Football fans lead fight for freedom of speech
It is right that politicians should tackle sectarianism in society, writes MICHAEL KELLY. But not with anti-democratic legislation
Who would have thought that the sure-footed Alex Salmond would have been tripped up by football fans? Yet it looks like supporters from both sides of the Old Firm have decided to mount a sustained campaign against his proposed anti-sectarian legislation and so present the first grass-roots challenge to his overriding authority.
When, last season, the Chief Constable of Strathclyde called for political action to be taken following some minor disturbances on and off the field at a Rangers versus Celtic game, the First Minister could not resist jumping on the bandwagon as it rolled into Edinburgh. It seemed a natural vote winner. The behaviour of many fans at these games is at the very least boorish. At its worst it exhibits a hatred and a bile that is not healthy in any individual or society. Viewed in the sanitised corridors of power in our douce capital, it seemed that proposing legislation to deal with these nasty, brutish hordes would attract nothing but praise.
This was the conventional wisdom among all the political parties. Johann Lamont, currently a contender for Labour leadership, presented a devastating critique of the weaknesses of the bill when it came to the floor of Holyrood. But, so afraid was she of finding her party on the wrong side of the argument that she refused to set Labour against the principle of the legislation. MSPs from all sides agreed, feeling that to oppose the bill would be to be seen as condoning sectarianism. Whether this view was reinforced by the fact that Labour was mesmerised by Salmond’s ability to divine precisely the public mood on a whole series of issues, the fact remains that it was only when outside bodies, including the two football clubs most concerned, voiced concrete objections that the bill was withdrawn to allow further consultation to take place.
Opponents of the bill can fairly argue that much of the chanting at football matches is political in nature. And that is the fundamental objection to this law. It infringes freedom of speech. However unpleasant it is to hear support expressed for organisations that have been responsible for atrocities, can a democracy ban articulation of that point of view?
This bill is thoroughly anti-democratic. It is sinister. There have already been hints that singing the National Anthem may not be banned. Bu what about chanting the anthem of a partner in the European Union? Like, picking one at random, Ireland, part of the arc of prosperity that we were to join before the banking crisis exposed this as a farce. The government has refused to list the songs that may not be sung, the words that may not be used, the images that may not appear on banners. It appears the courts will be asked to rely on intent. Political thought will be monitored. And if intent to provoke is the criterion then the National Anthem will be banned because that is precisely why it is sung. This is a mess.
There is no doubt that there is a problem of sectarianism in this country. And it is right that politicians should address it. But this law is not the way. It is unenforceable. Any convictions taken on appeal to Europe will be lost on human rights grounds. But most importantly it is redundant. Laws already exist to tackle the problem – from breach of the peace upwards. Only this week we have seen cases of an arrest for an assault on a Celtic player, of a conviction for posting sectarian comments on Facebook, and of three Rangers fans being arrested for alleged sectarian offences at East End Park. What more proof does the government need that the current law is adequate? On the other hand, the not proven verdict in favour of the fan who admitted attacking Neil Lennon at Tynecastle shows how difficult convictions become when sectarianism has to be proved.
Sectarianism must be tackled in much more subtle ways than this crude law. It requires long-term changes in our culture brought about mainly through education. And this must bring the question of Catholic schools on to the agenda, though this is an issue that the First Minister will not even begin to address.
He must already be sorry he ever got involved in its sporting equivalent. Celtic supporters on Saturday mounted a coherent protest against restrictions on their expressing their culture and heritage. Rangers supporters followed. Many of their fears are exaggerated, particularly the growing concern propagated among Celtic supporters that no Catholic can get a fair trial in Scotland. But the resentment shown against the government must worry the SNP who have spent decades wooing the Catholic Church.
Alex Salmond is too smart a politician to dismiss these protests as unimportant or irrelevant to his precious independence referendum. Given the pragmatic nature of his general approach it would seem a safe bet that he will now find some way of abandoning this new law with as little loss of face as possible. For Labour it is the first opportunity to attack the SNP on an issue that will get widespread attention. There are plenty of principled grounds on which a parliamentary assault can be mounted. Equally clearly, there are political gains to be made which could show themselves in next May’s local elections. This is a chance for the contenders for the Labour leadership to show their political nous.
But, more broadly, it should also give all of the opposition parties hope. The First Minster is not invincible. There are chinks in his armour. There are vast swathes of SNP policy that do not stand up to the scrutiny to which the despised fans of the Old Firm have subjected this law. There is the equivocation between the euro and the English pound as the preferred unit of currency for an independent Scotland.
There is the anti-business budget. There is the employment gap when the British defence forces leave to guard what is left of the United Kingdom. But the immediate question is who is going to take the first shot at this open goal?
Michael Kelly CBE is a former Lord Provost of Glasgow and Rector of Glasgow University. He is a newspaper columnist and a PR consultant. This article was originally publishes in The Scotsman.