Complete freedom of speech is not really desirable even in the most open society, because this could permit people to lie and deceive with impunity, and to provoke public disorder. Hence it is not legal to lie when giving evidence in a court of law, or to falsely spread rumours that someone is a paedophile. Nor is it legal to incite others to commit acts of violence, or to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre to create a panic when there is no fire. The right to free speech cannot be absolute; boundaries must be drawn between what is legal (even if undesirable) and what is illegal. In an open society, speech (including the written word) should be legal unless there is a clear and compelling reason for prohibiting it. In recent times, ‘hate speech’ has become unacceptable, particularly when directed against people on the basis if their ethnicity or sexuality. What about religion?
Criticism of a specific religion, or religion in general, is criticism of an idea, a belief system. No free society should seek to restrict discussion of ideas, even if some people will be offended when their strongly-held beliefs are challenged. People can, in principle, change their religion; they cannot change their ethnic origins or their sexuality. Mocking or verbally attacking someone on the basis of their ethnicity is definitely wrong, but doing so on the basis of their beliefs may be justified since these beliefs are, or should be, a matter of choice. This argument can also be applied to political views.
In the light of this, what should we make of the recent Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian? If it is an attack on the SNP, then, however much it lacks both humour and insight, we have to tolerate it and shrug it off. The problem is that by apparently making a reference to some obscure quotation which few people have ever heard of, it is deeply ambiguous; it can easily be interpreted as saying that the Scottish people are fond of incest. When it is interpreted that way, it crosses over the border into the realm of anti-Scottish hate speech. Perhaps Steve Bell, knowing about the quotation he used as the basis for the cartoon, could not see this himself, but the editor of the Guardian owes an apology to the Scottish people for publishing a cartoon which is arguably racist.
However, I do not expect there will be any apology, nor will there be one from any of the other papers published in England which have been spewing out hatred of the SNP, which is also badly tainted with anti-Scottish bile. As others have pointed out, it makes nonsense of all the ‘love-bombing’ before the referendum. Scotland is valued as a part of the UK when it comes to providing oil revenue, hosting Trident, helping to pay for railway lines in England and sewers in London, and so on, but not when it appears that Scotland might, for once, play a significant role in determining what kind of government the UK is to have.
If the English really are as horrified by the possibility of the SNP allowing Labour to lead the next government, rather than the Tories, as their newspapers suggest they are (or encourage them to be), then they have a very obvious solution, which the SNP would happily help them to implement. Either party to a marriage can bring about a divorce; the English could simply end the Union. Then they would not have to trouble themselves with constitutional dilemmas such as EVEL or additional devolution, or the possibility that the SNP might challenge the idea that there is no alternative to austerity (except for the rich, who must be allowed to get richer). They would be free from the possibility that in the event of a Brexit referendum, the Scottish vote might just tip the balance in favour of continued EU membership, thwarting the will of the English people. All those English voters who have been convinced that the Scots are living on overly generous handouts of English money will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Tarff Advertiser (http://tarffadvertiser.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/fear-and-loathing-in-westminster.html) has an interesting viewpoint on the flood of anti-SNP articles in the English papers. He suggests that Westminster has a large collection of skeletons in a locked closet, and they are panicking because the SNP might get hold of the key. It would be very interesting if they did. Amongst many other things, we might learn how SNP activist and anti-nuclear campaigner Willie MacRae managed to put a bullet in his brain and then throw the gun out through the window of his car.