ONE of the most surreal moments in my time at Holyrood, an incident which has become all the more bizarre since it happened, was Donald Trump’s appearance (before his presidency of course, even before his candidacy) as a witness in a committee inquiry into renewable energy. Hard though it is to believe now, the Tory convenor of the committee wanted to call Trump to give evidence on account of the climate-denier’s campaign against wind power in Scotland.

It was bad enough that this allowed Trump to turn a serious inquiry into an absurd media circus. But when I later used an image from the Python film The Life of Brian to poke fun at Trump’s non-existent evidence, I received a letter letting me know that his highly paid lawyers were trying to have me disciplined on the grounds of blasphemy!

A spurious claim of course, but quite consistent with Trump’s almost compulsive use of litigation to threaten those who criticise him. Fortunately, the offence of blasphemy is so out of date that the Standards Commissioner who handled the complaint dismissed it. So after many run-ins with religious hierarchies over the years, on issues from sex education to LGBT+ equality, I remain the only MSP ever to be formally cleared of blasphemy.

All this could be just one obscure page of Holyrood history, a story that sometimes gets me a laugh in the pub. But I raise it now because the issue of blasphemy has again surfaced in 2018, and deserves some attention. In fact, I think it deserves one final act of legislative tidying up, so that in 2019 we formally abolish this antique remnant of the age before equality or human rights became part of our society’s moral foundation.

To be clear, it’s highly improbable that anyone could bring a successful prosecution for blasphemy in the Scottish courts.

The last time was in the 19th century, and you’d be hard placed to find a legal expert who thinks it would be taken seriously now.

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Yet the offence does still formally exist, and Scotland is increasingly isolated in this. England and Wales repealed it a decade ago, Ireland has done so too, and we are now one of the few European countries yet to follow suit.

Why does it matter, if it’s not being used in the courts? Well apart from the possibility that those with deep pockets could use the threat of an action to intimidate people (fear of the law can be an effective weapon even without going to court) the existence of blasphemy laws in any country can give cover to those around the world who really do use such laws in brutal and authoritarian ways.

The case of Asia Bibi has come to global attention recently as a result of her acquittal after years in prison for blasphemy in Pakistan, a decision which has received a violent backlash from religious extremists.

The National:

At last report she remains in custody, and her family have had to move several times to try to stay safe from the threat of reprisals.

This is by no means a unique situation. In her case and in many others, even lawyers and judges are subjected to the threat and the reality of violence merely for doing their jobs.

In some countries blasphemy laws are enforced informally or at a cultural level while national authorities grudgingly ignore the consequences. In others, the state is fully behind this violent enforcement of religious ideology, and the loss of freedom, property and civil rights are meted out by the national courts. In five countries, the offence of blasphemy can result in the death sentence.

So even if such offences would never again be prosecuted in Scottish courts, surely we have a responsibility to lead by example and repeal this unwelcome reminder of the inhumane ideology which once held power here, and still does in other countries today.

We undermine our own ability to argue on the global stage in favour of justice for those who are being persecuted, if we leave this law on our own statute books.

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The Government’s current consultation on hate crime doesn’t mention blasphemy. Nor did the Bracadale Review, on which it’s based. That’s fair enough, as there are many other issues to address under that heading.

Some of those issues will be polarising, and it will be difficult to encourage people to build consensus rather than dig in their heels.

But surely one small thing we should be able to agree on is this – that the concept of blasphemy has no place in the law of modern Scotland. Let’s put the repeal of blasphemy into the new bill on hate crime, and get rid of this scrap of ancient and barbaric law.