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Scotland: freedom under threat

What comes to your mind at the mention of Scotland? Perhaps, you conjure up images of majestic mountains, the glens (Scottish valleys), the Lochs (Scottish lakes), or wild and dramatic scenery? Or maybe it is the kilts, the tartans, and the “scotch” whiskey? There is something of a romantism about Scotland that causes our imagination to run away.

The cold, hard reality, is that all is not well in the land of the Scots. There are more threats to basic liberties in Scotland than any other part of the United Kingdom. Scotland is effectively a one-party state under the Scottish National Party (SNP), which is best described as socialism wrapped in the flag. (Of course, there is another name for that.)

The Spectator recently reported that the recent Hate Crimes Act gives “even more powers to menace the press. Scotland is being ushered towards an era of censorship, threats and state repression.”

Since 2005 Scotland has returned 59 members to the House of Commons. In the election of that year, the leftist Labour Party held 41 seats, the centre-Left Liberal Democrats held 11, the SNP held six and the Conservative Party held one seat. The SNP was composed of romantic idealists at best, dangerous socialists at worse, but there were only a half-dozen of them. By the time we reached the general election of December 2019, the members returned were: Labour one, the Liberal Democrats four, the Conservatives six, and the SNP a quite extraordinary 48. Scotland had been a traditional heartland for Labour. The SNP ousted them by flying the national flag whilst at the same time outflanking Labour to the Left.

Since 1999, Scotland has been governed as a devolved assembly from the UK Parliament (despite still sending 59 members to Westminster to vote on our taxes, etc) – a form of federal government which will be familiar to North American readers. Under the proportional representation system, it is almost impossible for one party to win a majority (as opposed to a plurality) of seats. In 2011, the SNP did just that; 69 out of 129 seats, with 44% of the vote on the regional lists. In 2016, the SNP dropped to 63 with 42% of the vote with something of a resurgence from the Scottish Conservatives on 31 seats and 23% of the vote.

However you look at the numbers, the SNP is dominant and has elected the First Minister and the Cabinet for the last 14 years with little prospect of that changing. The current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon – beloved of the press – views everything through the eyes of “independence” and the will to differentiate herself from Boris Johnson’s national government.

In the last such independence vote of 2015, Scots voted 55%-45% in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom. Scotland’s economy is dependent on the public expenditure provided by the UK government (although it is does have some tax-raising powers in its own right) which certainly leads to some resentment among the voters of more conservative England.

Some of the legislative provisions which have emerged from Scotland in recent years are nothing short of extraordinary in the threats that they pose to religious and political liberty. You may be shocked by what you read. You might be reminded of the old Soviet Eastern-bloc dictatorships. The worst include:

1. Named person scheme. In February 2014, the Scottish Parliament gave approval to the SNP’s “Children and Young People (Scotland) Act,” which included a provision for a state-appointed “named person” to have oversight of the well-being of each and every child in Scotland up to the age of 18 … and well-being was defined as happiness. In a free country, the state would usurp parental responsibilities: There was to be a direct relationship between the state and children which bypassed parents. Additionally, the named person was to record and share confidential information concerning the child and his or her parents. (Perhaps this might include the family’s voting habits or parental views on same-sex relationships?)

After a campaign led by Christian groups, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom struck down its central proposals in July 2016 in a 5-0 ruling: The Christian Institute and Others v. The Lord Advocate (Scotland). The Lord Advocate was the chief legal officer of the Scottish government. The court ruled that the scheme breached the right to a private family life under the Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Some months later, in September 2019, the Scottish government admitted defeat and withdrew the proposals.

2. Hate Crimes Bill. In 2020, the SNP introduced the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. It introduced the vague crime of “stirring up” hatred, including through the dissemination of material against specified characteristics. Its protected categories included sexual orientation and transgender status, causing concern that one could be punished for using “incorrect” pronouns or preaching from the pulpit on any matter dealing with the traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. The penalty specified was up to seven years in prison. Mere conversations between family members in the privacy of their own homes would be subject to these draconian and repressive measures. Naturally, there was no definition of hatred or “abusive,” leaving the matter open to interpretation, aside from weak protections for free speech. A huge backlash forced the government, in late 2020, to make some concessions. Yet the government took aim at religious liberty itself, as demonstrated by ...

3. State-enforced church closures. In most “lockdowns,” the government has exempted public worship. But Scotland’s most recent laws and regulations related to COVID-19 banned and criminalised gathering for public worship, an unprecedented attack on a basic human right. A group of 27 church leaders took the Scottish government to court. In a March 24, 2021, ruling by a senior judge at the Court of Session – Scotland’s highest court – found the Scottish government had acted unlawfully and disproportionately, interfering with the freedom of religion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The regulations were overturned with immediate effect.

These examples show how SNP-run Scotland has become the very antithesis of a free nation. Furthermore, there is no clear division between government and party: Sturgeon is the First Minister. Her husband is the chief executive of the Scottish National Party. The chief legal officer, Lord James Wolffe, who oversees the independence of the prosecution service, also sits at the heart of government, attending Cabinet meetings, advising the First Minister and answering in Parliament. The arrangements lack true independence.

All of this complexity came to head in 2020-21 with a “turf war” between the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his successor, Sturgeon. Salmond was acquitted at trial of various alleged sexual offences. He sued the Scottish government for pursuing a vendetta and won his case, receiving significant damages. One enquiry found that Sturgeon had misled Parliament and broken the ministerial code governing conduct; another found the opposite.

The dominance of the SNP in Scottish politics is highly destructive. They will tolerate no opposition. Everything must serve the “independence” project, party aims, and Sturgeon’s personal interests.

Freedom is under real threat in the home of Adam Smith. We have seen three stark examples in the last five years. Pray for this nation.

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Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994.

Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.