Living in China, I’m used to reading stories of police wading into crowds to pull down banners deemed offensive to the authorities, and dragging away the ‘troublemakers’ who unfurl these slogans. Still, the most recent article I read about this was surprising.
It was the Scotsman’s report on the Rangers-Kilmarnock game on Tuesday night.
During the game, police harrassed a group of Rangers supporters protesting an anti-discrimination law working its way through the Scottish Parliament. The fans were holding banners reading “SNP Weak on Criminals, Tough on Fans” and “Undefinable Law Against Supporters”. Eventually, around a hundred fans left in protest at the heavy-handed policing.
These actions illustrate exactly why the law should not pass. Police already have carte blanche to do what they like to football supporters, and this is simply an unnecessary and unworkable piece of legislation that is a reaction to some high-profile handbags at an Old Firm game last season. It won’t solve any of Scottish society’s problems.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill was introduced to parliament in June by the governing Scottish National Party and is now under “Detailed Consideration” by the Justice Committee, where it may be amended before going to a vote in the Scottish Parliament.
The Bill introduces two new laws. The first will criminalise “the full range of offensive and threatening behaviour, including sectarian behaviour at, or in connection with football matches”. The second targets online or postal communications “threatening or inciting serious violence and threats which incite religious hatred.” While I have no time for “Internet hardmen”, the first law is worse so I will focus on it – with the help of some of the submissions given to parliament from civic groups and members of the public.
Firstly, the law does not define what exactly it is outlawing, relying on the old “what a reasonable person would find offensive” test. Well, the definition of “reasonable” might vary a little bit in different parts of Glasgow. 37-year-old Celtic supporter John McAree agrees, stating in a letter to the Justice Committee: “Officers on duty at Celtic Park often find songs offensive, and act accordingly under existing legislation. Other officers, for example, on duty at Ibrox have much more tolerance.”
As the anti-sectarian group Nil By Mouth puts it: “There has been a marked reluctance on the part of government, police, sporting authorities and civic Scotland to providing a clear definition of words, acts or gestures which may, or may not, be viewed as sectarian.” Rangers fans are commonly referred to as “huns” – but according to Nil By Mouth that’s a Northern Irish sectarian term. “Fenian” historically had a very specific political, not religious, meaning. So which is worse?
The law is not even necessary. There are many ways the police, and others, can clamp down on sectarian behaviour. The Scottish Justices Association sees the Bill as “an expensive … and complicated way of addressing a problem which is already addressed in existing offences.” There are many ways to get arrested at the football: Rangers players Terry Butcher and Chris Woods were even convicted of breaching the peace while *playing* in an Old Firm game in 1987. Football banning orders can be used to keep bigots out of football grounds, though only 101 had been issued in Scotland as of December 2010. And if football’s rulers were truly serious about banishing bigotry, they would deduct points from clubs when their supporters shame the game. That would change behaviour in a heartbeat.
But only behaviour inside stadiums, not in society. And that’s another major failing of this law: it specifically targets behaviour at football matches, and even pubs broadcasting football matches, while ignoring the same actions elsewhere. I agree with Supporters Direct Scotland who say it is “unreasonable to make certain actions illegal in the context of a regulated football match when the same actions apparently would be acceptable in other public situations, such as going the cinema or attending the theatre.” Or a pop concert; a song which would get you arrested at Parkhead would be acceptable at a Pogues gig along the road in the Barrowland Ballroom. Can that be right?
The words of one William Queen (!) sum up my view perfectly. “As a Rangers supporter I want to see sectarianism banished from our nation but this is not the answer.”
The back page of Wednesday’s Scotsman reported on the Ibrox protest. The front page highlighted a government report showing that more than one in 10 Scots is regularly taking antidepressant pills. If this bill passes, I might need a few myself.