March 20, 2024 - 7:00am

“Police told to target comics under new hate crime law.” This was the rather alarming headline on the front cover of yesterday’s Herald, and it concerned leaked materials from recent training sessions undertaken by the Scottish police. Officers are being instructed that actors and comedians whose performances are likely to “stir up hatred” could be breaking the law. Suitably enough, the SNP’s new legislation will come into force on April Fool’s Day.

Many of us have been sounding the alarm over the SNP’s draconian measures since the bill was proposed in early 2020. The Scottish Police Federation warned that the effects of the bill would be tantamount to the “policing of what people think or feel”, and the Law Society of Scotland called it a “significant threat to freedom of expression”. Senior Catholic bishops, meanwhile, pointed out that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah might be deemed hateful towards homosexuals and so even owning a copy of the Bible could be criminalised.

As for comedians, Roddy Dunlop KC cautioned that stand-up would not be exempt, and that even the old “Scotsman, Irishman and Englishman” joke would be perceived as discriminatory. But in the face of all this criticism, Humza Yousaf (who was then Justice Secretary) was dogged in his determination to see the bill pass.

Naturally, supporters of the SNP scoffed at the suggestion that anyone would be arrested for simply expressing controversial opinions or telling jokes. The police have said they will not target performers, but at the same time have promised to investigate all complaints. This is, of course, precisely the problem. Activists have already pledged to weaponise the new law to see J.K. Rowling prosecuted for the “crime” of referring to a man as male (in this case the former Big Brother contestant and online troll India Willoughby). Solicitor Rajan Barot replied to Rowling on Twitter/X, stating that any of her posts in which Willoughby was referred to as a man would be “amenable to prosecution in Scotland” after 1 April. “Start deleting!” he demanded.

The SNP has effectively reintroduced blasphemy laws by stealth, only now it is in the name of the new state religion of Critical Social Justice. The law specifically prohibits “stirring up hatred” (whatever that means) against anyone who shares the following “protected characteristics”: disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. The last of these represents a significant departure from the protected characteristic of the Equality Act 2010, in which “gender reassignment” rather than “transgender identity” is covered. This means that to “misgender” someone — otherwise known as accurately describing his or her sex — could be deemed a breach of the law.

That police are being specifically trained to keep a watchful eye on comedians is no surprise to any of us who have been paying attention. A section of the legislation that covered the “public performance of a play” apparently still applies, and this would surely incorporate stand-up comedy shows. Given that the world’s largest arts festival is held in Edinburgh every year, with over 3,000 shows in the programme, is it likely that activists won’t take the opportunity to exploit the new law against those performers they despise?

Last year, my own Comedy Unleashed event was cancelled twice within the space of two days, simply because the line-up included Graham Linehan (whose gender-critical views have made him a pariah in the industry). After the second venue cancelled on us, Linehan and the other acts were brave enough to perform on a makeshift stage in broad daylight outside of the Scottish Parliament. If we were to repeat the show this year, would the acts be dragged away in handcuffs?

Well, maybe we’ll find out even sooner. Comedy Unleashed is currently looking into producing a special event in Scotland on 1 April to coincide with the implementation of the new bill. We’ll be platforming some reliably “problematic” comedians, and there’ll be plenty of wrongthink on display. Of course, this very much depends on us securing a venue that won’t cancel at the last minute, so please do email us ([email protected]) if you can help. In these authoritarian times, we could all do with a laugh.

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath