April 1. Day one of the Scottish Government’s new hate crime law. Would I like to go to a secret gig in Edinburgh arranged by comedians and activists opposed to the legislation? Yeah, why not, should be a laugh. Provided I can contain my barely suppressed inner hate of course.

The venue for the gig, I’m told, will need to be kept a secret until the last minute because if it’s made public, activists will try to shut the place down or threaten the owners. In fact, the club where it’s going to happen is a last-minute substitute after the first one got cold feet and pulled out. It’s the kind of thing that’s happened before. It’s where we are now.

I get the email telling me the name of the venue two or three hours before curtain-up and when I arrive, it’s packed: around 300 people, clearly in a good mood, jokey, feisty, up for a laugh, up for the fight. I bump into Neale Hanvey, the Alba MP and a vocal opponent of the hate crime legislation, who tells me it it’s shocking that the gig has had to happen in secret. “We are the dissidents,” he says.

It’s a curious group of dissidents though. As well as Mr Hanvey, the Tory MSP Murdo Fraser is also here and it goes without saying Mr Hanvey and Mr Fraser are not natural allies, on anything. However, the hate crime laws have made them comrades for now and chatting to some of the folk who’ve come here, it’s obvious the same applies across the room. Nationalist. Unionist. Left. Right. Progressive. Conservative. Gay. Straight. The only noticeable shared factor is that they probably skew a little bit older, 35-plus at least.

One of the organisers and the headline act tonight, comedian and writer Andrew Doyle, tells me this is what the SNP’s hate law has done to people. “It’s no longer about left and right,” he says. “I consider myself of the left, although I’ve lost a lot of my left-wing friends. This is about liberty versus authority.” Andrew usually runs his Comedy Unleashed nights in London, but says he was determined to put on a show in Edinburgh on the first day of the law. “We just want a fun night,” he says. “We’re taking the piss.”

They certainly are. One of the acts is a man dressed as the furry red creature you may have seen in the police ads about the hate crime law - it’s the hate monster himself! “I am here,” he says, jabbing his big red finger at us, “to make sure this event runs according to Scottish law i.e. you laugh at the correct things. To me, comedy isn’t about laughter, it’s about reinforcing progressive social values.” He then lists some of the things we shouldn’t say before the anger and fury gets the better of him. Poor hate monster. It can happen to anyone.

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The audience understands that it’s satire of course, that it’s a joke, just like we get it when one of the other performers, Dominic Frisby, sings that “maybe we should have let the Nazis win”. But we also get that many of the comedians are making a serious point. One of them, Elaine Miller, mocks Green MSP Ross Greer (there’s nothing that brings people together quite like mocking Ross Greer). But she also says this: “facts aren’t hate, words aren’t violence, and ‘toughen up’ is a good piece of advice.”

She’s referring obviously to the debate around gender, sex and trans rights; Elaine is a physiotherapist as well as a comedian and campaigner on women’s rights, famously flashing a merkin at Holyrood during the debate on the self-ID bill. She was also at the recent medical conference that was targeted by trans activists throwing smoke bombs and when I speak to her in the bar, she says she’s genuinely worried about what she sees as an increasingly hard-core attempts to shut down free speech, Scottish hate crime law included.

The Herald:

Some people say it’s not so bad. I put it to Andrew and Elaine that some lawyers point out the new law has a very high threshold for prosecutions and that it does not, for example, make misgendering a crime (something since proven by JK Rowling’s tweets this week I guess). I also point out that tonight’s comedians have not been arrested and the gig has gone ahead so maybe we’re exaggerating all of this?

Andrew and Elaine’s reasonable response is that the gig only went ahead after a struggle. Elaine also points out that what happens next depends on Police Scotland (the ones who came up with the hate monster and have said they’ll investigate every complaint). And, as the rather excellent Glasgow law lecturer Michael Foran has pointed out, whatever the letter of the law, people are concerned that offensive speech or misgendering is now a crime and they didn’t get that idea out of nowhere; they heard it from the police and ministers.

The result is that people are genuinely worried about complaints being made against them, and there have been thousands in the first few days. They’re also worried that the police will turn up at their work, seize their devices, or record a non-hate-crime incident against them. Andrew Doyle cautions too against complacency over the legislation. Why would anyone, he asks, want a law that could be weaponised by activists or a future unscrupulous government.

All of this is on my mind as I laugh along at the secret gig (as I laugh along a couple of days later when I hear there have been more complaints about Humza Yousaf than JK Rowling - now that’s comedy!) The point isn’t that the police barged in and dragged us all away for hate crimes; they didn’t. The point is that a cross-section of society, a swathe across left/right, gay/straight, unionist/nationalist, came to a room in Edinburgh because they’re concerned about this troublesome new law and its possible consequences. And nothing’s happened yet to persuade me they’re wrong.