IF YOU are a republican Scot, is someone singing God Save The Queen a sectarian attack on you? If you are English, could you claim that someone singing Flower of Scotland is a sectarian attack? Is it safe to sing Scotland the Brave? Or Scots Wha Hae?
A reasonable person may consider these questions absurd. So does Scotland's community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham - up to a point. Questioned yesterday on these points by Conservative MSP John Lamont in Holyrood's justice committee on the anti- sectarianism bill, she said such songs would not be considered offensive behaviour under the legislation. But she added that each case would depend on individual circumstances, citing an example of Celtic fans making signs of the cross to Rangers fans in an "aggressive" manner. This may potentially be construed as offensive. So even if it is not be the songs as such that constitute the offence, the manner in which they are sung and the context in which they are rendered could put you in court.
Few dispute the need for a crackdown on offensive words and behaviour at football grounds and on websites after the appalling incidents of recent months. The bill aims to stamp out abusive behaviour from football fans whether they are watching matches in a stadium, in the pub or commenting online. It would raise the maximum jail term from six months to five years.
But here is a law which at its heart is aimed at nuance and mannerism, one whose vagueness and ambiguity aims to make implied or perceived aggression a crime. As such, few can be safe from abuse of it. If the crime is to be measured by intention rather than fact, how can it be objectively measured or proven? How are the police to act on the point of arrest when hundreds of fans are singing? What counts in court for proof? The look in the eye when the song was sung? The expression of the mouth? Whether eyebrows were raised or lowered?
If this is what the proposed Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Bill is setting out to render a crime, it is destined for trouble. Yet this is legislation which the administration is determined to ram through the Holyrood parliament in a dangerous and unseemly rush. It was introduced only last week. Parliament is being asked to vote on it tomorrow so that is in place by the start of the football season next month. It is precisely such pressure and rush that risks lumbering us with a law of unintended consequence. Could the National Anthem really land us in trouble? Could Flower of Scotland be seen as provocatively offensive? As for the myriad examples of satirical songs, what on earth would the law make of Noel Coward's Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans? The administration, no matter how large its majority, needs to allow proper time for consideration. What is needed is sound law, not ridicule.