On the face of it, the latest statistics on hate crimes in Scotland are alarming:
homophobic crimes up by one-quarter, and those motivated by prejudice against disability up 12 per cent. There has also been a three per cent increase in racial crimes compared to last year.
What is happening? Is Scotland in the grip of a new epidemic of nastiness and prejudice?
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The more likely explanation is that the increase is due, at least in part, to greater reporting of the crimes. Attitudes in Scotland towards vulnerable minorities are undoubtedly changing. There is a growing intolerance of intolerance itself. With barriers to equality for gay men and women having been systematically dismantled over recent years, culminating most recently in the equal marriage legislation, it is now the bigots, rather than their targets, who are finding themselves left out in the cold. Men and women who are gay, bisexual or transgender, disabled people and those of different racial backgrounds and nationalities living in Scotland, who might once have endured prejudiced bullying, insults and attacks as a miserable but inevitable part of life, now recognise that they do not have to put up with such vile treatment. They have greater confidence the police will take their complaints seriously and do something about them.
Even so, it would be complacent to assume that greater reporting fully explains these latest rises in hate crimes. Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, QC, has expressed anxiety about the increase in racial and homophobic offences in particular. He believes these show how much work is still to be done in tackling hateful attitudes towards minorities. The recently published British Social Attitudes Survey showed that one-third of Britons admitted to being racially prejudiced, an astonishing figure that puts levels of prejudice on a par with 30 years ago. It is likely that if the same survey had been conducted exclusively in Scotland, the level of prejudice would be lower, Scotland having not experienced the same tensions over immigration as many other parts of the UK, but it would be naive to imagine Scotland is immune to these troubling attitudes.
The rise in offences directed at the disabled should also give pause for thought. There have been concerted efforts of late to get more disabled people to report hate crimes, which are likely to account for much of the rise, but this type of offence has had a lower profile than homophobic and racial crimes for many years, so it is likely its true prevalence is still not showing up in the statistics.
What the latest evidence shows quite clearly is the value of the work done by the police, the Scottish Government and organisations representing the communities affected to tackle hate crime. More victims are coming forward and there has been a 24 per cent drop in charges of religious offences in and around football matches, but there can be no let-up in efforts to tackle this blight. The hope must be that the more hate crimes are seen to be punished, the more would-be offenders will be deterred.