Brian Wilson: Football alone doesn’t cause and can’t cure sectarianism

Creating a society in which we are all better educated, freed from poverty of aspiration, more respectful of public property and tolerant of difference is a long-term objective, writes Brian Wilson.

A Deputy Chief Constable has warned over rising sectarianism and abuse directed at police on match days. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

You have to be wilfully blind and deaf, or blissfully unaware, in order not to be disgusted by some behaviour which occurs within Scottish football grounds.

Equally, you have to be exceptionally foolish to maintain that these are problems unique to football rather than reflections of society’s wider failings and challenges.

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The pretence that football clubs can wave wands and eliminate sectarianism, racism or social dysfunctionality only serves to shift responsibility. Of course they have a part to play but so do a lot of others who prefer to look the other way.

Football has the power to attract large numbers from diverse backgrounds into enclosed stadiums. They represent a more accurate microcosm of society than most mass gatherings which means they also reflect some inconvenient realities.

Take the issue of cocaine use. Any police officer could confirm that for many young people, in Scotland as elsewhere, this is now the stimulant of choice. The legal system is fighting a losing battle against that social shift which is reflected among those travelling to matches.

Government issues press releases preening itself on falling alcohol use among the young. It either does not know or prefers not to acknowledge that one reason is that there are cheaper alternatives freely available and (certainly on entering arenas where drink is banned) much easier to conceal.

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Societal changes have created an atmosphere in which “freedom of expression” has licensed behaviour which would previously have been beyond the pale. If it is ok to hurl abuse of the foulest kind on social media, then why draw a line there?

In 18 years as an MP, I received just three abusive, anonymous communications. As recently as that, nutters who sent these things had to go out and buy green ink and postage stamps. Now, the world is full of keyboard warriors who disseminate hatred at the press of a button.

One can speculate on whether social media created this mentality or reflects what was there anyway, but lacked convenient, anonymous outlets. Probably, I fear, the latter.

Sectarianism is advertised as Scotland’s distinguishing characteristic in the panoply of prejudices. This co-exists alongside an exaggerated eagerness to portray ourselves as more tolerant of difference than other mortals.

There is not a shred of evidence to support that. However, it feeds the convenient narrative that if only football would sort out sectarianism then our status as a contented, prejudice-free Valhalla would be complete. It is utter nonsense.

For starters, hardly any of Scotland’s religiously motivated attacks take place around football grounds. Sure, if you herd 60,000 people into an enclosed space, the evidence will be unmistakable while what happens in street and workplace can be ignored or denied.

The mercifully abandoned Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds Act made matters worse by reflecting the pretence that these are problems for football rather than society. There is no offence committed within a stadium which is not also an offence ten miles away in a public park.

Inevitably, the Act was treated more as a challenge than a threat. It is not immediately obvious why football clubs should be expected to succeed where the law of the land failed. It is “authority” which is kicked back at in a way that might not have happened ten or 20 years ago – and not just in football grounds. Creating a society in which we are all better educated, freed from poverty of aspiration, more respectful of public property and tolerant of difference ... these are, to say the least, long-term objectives to address deep-rooted characteristics within Scotland.

The idea that football should be singled out as either cause or cure is patently absurd. The more urgent question is whether we are becoming more or less divided, by all these indicators. That requires politicians to seek honest answers rather than self-absolution.

There is talk of “strict liability” to punish clubs for everything that happens within a stadium – a recipe for mischief if ever there was one. It would make as much (or as little) sense to hold Ministers strictly liable for the consequences of their policies.