hostility, racism, religious phobias, and malignant prejudice, today defined as ‘hate crime’ by Ministers, is not new to Scotland.  Our history, ancient and modern, contains the whole catalogue.

Scotland is a peaceful society. A foreign visitor would believe it has always been thus. History says differently. Across parts of Ayrshire are to be found cairns erected in the memory of the Covenanters persecuted by my old friend Tam Dalyell’s ancestor Bloody Black Tam, for their adherence to the Presbyterian religion. In more recent times, rampant sectarianism, proud bigotry, in the garb of anti-Irish immigration and anti-Catholicism, was the norm over much of the country. In 1923 the Church of Scotland published its infamous pamphlet “The menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality.”

“While the law can shut mouths, it cannot shut minds”

I live and shop in peace in Morningside Road, Edinburgh. In 1935, 10,000 took part in an anti-Catholic rally and riot there. Buses were stoned, the police used a baton charge to clear Morningside Road, there was fighting on Bruntsfield links. In 1936 Protestant candidates won election to Edinburgh City Council. In the shipyards and elsewhere, there was discrimination to deny work to Catholics. The poisonous question: “Which school did you go to” was standard in the West of Scotland. As late as the 1950s, a young man asking a young girl to dance would, as they waltzed, seek to find out if she was Catholic or Protestant. A Protestant marrying a Catholic, and vice versa, split families.

We are a different, better society today. Sectarianism still exists. The Orange Lodges still parade, but no longer annually swagger down Princes Street in great ranks.  Rangers and Celtic remain the twin-centre of tensions, but the former does sign Catholics, a change forced on it by common sense and the laughter directed at it as Celtic, when having a choice, would sign the brilliant Protestant knowing Rangers would deny itself the brilliant Catholic, who would then go to another less threatening club in the league competition. 

When Pope Paul II landed in Scotland in 1982, we had travelled a long way from the 1930s Dark Age: what concerned most Scots was not his Catholicism, but whether he would kiss our ground and recognise us as a nation. You could almost hear the nation’s purr of satisfaction when kiss it he did. “Most” did not include Pastor Jack Glass whose rabid anti-Catholicism led him to denounce the Pope as the anti-Christ. Pastor Jack was tolerated and dealt with by deadly humour. When he denounced Billy Connelly, the Big Yin said the Pastor was his ‘lucky mascot’, as the more he ranted the bigger the audiences grew. When Tom Winning was made Cardinal, Pastor Jack was there in Rome to denounce Popery. Passing him, Tom took no offence, simply saying with a smile ‘It’s a nice day for it’.

If you think the Pastor was a nonentity in those days, go and read the major obituaries of him in the Daily Telegraph and the one written by Brian Wilson in The Guardian when he died in 2004. A Pastor Jack on any subject today, would send Humza Yousaf reaching for a Bill to silence him. In the past we dealt with him, and others, differently, by the use of free speech. Therein lies the clue to our progress. We are different and better today because we were a free speech society, tolerating but openly contesting the intolerant, and flushing out bigotry.

“we were a free speech society, tolerating but openly contesting the intolerant”

But progress made does not mean perfection. Racism, principally directed at Asians, is a scar on the face of Scotland. Whereas the Irish-Catholic migrants had strength in numbers, a well-organised church to help provide solidarity and a degree of protection, as did their deep involvement with the Labour party, such numbers and a wide protective framework does not apply to our latest migrant community. Therefore the hammer of the law, with the approval of the majority, whatever its effect on free speech, has already been used as a means to signal that the rest of us care for them. 

But that set of anti-racist laws has not eliminated racism. Just as with the failed attempt on football-based sectarianism showed, it is not possible to legislate racism out of society. That malignant social virus we inherit from history will be eradicated only by open discussion of its inherent falsehood, and the wickedness and inhumanity that can flow from it. It is the disinfectant of free speech that will finally rid us of it. 

Free speech is not, of course, an absolute. We are not, for example, allowed to defame others. Many free speech advocates have not objected to the present set of anti-racism, anti-discrimination laws, knowing that the law can be used to set a moral value. But the view that the boundaries of free speech must be set wide, is the mark of a sensible society, knowing it is the best medium to advance truth against what is false.

The Hate Crime Bill would restrict those boundaries. That its ministerial author should even contemplate that the law should monitor our private conversations in our homes, shows how dangerously far the boundaries could shrink. His Hate Crime Bill should be rejected by parliament, as a salutary lesson to those who would thoughtlessly destroy the most precious freedom we have, to speak what our minds think.

Jim Sillars is former Deputy Leader of the SNP and an ally of the Free to Disagree campaign

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