The proposed new legislation to control sectarian singing in Scottish football grounds is absurd, impractical and undemocratic
WHAT has caused the sudden change? Little more than a month ago, Alex Salmond was re-elected on the basis of his four-year record of sure-footed competence. A few weeks on he is blundering around, making enemies and antagonising people. First, he launches gratuitous attacks on judges and lawyers. Now, he is ramming through the most sinister piece of legislation since the establishment of the devolved parliament.
It’s the majority, stupid. Constrained by its minority position the previous SNP administration did, in the main, nothing, and did it very well, gaining resounding support from the electorate for its thoughtful inaction. Unconstrained, with an overwhelming majority, the gloves have come off. Taking the post of Presiding Officer, securing the chairmanship of the most important committees, cutting short debate – all these actions eliminate checks and balances. This is the insolence of office.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill is a bad bill which, in most democratic parliaments, would be subject to rigorous scrutiny and amendment to turn it into something workable. “Hoseanna” Cunningham, in her evidence to the justice committee, was forced by the logic of the bill to expose its absurdity. Out along with the Irish national anthem and Rule Britannia go songs from American musicals (You’ll Never Walk Alone) and hits from the ’90s (Just Can’t Get Enough and Simply the Best) because any song adopted by the opposition could be seen to be provocative. Is it the words or the music that are offensive? Fans are nothing if not creative. Will they be allowed sing new words to old tunes to avoid arrest? Is the offering of a silent prayer before a penalty kick offensive?
The bill is woolly and subjective. It does not, because it cannot, specify which songs or symbols are banned. So it has to rely on subjective assessment and the context in which these songs are sung or the symbols used. The courts will find most of this unenforceable. The bill refers to “behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”. What reasonable person would be provoked by an idiot standing beside his supporters’ bus blessing himself? Who could be offended by the words “No Pope of Rome, no chapel to sadden my eye, No nuns and no priests, no rosary beads, Every day is the 12th of July”. That’s a hysterically funny parody, not an invitation to riot. But of course, the sectarian hooligans at whom the law is to be directed are not reasonable persons. They’re irreligious idiots. So how can the courts apply this standard?
Such is the SNP’s control over the consciences and common sense of its new MSPs that this nonsense will sail through unless sufficient pressure is brought from outwith parliament to stop it.
The police won’t speak out. By calling for a summit last season, they started all this then ran away. We haven’t heard from the chief constable of Strathclyde since. Yet, if they were too scared to use the powers of arrest they already have to control unruly crowds, players and managers, they must know that they will be standing idly by when the Celtic end orchestrate a Mexican wave of signs of the Cross. But the police are never going to turn down more powers to control the citizenship. They’re just going to ask for more money to pay for the overtime necessary to lock them up.
The Catholic Church should be leading the protests. And there is some indication that it is prepared to risk the mutual admiration between itself and the SNP to do so. Peter Kearney, its spokesman, himself a former SNP candidate, puts his finger on the greatest weakness of the bill – that it is attempting to criminalise what should be a matter of conscience, the misuse of legitimate symbols. But, for once, the Church does not appear to be speaking with one voice. Right-wing Bishop Joseph Devine takes the opposite view, wanting those who exploit “eminent” symbols to be held to account by the state. Archbishop Mario Conti, writing from his luxury villa on the southside of Glasgow, ascribes sectarianism to “poverty, alcoholism and violence” but seems more intent on keeping an examination of the role of Catholic schools out of the debate than condemning the irrelevancy of the proposed legislation to the tackling of these causes.
Celtic and Rangers, meanwhile, are keeping their heads down. It’s a break for them that the buck for cracking down on offensive singing, and thus angering supporters, passes from them to the police. But Celtic should be objecting. One of the strong threads of the Celtic tradition is support for human rights. If the club could defy the might of the Soviet Union over its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it can stand up to this dictatorial law. John Reid, who was a real Home Secretary, should use his scathing wit to expose the absurdity and unconstitutional nature of a bill that seeks to restrict freedom of expression. And in a show that would be a powerful rejection of sectarianism he should be joined by the Orange Order. This organisation is as much political as it is religious, dedicated to preserving the freedoms won by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the rights secured thereafter. What kind of country is it that refuses to allow its members to condemn a church leader that it considers the anti-Christ?
This proposed law has brought an element of farce to what is a shameful, difficult, deep-seated but limited problem. This is a problem which is being solved.
Painfully slowly, yes, but sectarianism is on the way out. Rushed legislation leading to an unenforceable law takes us no faster down that road. All it will do is unjustly curtail freedom of speech.
Fortunately, the UK Supreme Court will overturn any convictions which involve breaches of human and civil rights. It’s one of the few protections remaining from a government that has quickly demonstrated its authoritarianism.