The SNP government is drifting towards authoritarianism

By Robert McGregor

It may seem inappropriate to compare the SNP with right-wing nationalist governments in Poland or Hungary. Unfortunately as the Scottish government, led by Nicola Sturgeon, heads in an ever more authoritarian direction, such comparisons are increasingly justified.

Examples of this tendency range from the trivial to the far more serious. Most recently, Donald Trump's comments about Muslim immigrants, led to calls from the SNP for him to be banned from entering the country as a "hate preacher". While many may agree with this, the former SNP leader Alex Salmond went one step further. He not only endorsed a ban, but said Scotland should be banning ‘all Donald Trumps'. It reminds me of a nightclub bouncer compiling a list of undesirables who aren't allowed entry on a Saturday night. It would be interesting to see Salmond’s list of who should and shouldn't be allowed into the country.

Britain’s new heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury was also on the receiving end of this tendency earlier this year with SNP MP John Nicolson writing to the BBC recommending a disqualification from Sports Personality of the Year Awards, because of his controversial and bigoted views. Meanwhile SNP MP Stewart McDonald tried to ban a legitimate protest by republicans against the royal rebranding of a hospital in Glasgow.

It's not just differing views which the SNP are uncomfortable with, but differing lifestyles. The Scottish government are currently seeking to ban the sale of cheap alcohol in an attempt to control the behaviour of Scottish drinkers. Unlike the English or Welsh who have resisted such moves, the SNP believe we Scots can't be trusted with cheap alcohol. The only reason it’s not in force is because the EU court raised concerns about restrictions on free trade. 

A more sinister development is the SNP plan for a named person or 'state guardian' for every child. This will grant the state unprecedented powers over families. Proponents of the law advocate that it provides a point of contact for families. But the status quo already has various routes for families needing support. The real change is the Scottish Government having arbitrary and intrusive powers into every family in Scotland. Former chairman of Scotland’s Children Panel Advisory Group Joe Knight described it as "an erosion of parental rights and responsibilities."

The disturbing point is not just that every child will have a named person intervening in their lives, but the SNP presumption that every child needs such a person. On this issue as on many others of personal responsibility, the SNP government is convinced it knows best.

The SNP’s super ID database is even more troubling. It’s not exactly clear how our private information would be monitored under the scheme, but filling in an innocuous form at your local NHS dentist could result in the information being circulated to 120 public bodies, including Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Privacy campaigners have called on the Scottish government to ditch the scheme, as it will allow widespread data mining and profiling. Tellingly, the proposals are not being treated as primary legislations and are being forced through without parliamentary debate. On this issue as well, the SNP are allowing little dissent.

Arguably, the most authoritarian development of all is the SNP's passing of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act. Under this law, fans' behaviour must be monitored in order to see whether it merits an arrest. Yet so broad is the legislation that fans can be questioned and even arrested simply for the clothes they're wearing, or the songs they're singing. In 2014, a fan at a Celtic vs. Hearts match was questioned by police after wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "Free Palestine". SNP John Mason defended the police's actions, telling a group of fans that: "We should all know by now expressing political views is no longer acceptable at football matches."

The SNP have essentially created a law that patrols a group of society within a certain class, age and even religion. This sort of law does not belong in the 21st century, never mind a progressive society. As Scottish historian Sir Tom Devine’s has commented: “I don’t know of any country where songs to do with religion or history are criminalised”.

Those targeted by the law are mostly young working-class football fans. In 2013-14 eighty-seven per cent were aged 30 or under with the average being 23 years old. The rate of conviction is evidence that the courts are struggling with the act – so far there have been 74 acquittals from 161 criminal charges.

Labour MSP James Kelly is pushing for the law to be repealed along with the support of Scottish Labour leader Keiza Dugdale. The campaign has cross party support. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson told me:

"The Scottish Conservatives have consistently argued this Act should be repealed. It's unnecessary, ineffective and understandably unpopular among football fans. In short, it is a bad law. As has been pointed out in courtrooms several times, the aims of the Act are better covered by existing legislation.

"Creating this law was a classic example of the SNP's something-must-be-done syndrome, without thinking through the consequences."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie also supports repeal. He said:

"As a party we voted against the bill at every stage, calling instead for the government to withdraw the bill, and to work with all parties and interests groups to develop a consensus on a holistic strategy to address sectarianism in Scotland.

"In June last year, we pressed for and secured some limited concessions from the Scottish government, such as creating a diversion from prosecution scheme focused on people aged 12 to 24 – which avoids them being unnecessarily criminalised – and providing funding for local community-based projects working to address sectarian issues."

When the SNP railroaded it through Holyrood, they failed to take heed of experienced voices and sought to chase headlines rather than properly examine the deep-rooted sectarian issues in Scotland. Before the law came into effect, Labour proposed alternative ideas such as education campaigns on bigoted attitudes and breaking down religious barriers between the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church. Kelly told me:

"This law was created by the SNP as a PR exercise in response to a clash between Celtic and Rangers coaches at a match in 2011. It was clumsy and ill-thought-out and its implementation has borne that out.

"The act has caused confusion in the judiciary and division between football fans and police. It is clear that there is already legislation in place to deal with any misbehaviour at football matches. I plan to bring forward a member's bill in the next parliament to repeal the act. We need to support football and football fans, not criminalise them.

"The solution to sectarianism lies in education and communities working together. The SNP bureaucrats in government headquarters do not appear to understand that."

The SNP's approach to Donald Trump and football fans is remarkably similar. Rather than enlighten, persuade or educate, they opt for the lazy illiberal option of simply banning them. This approach is not an effective solution. If anything, it is counterproductive.  It will neither mute Trump, nor stop fans chanting sectarian songs. This month both Celtic and Rangers fans have been accused of chanting sectarian songs at matches. Police Scotland is investigating. It won't be the last time.

The SNP boast of being stronger for Scotland. Well when it comes to implementing increasingly proscriptive and authoritarian laws, their grip is certainly getting tighter. And with opinion polls suggesting another landslide in May, that grip is only going to get tighter still.

Robert McGregor is a Scottish Labour activist and freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @rsmcgregor

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