Anti-sectarian bill stamps out nothing but free speech

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David James Robertson

What do Braveheart, ‘God Save the Queen’, making the sign of the cross and the Palestinian flag have in common? Under a new bill passed by the Scottish government, they could all land you in prison. A direct response to the escalation of incidents in Scotland last year that included Neil Lennon receiving death threats and a boisterous Scottish cup match at Celtic Park that lead to a summit between the government, police and representatives from Rangers and Celtic, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill was last month passed by a small majority in Holyrood despite widespread criticism from other political parties, academics and football fans. Introducing two new criminal offences, the bill would criminalize ‘behaviour which is threatening, hateful or otherwise offensive’ at both football matches and on the internet, with anyone convicted facing a maximum imprisonment of five years.

Rather than clarify and define what songs, chanting and behaviour could lead to arrest, the bill has further complicated the already sticky area of sectarianism. Relying on police discretion and subjectivity, the bill doesn’t make any references to sectarianism, instead stating that the offensive behaviour that could lead to arrest is for those engaging in actions that are ‘likely to incite public disorder.’ Beyond the dubious notion that a legally acknowledged ‘reasonable person’ is the standard by which it is decided whether someone has fallen foul of the bill, the criteria for determining what constitutes offensive behaviour is almost wholly interpretative: what might be insulting or unsettling for one person could be humorous for another. The open and muddling nature of the bill ensures it is almost unpoliceable: in the raw and intense world of football, almost anything could be considered offensive. Players celebrating by running to the opposition fans, a player crossing himself when he enters the pitch, a referee unsettling the emotions of the fans with a series of mistakes and songs that question the legitimacy of a player’s birth are all examples of behaviour that could lead to arrest under the new bill, even if none of the scenarios ever actually leads to public disorder. Moreover, the part of the bill that aims to supervise the internet is almost impossible to enforce: I can just imagine a world-weary police officer shifting through millions of pages of banal and misspelled updates on Facebook in his pursuit for someone who has called Neil Lennon a naughty word.

Though the bill makes no specific reference to Rangers and Celtic, it is to the two Glasgow giants that it will be most forcibly applied. A rivalry based on centuries of cultural, political and religious differences, in recent years the Old Firm have faced several new laws and acts that have attempted to put an end to what Jack McConnell described as ‘Scotland’s secret shame’, with the new bill representing the most significant threat yet to these fans’ right of expression. Songs like ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Boys of the Old Brigade’ and flags like the Red Hand of Ulster and the Irish Tricolour – used legitimately by fans in other parts of the world – would be outlawed. If Paul Gascoigne or Artur Boruc tried miming playing a flute or wearing a shirt with a picture of the Pope on it these days, they’d be arrested. Anyone sent off in a game – like the three Rangers players in the Scottish cup match – could be prosecuted, as well as Scotland fans who boo a national anthem or Partick Thistle fans who sing this witty anti-Old Firm chant, ‘Hello, hello / How do you do? / We hate the boys in royal blue / We hate the boys in emerald green / So fuck the Pope / And fuck the Queen.’ Rugby fans who sing the exact same songs at Murrayfield that you might hear at Ibrox or Celtic Park are exempt from arrest, however, since the bill only applies to a game where the ball is kicked and not carried, sending out a clear message that rugby fans are refined, trustworthy and almost exclusively middle class, while those pesky, primarily working class football fans are suspicious.

As well as criminalizing forms of representation, the bill demonstrates a lack of understanding when it comes to the nature of football rivalry and hatred. Point-scoring and mickey-taking through exaggeration and fake indignation are fundamental rights as a football fan., especially in derbies, where the combination of alcohol and working class males ensures that people do strange, often unusual things, like singing about deaths of fans of your opponents. Discussing notable rivalries in football, the Guardian sports writer Daniel Taylor said, ‘Incessant hatred is a fact of football life. It’s out there, it’s unshakeable, and everyone who attends these matches is obliged to live with it.’ Though the Old Firm divide can be sinister and ominous, often what is mistaken for examples of sectarianism is simply football allegiance. Recently Liverpool fans unveiled a banner that said, ‘We’re not racist, we just hate Mancs’, which located their football rivalry in a context that people in Scotland cannot similarly apply to the Old Firm.

