Alex Massie

Stephen Birrell’s Conviction Shames Scotland

Text settings

Sectarianism, we are often told, is "Scotland's Shame" though there's also ample evidence it's actually "Scotland's Pleasure". For some at least. The prosecution and conviction of Stephen Birrell for comments he posted on a Facebook page entitled "Neil Lennon should be Banned" marks a new low. Not because of anything Mr Birrell wrote - his fevered outpourings being merely the ravings of a disturbed mind - but because Scotland now imprisons people for the crime of disliking other people and making that dislike apparent in any kind of public forum. This is a shameful moment that demeans the country far more plainly than anything said, sung or written at or about any damn football match.

Mr Birrell is going to prison for eight months because of a number of posts he made to this silly, if scarcely atypical, Facebook group. They included:

"Hope they [ie, Celtic supporters] all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha."

"Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers."

"They're all ploughing the fields the dirty scumbags. FTP [Fuck the Pope] and the 'Tic. WATP [We Are The People]. No Surrender."

"Fuck the Fenian bastards who have fuck all else to do than talk shit."

The Sheriff, Bill Totten, argued that a custodial sentence was required because it is necessary to: "send a clear message that the right-thinking people of Glasgow and Scotland will not allow any behaviour of this nature, or allow any place in our society for hate crimes".

Count me amongst the wrong-thinking people then. The authorities may believe Mr Birrell is guilty of a "hate crime"; I suggest he's guilty of a thought crime. The former is distasteful, the latter appalling. It is appalling because it abolishes a standard that's generally been thought a mark of progress and even civilisation: we may not approve of what you do or say but disapproval is not a strong enough standard to justify prohibiting those thoughts or words. That no longer applies in Scotland.

For the time being, only football supporters are being targetted in this fashion. Execrable as that is perhaps this attack on freedom of thought and expression will sprawl no further than the fetid message boards and hymns of hate associated with Glasgow's two leading football clubs. But as the law is presently being applied there can be no guarantee that these prosecutions will be limited to that field.

And perhaps they should not. After all, a law that is applied inconsistently is a law applied capriciously. It makes a mockery of justice and, relatedly, grants the state greater and more disturbing powers than it can safely be trusted to manage. One need not be paranoid to imagine situations in which "robust" criticism of Scientology or the Papacy or the English rugby team (to cite but three of the many obvious examples that come to mind) could be considered, at least by some, expressions of religiously or racially motivated hatred. Indeed, you could deploy hundreds of police officers to police message boards and newspaper comment threads and find hundreds of items that could, on this standard, be thought grounds for prosecution.

Doubtless this will be disputed by those who see only the smaller picture (jailing "bigots") while tutting that those of us more concerned by the wider implications of this dreadful process are out-of-touch elitists, living lives untouched by the kind of witless bigotry that's said to scar too many "communities". Perhaps so. But resisting the state's attempts to straighten the crooked timber of humanity to its own preferred shape is a worthy cause, especially when those efforts involve policing what you or I or anyone else may say or think or write even when those conversations or thoughts carry no threat and only, instead, offend someone else's feelings.

You may certainly be offended by what Mr Birrell wrote. You may find it vile. But if you lived in a civilised country that would not be enough to demand his imprisonment, far less expect that demand to be met.

Moreover, in the context of footballing rivalries - matters which tend to encourage strong, irrational, intemperate feelings - it is strange to discover the Scottish government granting special protection to the supporters of two clubs simply because of their perceived religious or racial or cultural connotations.

That is, as best I can tell the law (as presently understood and enforced) grants relief from hatred to offended Celtic and Rangers fans when this hatred is expressed using religous or racial or cultural symbols whereas it does not offer relief to supporters of, for example, Aberdeen or St Johnstone who lack the good fortune [sic] to be associated with one particular religious or racial or cultural group. One type of hatred is simply your usual run-of-the-mill football rivalry (or banter), the other is to be considered religiously or racially motivated. It is a War on Adjectives and Other Epithets that's all the stranger for reinforcing sectarian stereotypes at a time when the football clubs are, notionally at least, trying to move past those historical associations.

Lord knows where this prosecution leaves the SNP's plans for further criminalising speech. Their (dismal) proposed bill on football-hatred is supposed to plug "gaps" in the law but if Mr Birrell may be prosecuted successfully one wonders where these "gaps" are found. The definition of breach of the peace seems pretty broad.

Some of the people supporting this prosecution claim that enough is enough and it is time to "make an example" of "these bigots". But how many examples are needed? Five? Five hundred? Five thousand? Fifty thousand? Again: defending Mr Birrell's right to be a bigot is not the same as defending his evident distaste for Celtic supporters and, perhaps though less plainly, Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, there is every reason and, evidently, need to support Mr Birrell's right to hold and even publicise his hatreds since failing to do diminishes the rights of all and grants the state reason to penalise and imprison us for what we say or think.

No sensible person, regardless of their political, religious or footballing affiliations should welcome that; all should find it chilling. In their different ways, Celtic and Rangers are loathsome institutions supported by many loathsome individuals but even they deserve to be protected by the law, not harrassed by it for the crimes of thinking wrongly and daring to publicise those wrong, impermissable thoughts.

UPDATE: Lallands Peat Worrier has, as you should expect, more.

UPDATE 2: Corrected to actually get this ned's name right. Apologies.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyfootballglasgowscotlandsnp