ONE of Britain's best-known retail groups has withdrawn anti-English World Cup banners, following complaints to police that they could incite racial hatred.
• Anti-English World Cup goods removed from sale by leading record chain HMV after complaint
Record chain HMV has removed items with the letters ABE – which stands for "Anyone But England" – from window displays in its Scottish stores.
It follows a number of objections from the public to the company, as well as a complaint to the police from the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP).
A police officer visited an HMV store in former prime minister Gordon Brown's Kirkcaldy constituency earlier this week and company bosses quickly agreed to remove the banners from all their stores north of the Border.
Yesterday, HMV said it was no longer "actively promoting" the ABE goods, including T-shirts, through banners and displays, and that it would stop selling them once stocks had been sold.
The firm has previously said it was stocking the items due to local demand and that it was part of a "friendly and humorous rivalry" between football fans.
However, Stuart Parr, a member of the CEP's national council, was less relaxed.
"The Campaign for an English Parliament will challenge any company that incites racial hatred towards the English," he said. "Racism is unacceptable no matter who it is directed against, including English people.
"HMV's decision to not only stock the provocative 'Anyone but England' T-shirts, but to make window displays of them in all their Scottish stores, stirring up even more bad feeling towards the English in Scotland at a time when it is already riding high because of the World Cup, is criminally irresponsible and the CEP believes that it could be considered incitement to racial hatred."
He went on: "There have been a lot of attacks on English people in Scotland during previous football tournaments, and anti-English racism remains a problem. There is enough tension around the World Cup without a big national company like HMV stirring it up."
Official figures suggest anti-English bigotry does increase around major football tournaments.
But Tam Ferry, from the Association of Tartan Army Clubs, said: "This is just political correctness gone mad again.
"I have got one of the T-shirts, and I think it's great that HMV were putting up banners.
"Football is all about rivalry and having a bit of banter. Have the police got nothing better to do than take away a bit of fun from people? There's bigger problems in this country that they should be dealing with rather than this."
The "Anyone but England" term came to the fore when tennis star Andy Murray was asked at a press conference who he would be supporting in the 2006 World Cup. His answer provoked a backlash among English fans and he later apologised, saying it had been a joke.
The T-shirts had already been the subject of police action after Grampian officers visited Slanj, an Aberdeen kilt-maker, in February, pointing out they could be seen as racist. The firm was asked to remove the garments from its windows due to their "potential to cause disturbance".
But Trevor Phillips, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has described the ABE slogan as "good-natured banter that was unlikely to cause offence".
Aberdeen North SNP MSP Brian Adam
said: "I would have thought that it's all light-hearted and not in any way serious.
"If people take offence, they should remember that we have to put up with a lot of images about Scotland, such as the ones about mean and miserable Scots.
"Also, people in Scotland might take exception to having goods promoted with images of the English team on and the English flag.
"The whole thing will be over soon and people should just get a sense of humour."
However, Lothians Labour MSP Lord George Foulkes said the products should never have been on sale to begin with.
He said: "It does seems a bit of an overreaction to withdraw it, but I feel that promotions like this are a nonsense.
"I've been supporting England in World Cup matches and know that First Minister Alex Salmond has said we should back them as well.
"The banners shouldn't really have been on sale in the first place, though."
An HMV spokesman said: "If we thought the shirts were in any way racist, then we certainly wouldn't have stocked them.
"In our view, the shirts are not against England or the English, but are simply about some Scottish fans expressing a view that they want any team other than England to win this year's World Cup. It's not a sentiment we agree with, but surely a football fan has a right to express such a view if they choose to. This is about the World Cup and should not be turned into a race issue."
A spokeswoman for Fife Constabulary said: "We received a complaint on Monday 14 June, regarding the Anyone But England banners.
"An officer attended the HMV store in Kirkcaldy and spoke to the manager there to make him aware of the complaint and to give advice. Ultimately, it was HMV's decision to remove the banners."