When Alex Salmond talks about the way the British parties at Holyrood are behaving in relation to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) his anger is genuine, palpable and fully justified. He allows his emotions to show to an extent which is rare in politicians. I think that is very much to his credit.
We should all be angry about this. Regardless of what interest we have in football; or our political or religious affiliation; or even any informed and considered opinion of the legislation, we should all be outraged by the way British Labour in Scotland (BLiS), in particular, has sought to exploit the issue solely to satisfy a base and vulgar urge to land some sort of blow on the SNP.
This has nothing whatever to do with whether or not OBFA is effective as a weapon in the fight against sectarianism. If that were the case then BLiS and their Tory allies would be proposing changes to the legislation in order to make it more effective.
Claims that this is not the way to tackle the blight of sectarianism beg questions about what other measures might. That the legislation is unlikely to be one hundred percent effective in eradicating sectarianism cannot, in itself, justify removing it from the statute books. Society uses laws, not only as a means of eliminating or minimising anti-social behaviour, but as markers which signal moral or ethical stance. Laws serve as a statement of our shared mores and standards. We don’t make laws against rape and murder in the hope or expectation that this will put an end to such offences.
We make such laws not least to define and formalise society’s attitude to certain behaviours. The effectiveness of OBFA in combating sectarianism may well be less important than its utility as a means of re-shaping public attitudes. The mere fact of the law’s existence may impact on awareness and perception of sectarian behaviour which is so ingrained as to have become accepted as an inherent and ineluctable aspect of our society.
We are entitled to wonder why certain politicians want this signal of social disapprobation removed. In fact, we have a duty and a responsibility as citizens to demand to know what motivates politicians who object so strongly to legislation which, even if it does nothing else, attaches a social stigma to behaviour which none of them would publicly admit to finding anything other than totally abhorrent.
It has nothing whatever to do with justice. Nobody has suffered any injustice as a consequence of the legislation. There is no human or civil right to public expression of sectarian abuse or provocation which might be infringed. To claim that OBFA unfairly targets football supporters is like saying drunk driving legislation unfairly targets motorists. Regrettably, football matches and their environs is where you find overt sectarian abuse just as the road network is where you find drunk drivers.
It has nothing whatever to do with responding to public demand. All the evidence is that OBFA is approved by an overwhelming majority of people in Scotland. The campaign to repeal OBFA totally disregards the views of Scotland’s people. Those responsible for this campaign exhibit a casual, sneering, supercilious contempt for the public which is now firmly established as a defining characteristic of the British parties in Scotland.
The only thing driving this campaign is British Labour in Scotland’s burning, bitter, intellect-crippling resentment of the SNP. There may be an argument that OBFA should never have made it to the statute books. Or that it should not have been enacted in its present form. There was ample opportunity to advance those arguments as the legislation made its way through Parliament. Self-evidently, no such case was ever adequately made. The legislation was passed by the Scottish Parliament. The only Parliament with any democratic legitimacy in Scotland. The only Parliament which has the rightful authority to represent the will of Scotland’s people. The Parliament which speaks for Scotland. That Parliament spoke for Scotland when it declared our rejection of sectarianism and our determination to drive it from the sphere of our nation’s public life.
To now repeal OBFA is to retract that declaration. It is a very different proposition to not implementing the measure in the first place. To now remove it from the statute books is to recant our previously stated detestation of sectarian bigotry. It is to say that sectarianism in football maybe isn’t so bad after all. Actively renouncing our refusal to tolerate sectarianism has to be perceived as demonstrating a willingness to tolerate it.
Such a momentously regressive change to our social conventions would be difficult to justify under any circumstances. To do it for reasons no more worthy than the pettiest of political point-scoring is the conduct of a petulant, over-privileged child or a mindless political vandal.
No wonder Alex Salmond is angry. Aren’t you?
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