Och, now’s the hour and now’s the day for the Historic Announcement of the Historic Date for Scotland’s Historic Referendum on Independence. It’s only taken the SNP the best part of two years to get to this point and, of course, there’s only another 18 months or so to wait for the Historic Day itself.
So today’s parliamentary announcement is hardly the stuff legends are built from. Never mind. But this being a banner day for the SNP and all that, let us pause to recall one of the party’s most dismal – yet telling – failures. I refer, of course, to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communciations Act. This preposterous, cock-eyed, bill has proved just as illiberal and capricious as its critics predicted. If it provides a forecast for life in Caledonia, Free and Braw then god help us all.
Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, boasts that 83% of prosecutions pursued in relation to the bill have resulted in convictions. It is typical of the man that he should be proud of such a shameful record.
The latest kerfuffle involves a group of Celtic supporters known as The Green Brigade. Their left-wing, Irish Republican political sympathies are not mine but that’s not the point. They have – or should have – speech rights too. Most recently, 13 of their members were arrested for various breach of the peace offences as 80 of the group conducted an “illegal march” to Parkhead (arrests which, incidentally, also support the notion the Offensive Behaviour bill is redundant). I must say that the line between an illegal march and a bunch of lads walking to the fitba’ seems pretty thin and even, perhaps, arbitrary. Doubtless they were, as Tom English suggests, happy to “provoke” the police. Nevertheless, their “kettling” seemed, on the evidence available, a ridiculously over-the-top reaction.
Graham Spiers, writing in the Herald, worries that:
This attempt at cleaning up Scottish society has turned into a nightmare, cutting to the very heart of civil liberty.
Well, who could have predicted that? Only anyone who cared to think about the issue when it was first proposed nearly two years ago. It was clear then and is even clearer now that this thoughtless legislation was abominably ill-conceived, thoroughly illiberal and, most probably, essentially unworkable. It took no soothsaying powers to predict this.
I don’t mean to pick on Spiersy particularly since he was merely one of many voices simpering that Something Must Be Done. Nevertheless, though he now says he always had doubts about the bill, it bears remembering that the record of his testimony before a parliamentary committee tells otherwise. To wit:
In principle, I am in favour of the bill. […] I do not want to live in a country where we have the freedom to stand up, shout and be anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic or racist. If somebody deems that a thought crime and refers to how awful it is to be punished for a thought crime, I say that I think that some thoughts should be criminalised.
Well, some thoughts and sentiments have been criminalised and some of us would prefer to live in a country with more robust protections for freedom of thought, speech and expression. Yes, even when those thoughts are repulsive or neanderthal. You were warned about this at the time but you did not listen. See, for instance, here, here, here, here and here.
Football is a sectarian business. It cannot fail to be. Scottish football supporters, like fans in every other country, are members of rival sects or denominations. Their Hymns of Hate are declarations of tribal loyalty. Outlawing sectarianism at football makes as much sense as outlawing football itself. As a means of “combatting” the alleged problems of sectarianism in society at large, cracking down on the singing of songs inside football grounds is about as worthwhile an endeavour as expecting Kenny Miller to score the goals that would take Scotland to the World Cup Finals. It is a pointless and even counter-productive hope, untethered to reality or reason.
This was obvious when this legislation was being “debated” at Holyrood (I use the term in its loosest possible sense) and it remains obvious today.
We have reached the absurd point at which it is now seriously being proposed that the police compile a list of songs which may be sung and a rival list of anthems the singing of which is liable to leave you open to being prosecuted. The Rangers manager, Ally McCoist, has suggested just such a list of “safe songs” – a notion which reinforces the suspicion that the relationship between the football supporters and the law is now governed by rules comparable to those applied in a sado-masochistic fetish parlour.
Where will it all end? You may recall that the bill was temporarily postponed when it became evident that it might end up criminalising the national anthem. Yet in terms of “behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive” there actually is little difference, in the context of a football match, between a lusty rendition of Rule Britannia and other more overtly “sectarian” tunes. Indeed, Roseanna Cunningham, the hapless minister lumbered with responsibility for this debacle, even suggested that making the sign of the cross could, in certain circumstances, be considered an offensive provocation sufficiently serious as to warrant police investigation.
All this being the case, is it any wonder the police are arresting football supporters on what can only be considered an arbitrary and capricious basis? And why stop at singing? If vocal declarations of tribal loyalty are to be outlawed then why not criminalise the waving of flags too? If the Sash or the Boys of the Old Brigade are to be considered provocatively offensive then why not criminalise the waving of the Union Flag or the Irish Tricolour?
If that sounds silly then it is no more daft that the idea, suggested by Ms Cunningham, that offensive or threatening tattoos could “fall within the ambit of this legislation”.
As it is football supporters are being tried for notional offences of “religious hatred” when, in fact, all they are guilty of is expressing how much they despise their greatest rivals. In the context of a football match, chanting Fuck the Pope is anti-Celtic not necessarily anti-Catholic per se. Everyone understands this. The vast majority – by which I mean perhaps more than 90% – of football fans (even Old Firm supporters) are nothing more than Ninety Minute Bigots. And bigotry is an inescapable part of following a football club. An intolerance towards those who hold different opinions or are part of a different group is inherently a large part of being a football supporter.
Which means, in the end, that these poor sods are being convicted for the crime of being football supporters. What a country we now inhabit! A place in which expressing your footballing allegiance can be a criminal offence. A “reasonable” or disinterested person might consider almost any such tribal declaration – regardless of its political or religious content – threatening or offensive. Which, again, makes the suggestion of a list of “safe songs” laughably laughable. What next: the licensing of football songs and supporters? Well, why not?
The whole sorry mess is was as predictable as it is contemptible. And yet will this idiotic, unworkable and loathsome bill be repealed? Fat chance.