Brian Wilson: It’s time to stop blaming the game – and the fans – for society’s ills

MP Douglas Ross caused uproar when he missed a Commons vote to run the line in Spain. Picture: Alan Harvey
MP Douglas Ross caused uproar when he missed a Commons vote to run the line in Spain. Picture: Alan Harvey
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Football can suffer from high visibility. Some ­people see far too much of it for their liking. Others cannot resist the profile it offers. ­Newspapers are always looking for ways to move it from the back pages to the front.

Take the case of Douglas Ross, now Tory MP for Moray and an assistant referee (or linesman) at high levels of the sport. National outrage has supposedly been sparked by his engagement at the Nou Camp in Barcelona last week when he could have been abstaining in person at the House of Commons.

His offence surely lies not in ­having a “second job” but in its ­visibility and, whisper it, enviability. Lots of MPs have second jobs. I, like many others, used to write newspaper columns. There are consultants and directors by the score. The current SNP leader at Westminster chairs a funeral planning company.

Given the choice from (a) a wasted night in a Commons bar, (b) planning a funeral or (c) ruling Messi offside at the Nou Camp, many of us might opt for (c). Mr Ross will, I’m sure, conclude that a genuine clash between his two callings is ­inevitable and hang up his flag. But if he wants to walk that line until the World Cup, good luck to him and spare us the cant.

One can only wish that involvement of Scottish politicians in football was limited to physical participation. Alas, we are the only greatest wee country in the world which deems it necessary to have a specialpenal code for football supporters, otherwise known as the Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds Act.

If there was a World Cup for ­banning things, Scotland would stroll home. This particular piece of headline-seeking fell at the first hurdle of fairness by applying a ­different standard of law to football supporters as compared to the rest of society.

Apart from being unjust, that is deeply counter-productive. The Act, during one of its few outings in court, was succinctly described by one Sheriff as “mince”. Another condemned its use in a case of racial abuse by a person who was not even at a football match and was convicted under other legislation.The police hold the Act in contempt because it has made their job more difficult. Football supporters hold it in contempt because it is based on an unreasonable principle. Unfortunately, it causes many supporters to hold the police in contempt because, as part of their efforts to identify miscreants, officers engage in a mass-observation campaign of incessant photography.

There are songs I do not wish to hear at football matches but these have become more widespread as a direct result of the Act. Legislators decline to identify the forbidden songs or, by extension, the approved ones, leaving the police with an impossible task, making an ass of the law and undermining clubs’ own efforts to deal with the issue.

An SNP luminary, James ­Dornan MSP, has come up with another wheeze which may become cover for retreat from the discredited Offensive Behaviour Act. His idea, or that of those who are winding him from the back, is to impose “strict liability” on football cubs. In other words, they would be held ­liable for every action that legislation has failed to prevent.

Once again, by restricting its focus to football, the idea is devoid of logic or equity. Once again, it reflects the glass half-empty mentality of those who wish to meddle in football as “a problem” in order to promote ­themselves as providers of ­“solutions”.

It is overdue for voices to speak up for football as a generally positive force in Scottish society – while its negatives are symptoms rather than causes of far wider social issues. To create some sort of perspective, Celtic’s home games last season were watched by 860,000 people. There were 12 arrests which led to five charges. Is there nothing in these numbers for Scotland to ­celebrate?

The Scottish Government has ­produced the underwhelming statistic that 24 per cent of school pupils have witnessed offensive behaviour at football grounds. The same question would get the same answer about most public places attracting huge crowds of excited people.

It is fatuous to equate the case for better behaviour with legislation which patently contributes to the opposite outcome.

Sectarianism remains an issue in Scottish society. Football inherited that burden and does its best to deal with it – with considerable ­success over the years. The inconvenient fact remains that 57 per cent of “hate crimes” in Scotland last year were against Catholics, almost none of them around football grounds. What “strict liability” will be introduced to counter that obnoxious statistic?

I took part in a high-quality ­discussion this week involving football supporters with a much firmer grasp of current social realities than those who pontificate and scapegoat. Is it football’s fault there are so many youngsters with low educational attainments, minimal career prospects and lots of anger? Is it football’s fault that cocaine use is rampant in Scottish society? ­Football cannot separate itself from social realities but is pretty good, within its limitations, at managing them.

There is an almost complete failure to recognise the vast amount of work which football clubs undertake, both to meet their own responsibilities and contribute to the wider social good. The power of football to draw young people into learning centres, to provide a positive environment for rehabilitation of offenders, to create inclusivity for people with disabiiities ... it is all happening but receives minimal recognition or support.

The economic benefits which flow into Glasgow from Celtic’s participation in Europe could be expanded a hundred fold if Scottish clubs had access to a bigger league – yet when Tony Blair reveals that he promoted this option, this is sneered at by our First Minister as confirmation that he “never did get Scotland”.

Well maybe he did. There is a Scotland which wants to be part of something bigger in order to be as successful as we can be. There is a Scotland which wants to attack the sources of social injustice and wasted lives rather than posture over symptoms. Football just might be a metaphor for all of that.