Euan McColm: Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was no way to tackle bigots

Celtic fans unfurl a banner that comments on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group
Celtic fans unfurl a banner that comments on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS Group
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In the days before the SNP dominated Scottish politics, certain truths were held to be self-evident.

One, long since exploded, was that the nationalists could not win in urban Scotland; theirs was a party of the countryside. Another was that Catholic voters, by and large, were unfailingly loyal to the Labour Party.

Politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon – modern, just-hip-enough – transformed the SNP’s fortunes in Scotland’s cities, shaking the foundations of decades-long Labour dominance.

But when it came to shaking that bond between Labour and the Catholic Church, something special was required. Well, former first minister Alex Salmond thought so, anyway.

And, lo, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was born.

The stated aim of this legislation was to tackle the sort of sectarian abuse and violence associated with Old Firm clashes. Salmond and his advisers believed that Catholic voters (as if they were merely parts of a single entity) would be so cheered by this that they would flock to the SNP.

In fact, Scottish Labour’s relationship with Catholic voters was a great deal weaker than Salmond had imagined. The rise of support for the SNP, largely at the expense of Labour, had already begun before the Scottish Government legislated to ban the singing of certain songs in football grounds.

Nobody but those whose views on the matter shouldn’t count would argue that sectarian abuse and violence is not an issue in Scotland, especially in the west. And, surely, nobody would argue against an effort to eradicate this particular scourge from our society.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, however, is not the answer.

It’s a piece of legislation drafted and passed not with an eye to the issue it is supposed to address but to voters Salmond wished to woo. That, I’m bound to say, is far from being a recipe for good lawmaking.

Opposition politicians and football fans, including many on both sides of that bitter Rangers-Celtic divide, reject the act as unreasonable and unworkable.

They are correct.

So we should be pleased that MSPs are making moves towards getting rid of this wrongheaded law. Members of Holyrood’s justice committee have recommended its removal from the statute books and, on Thursday, MSPs will hold the first vote on a bill to repeal it.

Naturally, the loyal lobby fodder that makes up the SNP Holyrood group remains fully committed to the legislation but even their fellow nationalists in the Green Party want to see it gone.

Labour MSP James Kelly is leading the charge against the act and I dearly hope he can garner the support needed to win the day. Its repeal would be less a defeat of the government and more a victory for good lawmaking.

Under the terms of the Act, it is possible for someone to be charged with offensive behaviour at a football match even if nobody is offended. A supporter singing a song in an empty room could end up in court if a passing police officer decides that a theoretical person might have been distressed to hear it.

I’m repulsed by some of the songs sung by some football fans but I’m not at all happy that current laws criminalise their singing when nobody is there to listen.

Repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act would not signal a free-for-all in singing The Sash or pro-Terrorist anthems; there would still exist legislation making it an offence to intimidate others or to discriminate against them on the basis of their faith.

Nor would repeal mean that this is an issue that could be considered dealt with. I grew up in a Glasgow where whether one was a “Tim” or a “Hun” really mattered to a lot of people. There is still a lot to do to overcome that angrily tribal mindset. But success in challenging sectarianism will come through education and peer pressure rather than legislation.

There are echoes here of the Scottish Government’s Named Person scheme, another piece of legislation which gives the state unreasonable power, according to its critics – of whom I am one.

There’s an old gag in political circles about bad ideas which runs “Something must be done – and this is something”. The Offensive Behaviour act and the Named Person scheme fit the bill of being “something”.

Angrily fearful of political defeat, the SNP will defend these bad laws until the bitter end, even when many of its own members reject them.

But the SNP’s defeat would be welcome, not for unthinking party political reasons but because each piece of bad legislation – no matter the hue of the government that introduces it – chips away at what should be a clear and rigorous legal system.

If we stand by while any government interferes in this way we move the line of what is acceptable. First they came for our football songs and I said nothing, then they came for the right to a private family life and I said nothing…

That creeping authoritarianism creates a new norm from which an illiberal government – such as the one now in power at Holyrood – can further eradicate personal freedom.

Big football games present their own problems for police. Crowd control and dealing with drunkenness and violent clashes are all part and parcel of the job. Legislation that creates a new layer of tension between police officers and supporters is the last thing anyone needs.

Community safety minister Annabelle Ewing said last week that the “majority of people who respond to polling commissioned by the Scottish Government backed the Football Act”. When the day comes that we accept a government’s own private polling as evidence to support it’s actions, we’ve stopped asking very important questions.

Repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is now less a possibility and more a probability. If the Greens hold steady, then the SNP simply doesn’t have the numbers to prevent it.

Let’s hope it happens, not in the name of allowing people to behave badly but in the name of legislation that’s sensible, workable and actually necessary.