you're reading...
politics. Scotland. Sectarianism. Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill. Alex Salmond

Salmond’s first own goal. Sectarianism

  From The Herald.    Like most people concerned about freedom of speech, I’ve been watching the progress of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill, with mounting alarm. Outlawing the singing of songs at football matches seemed such a ridiculous proposition that initially I thought the Scottish government weren’t serious. That Alex Salmond just wanted “send a message”, and that the loopier parts of this unnecessary legislation would be dropped. And if not, MSPs would realise that such a law as unworkable as it is objectionable. Surely, reason would prevail. It hasn’t.
Yesterday, MSPs in Holyrood passed a law that could make the singing of the national anthem punishable by a five year prison sentence if it is associated with “offensive or threatening behaviour” in any context that involves football. No one knows exactly what “offensive and threatening behaviour” is, and anyway, because of the Catch 22 drafting, the very singing of “sectarian” songs is itself deemed offensive. There is no list of proscribed songs because to compile one would invite ridicule – “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” – Paul McCartney? This dumb law could also make the carrying of flags, colours or religious symbols illegal at football matches, in the trains going to football matches or in pubs or any public place where football is being shown. It could make singing The Sash illegal in a pub, but not in the street outside it. This is utter madness.

Anyway, there are worse things than singing Up the Ra at a football matches. Using the law for political purposes is one of them. This legislation is otiose, contradictory, authoritarian, subjective, illiberal, anti-democratic and contrary to internationally accepted definitions of basic human rights. It is threatening and offensive to freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of thought and to personal liberty. It hands discretionary powers to the police that are wholly inappropraite in any civilised society, effectively giving individual officers the power to deprive people of their liberty if they don’t like the way they are behaving.
It also offends against the most fundamental principle of the law: that there should be equality before it. The singing of “Flower of Scotland”, for example, which celebrates violent behaviour against English people, will be illegal at Hampden but not at Murrayfield simply because they play rugby there. Why on earth should a song be offensive at one sporting event and not another? And don’t tell me that people don’t engage in offensive and threatening behaviour at rugby matches. Just look at what happens on the pitch.
 Behaviour liable to lead to public disorder is already illegal .. Section 38 of the Criminal Justice Act 2010 outlaws ‘”threatening or abusive’ behaviour likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm”. The Offensive Behaviour Bill takes the law into an entirely different realm altogether, into subjective hate crime. It will criminalise thought and behaviour that other groups might find offensive. Well, someone should tell the FM and his MSP clones that the right to offend people is the most basic right in any democracy.
    Now that this principle is accepted in football stadiums, there will be inevitably be pressure to extend it to work places, public spaces, parks, meetings, concert halls, theatres, cinemas. schools – indeed anywhere where “offensive” ideas might be ventilated. For if they are illegal in one public setting how can they possibly be legal in another? How could films like “Michael Collins”, about the IRA leader, be shown in Glasgow cinemas? Should Scottish Nationalists be allowed to chant the bloody anti-English dirge, “Scots Wha Hae”, at Bannockburn? That’s threatening and offensive. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will become a playground for litigants claiming to be offended and threatened by productions like “Singing I’m No A Billy I’m a Tim”
The government has tagged a feeble “freedom of speech” clause to the bill which only underlines the extent to which this is an violation of it. The Lord Advocate insists that jokes and satire will not be actionable. But who is to decide? The law has a notoriously tin ear when it comes to irony, and is incapable of distinguishing between banter and abuse. Yet now, calling someone a “hun” a “fenian” or a “bluenose” could lead to imprisonment and a hefty fine if the words are uttered while footie is on the TV. Well, if my experience is anything to go by the police will be prosecuting every TV and newspaper newsroom in Scotland. One of the ways in which people have sought to defuse sectarianism is by lampooning it, parodying it, satirising it. Many Celtic supporters call themselves “Tims” and even “Fenians”, the way Afro-Americans call themselves “niggers”. Are they now to be prosecuted if someone overhearing these remarks feels threatened? Pity the publicans who are required to enforce this nonsense.
Worse, the government has made attempted to curb freedom of speech on the internet by saying that “threatening communications” will also be punishable by five years in jail. Leave aside the virtual impossibility of enforcing this law on social media sites like Facebook which has 800 million users, who on earth is to rule what is and is not threatening? Two years ago, Paul Chambers, a 27 year old accountant, lost his job and was fined thousands of pounds for a joke tweet that read: “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”. Alex is going to have to hire a lot more police.  No wonder they’re about the only people who support it. 
This is an unjust law which has been criticised by almost every legal body that has reviewed it. It has achieved the impossible: uniting Rangers and Celtic, the Church of Scotland and the Church of Rome, lawyers, civil liberties organisations, the Conservative Party and the Greens –  in opposition to it.   It has been frog-marched through parliament by an act of elective dictatorship.   This is Alex Salmond’s first own goal, if you’ll excuse the pun. He should have listened to parliament and dumped it last summer when he had the chance. The only hope now is that courts and juries will treat it with the contempt it deserves.  

