Where civil liberties are concerned, Scotland makes England look like a beacon of democracy. Scotland does not have strong independent bodies defending individual freedom. There is less emphasis on this in its education and culture. I recently mentioned to a young friend studying Higher History that this year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. “Who’s she?” he replied. Since then, I have asked a number of others including students at Scottish universities and have yet to find one who has ever heard of this historic document which guarantees the rights and liberties of the citizen against autocracy. They have all heard of the Declaration of Arbroath but only the ‘Braveheart’ section about the yoke of the English oppressor.
In 1742, philosopher David Hume wrote: “It is a very comfortable reflection to the lovers of liberty that this peculiar privilege of Britain is of a kind that cannot easily be wrested from us and must last as long as our government remains in any degree free and independent.”
But an independent-minded observer of Scotland must conclude that civil liberties are in retreat here since the advent of a Scottish Parliament. We appear to be losing some of the recourse that citizens of Britain have historically possessed.
In 1729, the great satirical polemicist Jonathan Swift was able to publish “A Modest Proposal”, which suggested that impoverished Irish people could sell their children to be eaten by the rich. It was a hard-hitting satire written to mock attitudes towards the poor. But in today’s Scotland, anyone singing the “Famine Song” in public, which alludes to the same event, is liable to be arrested and potentially held in custody, as are fans singing Irish freedom songs under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.
The situation here has worsened since 2011, when the Scottish National Party won a landslide in the Scottish Parliament, it has been slapping restrictive and badly-drawn laws onto the statute book.
The SNP has tight party discipline and the committee system, which was meant to replace a second chamber, waves through its laws.
It’s also a pal-ocracy which means those who speak out can get squeezed out. The first Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People Kathleen Marshall who rocked the boat over the locking up of child migrants was not asked to reapply for her job. The Scottish Human Rights Commission and the SCCYP now operate virtually as an arm of government.
Former Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill latterly appeared to operate as chief press officer for the Chief of Police Stephen House.
The SNP has funded a rise in the number of police, whose behaviour is not transparent, accountable or subject to scrutiny. In fact they regularly exceed their statutory powers. The stop and search figures in Scotland are ludicrous. More 16-year-old boys were stopped and searched in Glasgow a couple of years ago than there are boys. Thousands of routine stop and searches have been carried out by armed police. (See Losing Count)
The stop and search statistics were exposed by academic researcher Kath Murray from hundreds of painstakingly-obtained freedom of information requests. After her work was published, Murray was subjected to briefings against her by the Scottish government’s press office – despite the fact that the government originally funded her research into public-police interaction.
There is not a culture of transparency or regular publishing of data as there is in England. But it’s clear that the vast majority of stop and searches here have not even a fig leaf of a statutory basis.
When police cars roll along the streets of Glasgow, wee boys stand like scarecrows at the side of the road with their arms patiently outstretched, waiting to be ‘speired’, perhaps by a man with a gun.
There is a Catch 22 notion that these searches are ‘consensual’ – but refusing to take part is regarded as evidence that you have something to hide. (See response from Chief Constable Sir Stephen House to Scottish Police Federation about consensual stop and search.)
And it’s not just the rougher parts of Easterhouse that are so affected. My own teenagers in suburban Edinburgh last summer could barely go to a public park without being frisked by the police.
The police never found anything – but the young people got the message that they had to submit to random incursions on their personal freedom for no good reason.
A young friend’s party was closed down by the police at 10.30 after a complaint about the noise of young people chatting in the garden – not loud music. A police officer told the young people they had the right to smash the door in as they had received a complaint. A 19-year-old of my acquaintance had two cans of lager confiscated. The young people were all made to leave the house.
Even private school George Watson’s College after-ball was closed down by the police last Christmas because a boy drank too much. Hundreds of young people had their names and addresses taken just for being ‘out’. This is despite the fact the police don’t have a statutory right to take people’s names and addresses unless they are involved in or witnessed a crime.
Music venues are routinely closed down across the Edinburgh after one complaint about noise.
For years, there was a general consensus that it was safer for everyone if sex workers were off the streets and Edinburgh had a toleration policy for ‘saunas’. That was ended without consultation with the people of the city.
Policing of domestic abuse is currently being used as a Trojan horse for attacking civil liberties. Domestic abuse rhetoric was used to justify a law that makes it illegal to cause ‘alarm’.
This was used to prosecute a protester for shouting ‘No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts’ at David Cameron.
As this blogger points out, it is now illegal to leap out at someone and shout ‘boo’ in Scotland.
The presumption in favour of prosecution in domestic abuse cases means that the independence of the judiciary is compromised. If something is labelled domestic abuse, it has to go to court. A divorcing couple rowing over who gets what in the break-up can qualify if one partner reports it as domestic abuse. The Fiscal no longer has discretion over when to prosecute. Scotland’s courts sit every day in solemn session over the most trivial of cases. (Freedom of Information: Domestic Abuse)
There is also the Child Guardian or Named Person legislation which seeks to make a specific social worker responsible for every child in Scotland. It is not yet clear what punishment will be enacted for a social worker who fails to spot abuse of one of ‘their’ children. Or what happens if the social worker exceeds his or her statutory role and intrudes on the privacy or liberty of the family, or disagrees with them on matters of religion, culture or behaviour.
I see trouble ahead for imperfect families. Lots of families make mistakes, have difficult stretches, row, drink too much, forget a doctor’s appointment, or whatever but muddle through and learn as they go. The intervention of a named person is not going to make things better in many cases. Not every adult has got the skills to deal with authority figures they may not see eye to eye with or who they may feel look down on them, or who they may be scared of.
It seems likely that this law will impact most heavily on the civil liberties of the poor. Remember that in Scotland today, authority figures regularly exceed their statutory role and that there is no route for most citizens to resist that.
Add to this: the political move to end early release of offenders
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/sturgeon-announces-end-of-automatic-early-release-for-prisoners.1422961869 ; the attempt to remove corroboration rules which protect against wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice http://www.journalonline.co.uk/News/1011388.aspx#.VQCh4inZ5z8; A Bill aimed at restricting nudity on stage http://www.scotsman.com/what-s-on/theatre-comedy-dance/theatre-with-nudity-exempt-from-sex-license-law-1-3701809
And any number of fundamentally illiberal, draconian measures.
I don’t hear many voices raised over this. It strikes me that some vociferous ‘Yessers’ are pretty ignorant about what Holyrood actually does. They like to denounce the Scottish press after, for instance, reading one comment piece on Twitter that they don’t agree with. Many of them, too, are fundamentally sympathetic to the ever-closer embrace of the state. We live in an age of nationalism – a response perhaps to economic uncertainty and fear of terrorism. A strong Russia, a strong China – and a strong Scotland is the demand.
Perhaps, post-devolution Scotland is demonstrating that respect for the rights of the citizen was always more of an English value than a Scottish one. Or perhaps my compatriots are sleep-walking into a country that holds to the values of 1970s Albania more than of Britain.
David Hume wrote: “It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” Wake up, Scotland!