WHEN even Mr Bean signs a letter of protest against the SNP Government’s Hate Crime Bill, we know something has gone badly wrong. Rowan Atkinson added his name to a long list of celebrities including Elaine C. Smith, Christopher Brookmyre and Val McDermid, who expressed their opposition to the bill. But Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, insists it will provide greater protection for victims of, or groups affected by, hate crime.

Mr Yousaf has no training in law. Indeed, he had little experience of the real world outside of politics before becoming an MSP in 2011, at the age of 25, only four years after graduating with an MA in politics from Glasgow University. He had spent those four years working as a parliamentary assistant for a variety of nationalist MSP’s. But in the strange dystopian world of Holyrood, MrYousaf has decided he is a legal expert. Motivated by good intentions, he has nevertheless introduced a bill that pulls the rug out from under Scots law, removing corroboration, disregarding legal principles where they could impede prosecution, criminalising conduct where there is no intent to break the law and even making thought-crime an offence. The bill will allow someone to be convicted based solely on the accusation of another person, bringing Scots law into line with North Korea.

As an ardent believer in independence, the author Val McDermid has described the Hate Crime Bill as “well-meaning” but criticised its “unintended consequences”. In a radio interview she maintained that she had no fears that the current SNP Government would ever misuse the bill’s provisions. It was the way “future governments” might interpret the bill that she really feared. This explanation was no doubt aimed at exonerating the SNP from its chilling disrespect for Scotland’s renowned legal system, while nudging the blame towards some future unionist government. Only a writer of crime fiction could devise such a sinister plot!

A rather more robust evisceration of the bill came from Alistair Bonnington, former Honorary Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow. Mr Bonnington, who taught law to Nicola Sturgeon, said: “This is yet another example of the SNP failing to understand fundamental principles of Scots law.” Claiming that the Government has shown “an embarrassing level of ignorance as to how we do things in our Scottish system,” he cited other cack-handed nationalist attempts at legislation like the controversial “Named Person” scheme and the sectarianism in football law.

Mr Yousaf’s Hate Crime & Public Order (Scotland) Bill has been condemned by the Scottish Police Federation, the churches and the Law Society. Back in 2006 the SNP’s Westminster MPs voted against a similar bill when it was proposed for England and Wales. The bill will seriously curtail freedom of speech, potentially criminalising people for “mis-speaking”. Even owning “inflammatory material” could lead to a knock on the door from Police Scotland. Rabid nationalists would have to roll up their anti-Tory and anti-English hate-banners and hide them under the floorboards. Some have suggested that owning a copy of the Bible could be considered a crime under the terms of this flawed legislation.

Stirring up hatred is morally wrong and all of us must strive to discourage and denounce such conduct, but bad legislation is not the way to stop bad behaviour. Anything that curtails our inalienable right to free speech and freedom of expression is cynical and naïve. Sadly, this bill has been lifted straight out of the liberal-left woke playbook, which seeks to create a Utopian world where everyone is expected to behave like the three wise monkeys, hearing, seeing and speaking no evil. It is a predictable offshoot of the cancel culture, where any expression of views that may differ from whatever is trending on social media attracts instant denunciation by the woke thought police.

So, “abusive” speech, deemed likely to “stir up hatred” on issues like religion, colour, ethnicity, gender identity and sexuality, would be criminalised under the bill. It will no longer be necessary to prove that a person intended to stir up hatred by what they have said, written or performed, only that it was considered “likely to” do so. Comedy would never again be a laughing matter. The prevailing atmosphere of intolerance would quickly smother freedom of expression. The left-wing, liberal, urban-elite, who love to claim their “progressive” agenda, are in fact guilty of the most serious regression in modern society, where students can ban speakers or lecturers with whom they disagree, or public figures can find themselves ostracised for expressing views at odds with their own.

So-called woke people trawl across social media like over-excited bloodhounds, sniffing out any perceived transgression, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. From the safety of their iPhones or keyboards, the woke warriors have become the poison-pen pushers of the 21st century, swift to pour out their internet outrage. Online shaming has become the new lynch mob. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Of course, freedom of expression does not throw open the door to abusive behaviour. People have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect the rights of others. Governments may put in place laws that restrict those freedoms, to protect the rights and reputations of others, particularly where such views could incite religious, racial or other hatreds. But such laws must be proportionate. They must never exceed what is necessary to address the problem. Mr Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill fundamentally fails to meet these standards.

In the role of Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson said: “Yes Baldrick, let us not forget that you tried to solve the problem of your mother’s low ceiling by cutting off her head.” The SNP seems to have its own cunning plan to decapitate our freedoms. Its repeated attempts to introduce bad laws deserves its own comedy show. It would be funny it if wasn’t so serious.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald

Read more: SNP Hate Crime Bill deluged with almost 2,000 responses