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


8 thoughts on “Salmond’s first own goal. Sectarianism

  1. I agree with the fundamental thrust of your argument, however such provisions against offence already exist. I don't know if it's the case down south or up here, but there is a provision in law that if you overhear someone saying something which you take offence to (even if you were not even remotely involved inconversation with the 'offended' party), that person can report you to the police and have you arrested for causing offence in a public place. We all know that the law is an ass, and it just keeps getting worse. Hopefully there will be revisions made to this law (or it'll be scrapped after a few test cases) in short order.

    Posted by DaveM | December 22, 2011, 1:36 pm
  2. I fully agree with the bill passed by the Scottish Govt and I believe common sense will prevail. The scaremongering by the MSM that people will be arrested for singing national anthems is absolute nonsense. I see the legislation for what it is, this is a real attempt to make some sort of inroads into the embarrasing West of Scotland problem. Previous administrations and governments have either ignored or only talked about action – empty words and no action. The other parties in the Scottish Parliament were given ample opportunities to have a positive input but as has been the case since 2007, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems have only been concentrating on attempting to (unsuccessfully)discredit the SNP, and refuse to work co-operatively. The people of Scotland are beginning to see what can be achieved in contrast to the decades of inaction from London and then Labour following Devolution. The other parties need to find their identity and work FOR Scotland rather than against it.

    Posted by TTKNOB | December 22, 2011, 1:49 pm
  3. i suppose it has to do with context.you used the 'n' word in a context that could be seen as ok. i am sure you have heard it in a less acceptable context and i think there are laws against this.there are laws against racism.could someone explain the difference between racism and sectarianism apart from the obvious.they both seem to degrade someone or a group.then again you could say so does comedy.which leads back to context.as has been said earlier i hope common sense will prevail in the sectarian laws.

    Posted by hector | December 22, 2011, 10:48 pm
  4. Iain, you're obviously having a laugh.

    Posted by Anonymous | December 23, 2011, 10:46 am
  5. Surely the correct headline would have been: 'Salmond's First Own Goal: Anti-Sectarianism'. But you go for the usual snide Unionist coupling of SNP/sectarianism. We might live in the only country in the world where being anti-sectarian gets you dubbed as sectarian.I wonder if you remember the old Monklands Council, where 17 out of 17 Labour councillors were Catholic, from a population containing 20% Catholics? I'm going to guess you know damn all about statistics in general and the binomial theorem in particular, but the odds against that happening by chance are effectively zero (1.31 x 10^-12). In brief, Labour are demonstrably sectarian. But back at the Monklands East by-election, who did the Herald tag as sectarian? Why, the SNP of course, because they had the temerity to point out the prejudice.By the way, I'm a Catholic.

    Posted by Vronsky | December 29, 2011, 4:37 pm
  6. ""Like most people concerned with freedom of speech…"" If you really are concerned then why no mention of the BBC's closure of certain blogs to any comment? For example, Brian Taylor's blog. Strange when there is so much to talk about and debate in Scotland's political scene people are being stopped from taking part in the debate by our national broadcaster.

    Posted by CWH | December 30, 2011, 2:37 am
  7. is a never ending issue can spend hours and one never tires of talking about it

    Posted by sports handicapping software | June 11, 2012, 6:47 pm
  8. is a never ending issue can spend hours and one never tires of talking about it

    Posted by sports handicapping software | June 11, 2012, 6:48 pm

Twitter Updates

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 57,082 other followers

Follow Iain Macwhirter on WordPress.com



%d bloggers like this: