WHICHEVER side of the chamber you lend an ear to, too often Holyrood debate takes the form of a partisan round of Top Trumps. You hit me with the Law Society, and I’ll raise you the Equality Network. The Fraser of Allander Institute may be with you, but I’ll bat back with Scottish Women’s Aid. Professor to professor, NGO to NGO, baffling acronym to baffling acronym – in Scotland’s stakeholderocracy, political controversies are resolved by the hack, parry and thrust of blandly listing folk who happen to agree with you.

In principle, of course, this need not be objectionable. Expert groups and interest groups are entitled to lobby for their points of view, intervening in Bills and marshalling political coalitions for their ideas. But what’s striking is today’s indispensable authority will always be dropped like a hot brick tomorrow. The inclination towards treason is coiled in the heart of every really effective politician. It is easier to sacrifice your consistency than to lose a vote, I suppose, and for many MSPs, arguments are only weapons of convenience, but this deeply disintegrated politics is ultimately a sign of immaturity and lack of intellectual seriousness. We could and should do better.

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This fortnight provides a starkly illustrative case of where this kind of inconsistency takes us. Last week, Holyrood got out its liberal greasepaint, and, all daubed up, took to the stage to denounce the vices of bad lawmaking. Criminal law, James Kelly and his colleagues argued, must be clear and certain, capable of general application and with a coherent intellectual underpinning. These are people’s lives we are talking about, after all. If we’re going to indict folk for their conduct, if we’re going to fine them or lock them up for their behaviour, the law should be cogent, comprehensible. In sketching the boundary between crimes and wrongs, offences and discourtesies, the law must be clear. Fail to live up to these high standards and, the majority of our MSPs argued, public confidence in the law would waste way, corroded by erratic enforcement, inept prosecutions and overcriminalisation.

I have considerable sympathy with this analysis, but it sticks in my craw how casually our representatives are prepared to go through the political costume changes. Having nudged the Football Act closer to oblivion because of its vagueness and potential for injustice, yesterday the Scottish Parliament united to pass another criminal statute – with almost all of the same vices. It isn’t the cynicism of this which I find disturbing, so much as the apparent lack of self-awareness.

The Domestic Abuse Bill passed its final legislative hurdle in Holyrood yesterday. And at its core, in its bones, it is a good and necessary Bill. But like the Football Act, proponents of this legislation resisted every effort to make this dramatic and wide-ranging offence even marginally more careful or considered. Michael Matheson even took the opportunity to extend its reach globally.

This is characteristic of Holyrood’s Top Trump politics. When it came to killing off the Football Act, the Law Society’s criticisms of the statute were cardinal, but when the lawyers expressed concerns about the clarity and intellectual coherence of the new domestic abuse offence? All you could hear were awkward coughs in Holyrood, and the shuffling of MSPs’ feet. Nobody’s judgement is infallible, but our MSPs’ erratic interest and uninterest in clarity, consistency and careful criminal lawmaking tells its own story.

What we are left with is a domestic abuse offence which has the potential to do considerable good – but with the potential, if clumsily enforced or injudiciously prosecuted, to do considerable harm. Nobody was tasteless enough to point this out in the Holyrood chamber yesterday. Nobody applied the lessons the clunking Offensive Behaviour at Football Act supposedly taught us.

Let’s start with the positives. Scottish Women’s Aid must be right that the law as it stands focuses disproportionately “on physical dimensions of domestic abuse”, meaning that “emotional, financial, sexual and other forms of abuse escape the attention and condemnation they require”. Police Scotland data indicates that of just fewer than 60,000 domestic abuse incidents recorded in 2016/17, more than half did not amount to a crime at common law. Delving into these statistics shows us that just below 80 per cent of complainers in these cases are women, dealing with an abusive male accused. As Scottish Women’s Aid rightly argues, “this Bill provides us with the opportunity to transform Scotland’s response to domestic abuse to reflect women’s lived experience” of the harm which abusive relationships can give rise to. Men’s too.

This is a real achievement for a tireless generations of campaigners. It has always seemed an artificial distinction to regard physical wrongs as falling within the scope of the criminal law while ignoring the profound effects which psychological cruelty can have on the lives of individuals who live daily under its shadow. However, the regulation of family and romantic life is fraught with peril for the lawmaker. The risks of overcriminalisation are considerable.

Proponents of this legislation have never really reckoned with the breadth of the behaviour this legislation will capture, from the straightforwardly repugnant to the potentially innocuous. For example, the Bill will criminalise “violent” and “frightening, humiliating, degrading or punishing” behaviour – but also extends to “monitoring” behaviour and behaviour which “restricts freedom of action”.

Proponents of this legislation have responded defensively to these notes of legal doubt by insisting that no normal relationship ever contains even a trace of these unseemly characteristics.

But entering into any relationship inevitably restricts the “freedom of action” of both parties. Even broadly healthy relationships are occasionally characterised by hurtful conduct, jealous behaviour and distressing episodes. The new Bill must discriminate between serious wrongs which deserve to be prosecuted, and unpleasant and irrational behaviour which ought to fall below the threshold of criminality. This is no easy task. But having wiped off the liberal greasepaint, Holyrood has – once again – taken a hatchet to this careful job. The results aren’t pretty.

There’s a memorable exchange in Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons. Sir Thomas More is debating with his son-in-law, Roper. Young Roper is a natural fanatic, impatient with anything resembling quibbling detail, and grows more and more frustrated by More’s insistence on the importance of the rule of law. Their conversation turns to the Devil. Would you give Satan himself the benefit of the law, or would you hack down all the laws in England to get at him? Modern legislators face similar questions. Roper got his axe out. And yesterday, so too did our MSPs.

Don’t let their high-minded speeches about the illiberalism of the Football Act distract you. Don’t let the warm words about liberty and free expression fool you. Look at what our MSPs do, not what they say. Like Roper, Holyrood always stands ready to “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil”.

And make no mistake, there are devils in our world: the emotional vampires and the bunny boilers, the domestic sadists and tyrants. I hope the sanctions of the Domestic Abuse Act come crashing down on those who most deserve it. But to get at these devils, Holyrood has again given prosecutors too much autonomy and ignored their own speeches about importance of clarity, certainty and clear thresholds in our criminal law.

I hope they don’t regret it, as our MSPs shuffle the Top Trump deck and play on.