IF there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we should be free to disagree. As someone fortunate enough to actually get paid for expressing opinions, it’s fair to say my life would be made a lot more difficult if I couldn’t disagree with people. The protection of free speech is such a simple and unifying message that it’s hard to argue with – even for those of us who enjoy a good debate.

So when a campaign against the new Hate Crime Bill being considered by the Scottish Parliament was launched last week under the banner “Free To Disagree”, I had to tip my hat to the organisers. To-the-point, easy to understand, and rooted in widely shared values (in this case, freedom of expression); the brains behind the branding of this operation clearly knew what they were doing.

But who exactly are “they”, and are their interests really aligned with the majority in Scotland? Somewhat unsurprisingly to anyone who has been paying attention to public debates over apparently controversial legislation in Scotland over the past two decades, Free To Disagree is a campaign led by The Christian Institute.

The Newcastle-based institute was one of two Christian organisations behind the Be Reasonable campaign against the “smacking ban” which passed in the Scottish Parliament last year. It played a significant role in halting the proposed Named Person scheme which would have given each child in Scotland a single point of contact to safeguard their welfare. And it has thrown its weight behind numerous campaigns and legal challenges across the UK against same-sex civil parternships, marriage and adoption, as well as abortion and assisted dying.

In its latest annual review from 2018, The Christian Institute asserts that “governments exist to restrain evil”. With that in mind, it argues that governments should take action to ensure the law reflects their core beliefs: that “divorce is discouraged and reconciliation encouraged”, that parents have a “God-given authority over their children”, that harm-reduction approaches to drug use and teenage pregnancy are “un-Christian”, and that “life is sacred from conception”.

Then again, none of that sounds quite as catchy as “free to disagree”. Nor is it as likely to inspire consensus among people in Scotland. Of course, it’s absolutely true that disagreement and criticism of others’ views should be permitted; welcomed, even. But it’s also vitally important to the free and democratic consideration of ideas and policies that people are aware of the agenda of the sources advancing particular arguments – and of those who are bankrolling their campaigns.

As for the Scottish Government’s agenda, it has argued that the proposed hate crime legislation would address a need to consolidate current laws and extend “stirring up of hatred” offences to include age, disability, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. The new law would now treat those characteristics in the same way as race by making it illegal to behave in an “abusive or threatening manner” which would be likely to incite other people to be hateful towards those groups. Separately, a working group will consider the creation of a standalone misogynistic harassment offence.

All of the potential legal implications of the bill I won’t pretend to know, and I will be interested to read a variety of expert opinions on the matter. However, one need not wholeheartedly endorse every aspect of this, or any, piece of legislation to be concerned by the familiar fervour with which certain forces are mobilising against it and the lack of transparency in the communication of their message.

Earlier this month, legal analyst for ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) International Lois McLatchie was published in both The Herald and The Times arguing that the Hate Crime Bill could see author JK Rowling imprisoned for her recently expressed views on trans people and gender identity. These opinion pieces curiously did not explore the matter of protecting religious freedom, despite the fact this is the organisation’s raison d’etre.

And while a note at the end of The Times piece explains that ADF International is “a faith-based legal advocacy organisation in Geneva”, this seems a bit of an understatement. The organisation was founded by leaders of the American Christian right in 1994 in Arizona, now has offices in several cities in the US and Europe, and is classified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which credits it with informing the Trump administration’s rollback of LGBT rights.

The organisation is also vociferously anti-abortion and has supported legal challenges around the globe, including in English local authorities where it fought a decision to introduce buffer zones to prohibit protests outside abortion clinics, and at Glasgow University where it backed a pro-life group’s right to meet in the student union.

That ADF International should now crop up in the debate over Scotland’s hate crime laws is, therefore, as predictable as it is ominous. It is also no surprise that it appears to be working in lockstep with The Christian Institute, given that the former describes the latter as its “allied organisation”, and the two previously worked together on a legal challenge on behalf of a registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnerships.

What makes this worrying is that these organisations, which represent an international alliance of Christian right campaigners, are highly organised and well funded. In 2018, The Christian Institute had an income of over £3 million, made up entirely of donations, while ADF International’s UK branch, which first opened in 2017, had an income of almost £440,000 – 85% of which came directly from the US branch.

Part of being organised, of course, means being astute communicators, and these organisations are getting better at this all the time; using respectable, legalistic language to make themselves more palatable, all while pouring money into socially regressive causes that would see the rights of women and minorities stripped away. This is why the ADF International columns presented the Hate Crime Bill as a threat to open debate among feminists; this was a cynical ploy to muddy the waters, while eluding the organisation’s own agenda entirely.

A few months earlier, the same author wrote a blog making a quasi-feminist case for curtailing reproductive rights. In it, she lamented that the “new availability of the pill and of abortion” following the sexual revolution had produced the archetypal “Cosmo Girl” who could “work like a man, act like a man”, but only by “temporarily or even permanently sterilising herself to shed the uniqueness of her mothering capabilities”. But ADF International knows that such arguments would be unlikely to win the favour of many feminists in Scotland; far more shrewd to simply mislead people into believing they have the same interests at heart by telling them what they need to hear.

THIS should be of little comfort to anyone who might agree with this well financed movement on one issue but disagree on others. If we want to protect against undue influence in our politics by underhand, reactionary forces, we need to call it out now and whenever we see it. Then we can get back to the business of transparent democratic debate.

The growing trend of global networks working together to curtail progress should be of concern to anyone truly invested in freedom of expression; because free speech means very little when organisations or individuals can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to scare politicians out of backing legislation they don’t like. Whether the basis for their hostility is religious belief or financial interest, the end result is the same: democracy is demeaned and the voices of those without means are drowned out.

At a time of disinformation overload, it’s never been more important to be mindful of exactly who is telling you what to think. If the media and elected representatives fail to rise to that challenge, our freedoms really could be at risk.