Scottish National Party-Green coalition ‘Hate Crime Act’ will not aid the fight against oppression

The Scottish government's Hate Crime Act has been introduced amidst significant opposition in society. SNP first minister Humza Yousaf. Photo Scottish Government/CC

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act was implemented on 1 April to a storm of political debate. More than 7,000 hate crime reports were lodged at Police Scotland’s Contact, Command and Control Centres in the first week of the new law. It is likely many of them were from opponents of the legislation seeking to make it unworkable. Of these, 240 were actually recorded as hate crimes with 120 being related to race and 8 relating to transgender.

The act adds to existing UK hate crime legislation by criminalising the “stirring up of hatred” on the grounds of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics. Such offences already exist on the grounds of racial hatred since 1986. The act also creates a new offence of “threatening or abusive behaviour which is intended to stir up hatred”.

Socialist Party Scotland oppose and are to the fore in combating every form of oppression, discrimination and prejudice. Our activists, including in the trade unions and working-class communities, have a long record of being on the frontline against the far right, racist and neo-fascist forces who commit violence fuelled by bigotry and hate.

Everyday in our workplaces, communities and in our activity we put forward a socialist programme that attempts to unify the working class against the divisive and hateful ideas like racism, sexism and LGBT-phobia that are rooted in the bosses’ profit system of capitalism.

Many genuine activists in the trade unions, in liberation campaigns and particularly youth will welcome the idea of legislation that seeks to combat hate and prejudice. But will this new legislation aid in a struggle against oppression?

culture war

In part, the opposition to the new law comes from the right-wing media and reactionary politicians opposed to equality under the guise of the culture wars. In addition, there is also a section of society who have been mobilised in response to the recent attempts to introduce the right to self-identify for trans people in Scotland. That legislation was blocked by the Westminster Tory government even although it was passed by the Scottish parliament in late 2022.

For some, the new act is yet another extremely divisive and unpopular policy. It is seen as an attempt to criminalise criticism of policies like the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) proposals. The GRR aimed to make the process of self-identification easier for transgender people in Scotland, which socialists generally support.

But the dismissive, strident attitude of the Scottish National Party (SNP)-Green politicians to genuine concerns of many women, including in the trade unions, and their record of actually implementing cuts to women’s and LGBT services, as well as cuts to the NHS and mental health services, has meant support in society in Scotland for self-ID has now fallen compared to its level before the GRR was passed through parliament.

Recent high profile cases of sexual attacks against women being carried out by violent offenders who claimed to be trans also added to the opposition to the GRR legislation.

The current absence of a mass workers’ party and the fact that the trade union leaders have not sought to put forward an independent class position on issues like the GRR has added to the polarisation.

The, at times, toxic debate has also had the effect of worsening the situation for trans people generally. The debate around trans rights versus women’s rights has probably been the most divisive issues in Scotland in recent times.

Wrongly and insensitively, the act does not include women as one of the “protected characteristics” in the new legislation.

This feeds the idea that women and their existing protections and rights are losing out to trans people or are less of a priority for SNP-Scottish Green ministers. The pledge by the Scottish government to introduce a bill that criminalises misogyny at some later date has not abated the criticisms.

This new Hate Crime Act will not do what was supposedly the intention in “providing greater protection for victims and communities” affected by prejudice and hate crime.

It is certainly true that misinformation is being spread, often by the right-wing capitalist press, for example, the social media oligarch Elon Musk, the Tory Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and far right populists seeking to stoke up the culture war. However, the Hate Crime Act and its presentation in the media by government ministers and Police Scotland has legitimately fed concerns about authoritarianism.

The SNP-Green government has no real authority to cut across right wing arguments or claim it is defending the vulnerable and oppressed when it is in the process of implementing the biggest cuts to public services since devolution, including councils, education, the NHS and Health and Social Care Partnerships.

In the absence of a mass workers’ party based on the trade unions that could unify workers, youth and communities in struggle, class anger can be reflected in a growing perception that the Scottish government is passing laws to make it more difficult to speak out. Or that Holyrood is interfering unnecessarily in people’s lives whilst poverty increases, hospital waiting lists are getting longer and community centres are closing.

The SNP, early on in government, introduced the massively unpopular and ineffective Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was then repealed. Rather than pushing back sectarianism it criminalised football supporters.

First minster Humza Yousef and his cabinet have not understood that their cuts policies allied to their pro-capitalist approach of attacking prejudice without explaining the need for united struggle against oppression, austerity and capitalism has weakened their support among the working class in Scotland.

The new act does contain quite extensive protections over freedom of speech and, on paper at least, high thresholds for proving criminality in the statutes. But these have been drowned out by a huge degree of mistrust and suspicion among sections of the working class.

The Hate Crime Act was attacked by author JK Rowling, a Blairite and very wealthy individual with a large social media following. Rowling posted descriptions of some transgender women as men and dared Police Scotland to arrest her. She was then subject to complaints under the new law from transgender activists.

Socialist Party Scotland does not agree with those like Rowling who have record of promoting divisive ideas on this and other issues. On issues like the GRR and trans rights generally, Socialist Party Scotland and our sister organisation Socialist Party England and Wales have debated constructively with organisations in like Women’s Place UK, who in our view wrongly counterpose trans rights to women’s rights and do not call for united working-class struggle to deliver services for all.

We do however oppose calls for women and others who express these views to be “no-platformed” never mind criminalised by the capitalist state. State persecution of a figure like Rowling would only fuel support for her separatist, liberal pro-capitalist ideas that are no solution for working-class women.

There are countless examples of how, rather than the capitalist state, united working-class struggle is more effective in pushing back reactionary ideas and prejudice. Look at the empowerment of working-class women against sexism during the miners’ strike. Or how Black and Asian workers came into the trade unions in the struggle against the colour bar and have gone on to play a key role since.

mobilising working class power

It is vital for socialists to explain how utilising the power of the working class can defeat oppression, bigotry and and undercut the the far right.

As well as debating against and challenging reactionary ideas, Socialist Party Scotland has a record of mobilising mass struggles of workers and youth against the hate of the far right. Mass mobilisations in London and in Scotland with our campaign Youth Against Racism in Europe in the 1990s physically forced the British National Party and others out of working-class areas.

Nor can we foster illusions that capitalist parties or the capitalist state can deal with hate crime, not least because the economic, ideological and social basis for discrimination and prejudice is capitalism itself that thrives on divide and rule.

We certainly cannot trust state institutions like Police Scotland either. Police Scotland are currently subject to a lengthy public inquiry over the death of black man Sheku Bayou after he was arrested and have tried to suppress evidence. The role of the police being used against the workers’ movement, including during the miners’ strike in 1984-85 and the Timex strike in 1993, will neither be forgotten nor forgiven by those communities.

Mass, united working-class struggle is needed against bigotry and for decent jobs, homes and services for all. This is best achieved by fighting trade unions and a new mass party of the working class that fights on socialist policies. This would be the most effective way of combating hate and oppression.

A glimpse of the potential impact of such a force in undermining the far right was the switching of working-class UKIP voters to supporting then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s radical left manifesto in the 2017 general election.

Under capitalism, a criminal system of want, squalor and division, hate crimes can be recorded but the long-term damage and constant danger faced by the oppressed can never be solved.

That’s why we need a socialist society where the economy is planned and controlled by the working class and where all forms of oppression can be ended. That society would truly lay the material basis for the withering away of reactionary and backward ideas.

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April 2024