It has became impossible to see animosities between Rangers and Celtic without looking through the lens of sectarianism. Journalists and broadcasters – many of them ex-players – simply aren’t in a position to comment on what is a complicated sociological phenomenon, instead turning out the words ‘sectarianism’ and ‘bigotry’ with such laziness and inaccuracy that the words have lost all meaning. It’s reached the level where people assume these words are uniquely applicable to a West of Scotland syndrome, and something that’s not just as relevant in Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon. In these countries sectarianism is defined by segregation, suicide bombing, civil wars and mass emigration. In Scotland in 2008, on the other hand, Cardinal Keith O’Brien warned that ‘The Hokey Cokey’ was anti-Catholic and could be used by football supporters to incite religious hatred. Many people claim to believe that sectarian violence and discrimination exists, but have very little evidence to back it up, with the result being that the notion that sectarianism is a pertinent problem in Scotland becoming as accepted as that myth about the Kelvingrove Art Gallery being built back to front.

One of the world’s oldest derbies, the Old Firm game is almost unique in that there is no one reason it is so fiercely contested; it’s a intriguing combination of other European football derbies. It has the political tension of El Clasico, the cross city rivalry of Fenerbache – Galatasaray, the tribalistic battle for national supremacy similar to the Liverpool – Manchester United game and the duopolistic clash for the league title that motivates matches between Panathinaikos and Olympiakos. Rangers and Celtic aren’t just the two biggest teams in Glasgow, they’re the two biggest teams in Scotland. Their stadia are less than five miles apart. You have to go back to 1985 for the last time neither of them won the league. Only recently, with Manchester City’s emergence as a team to challenge for the English Premier League, has the Manchester derby started to resemble the Glasgow equivalent, with the city derby also becoming a top-of-the-table clash. December’s Old Firm game was so significant to the league that whoever won the game would go top of the league, and in a country where the winner has been decided on the very last day five times since 2003, they’re hugely significant arbiters of success.

Aptly enough, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery has contributed to this myth about the problem of sectarianism in Glasgow. In the permanent ‘Glasgow Stories’ exhibit, visitors are greeted by the ‘Symbols that Divide’ display which consists of a mural of King William III, a statue of St. Patrick and information on the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth. The sole mention of Rangers and Celtic is the underwhelming and simplistic reference to Rangers’ association with Protestantism and Celtic’s with Catholicism. The most visited museum in the Britain outside of London, in the year following Kelvingrove’s refurbishment it had 1.9 million visitors. 1.9 million visitors, some of them foreigners, tourists and strangers to Glasgow, entering with a limited information on the Old Firm and leaving with their knowledge only boosted by the fact that the people in blue and the people in green don’t really get on with one another. There’s nothing about how Rangers are the world’s most successful football club, or that Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup. The dispirited, bleak and negative examination of just one characteristic of these two Glasgow institutions represents an almost bewildering own goal that is emblematic of the inability to see Rangers and Celtic as anything other than perennially warring factions. After all, there are no other exhibits in the museum dedicated to Glasgow’s title as the unhealthiest city in Britain or further information on how the constituencies of Glasgow North and North East claimed a combined 255 million pounds in benefits last year.

Already this season there have been examples of racism from prominent players in England. In the Spanish Super Copa final, the Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho gouged the eye of a Barcelona assistant coach. In December a match between Ajax and AZ Alkmaar was abandoned when a fan entered the pitch and attacked the AZ goalkeeper. None of these incidents brought about a nationwide summit to condemn the clubs involved or the production of a knee-jerk bill that left football fans in the dark. There is another darkness that looms over Glasgow – that of poverty, knife crime, alcoholism and domestic abuse. As austerity bites hard, there are more worthwhile causes for the government to dedicate their time and money towards than criminalizing a man shouting ‘Fuck the Pope’ or waving an Irish Harp flag at a football game. Because when this unfair, illegal and unnecessary bill comes into force, none of us will be singing anymore.