Alex Massie

The SNP’s ongoing war on football supporters would shame a better government

The SNP's ongoing war on football supporters would shame a better government
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Here we go, here we go, here we [expletive of your choice] go again. Our old friend, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is back in the news again courtesy of an article written by its sponsor, Kenny MacAskill MSP.

Booting MacAskill from office was one of Nicola Sturgeon's first actions when she succeeded Alex Salmond as First Minister. It remains one of her best. MacAskill, you may recall, has form. It was he who cheerfully admitted that the government in which he served as Justice secretary was happy to 'do the wrong thing' - albeit for 'the right reasons' - since doing the right thing might have distracted attention from the struggle for independence. I wish this aspect of the SNP's record in office were more widely-appreciated but you can't, I suppose, have everything.

Still, MacAskill's defence of his now-notorious bill is worth examining, even if it also risks inviting the observation that you should never argue with a fool since they'll drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

Be that as it may, MacAskill's article opens a window into the soul of the kind of dolts who presume to tell us what we may think and what we may say. The key point (to the extent it can be identified amidst MacAskill's prose foliage*) is this:

"Arguments have been made against the Act. Let’s consider them but then look at the facts. Some have said it’s unnecessary and the old legislation was sufficient. That wasn’t the case. Both the police and prosecutors had pointed out that judicial decisions had meant that breach of the peace could not apply if, to put it bluntly, no one’s peace was being breached. Hence, when a crowd was singing an offensive song and few others were about to object then there couldn’t be a conviction. A legislative change was needed to address this. The absence of good people to be offended doesn’t make something inoffensive if it patently is offensive."

Indeed so. It never occurs to MacAskill - dullard that he is - that if no-one's peace is being breached and there is no cause for public alarm there may be no need to start lifting and then prosecuting people for a breach of the peace.

So we now have, as he candidly admits, the invention of people who might have been offended by the singing of a football song if they had existed. If a song is sung in the forest but there is no-one there to hear it, has it been sung at all? Who knows?

Moreover, it bears repeating that the courts have interpreted this nonsense to allow, not just for the invention of a 'reasonable person' who might, had they existed and had they been present, been 'offended' but also, and significantly, for the invention of a person of 'volatile temperament'. A bampot, in other words. If an idiot - let's call him Kenneth MacAskill - had been present, would he have found the accused's behaviour offensive and then behaved appallingly? Yes? OK. Guilty.

But even this, while utterly deplorable, is hardly the worst part of the bill and the manner in which it has been implemented. Mr MacAskill claims that the singing of songs lauding ancient Irish history is 'patently offensive'. But offensive to whom? Not to me and not to many thousands of others. Then again, they might be Schrodinger's Songs: offensive and inoffensive at the same time.

Nevertheless, even if I - or you - were 'offended' by the singing of The Sash, the Famine Song, or The Roll of Honour then what of it? Why should my objections (if I had any) make the singing of these songs a criminal matter? It never ever even occurs to MacAskill that objecting to his bill does not require one to salute the sentiments expressed by football supporters. It merely requires one to stand up for football supporters' right to express themselves.

After all, it is not the songs themselves that are the problem but, instead, the people singing them. We know this to be the case because if the crowd at Murrayfield launched into a vigorous rendition of The Roll of Honour no offence would have been committed. You can sing these songs as a rugby match but not at the football.

MacAskill, true to form, lets the cat out of the bag without even realising he's allowing it to escape:

"Those who are being prosecuted are hardly the heirs to the Clydeside Apprentices strike, let alone the Tolpuddle martyrs."

So there we have it. Speech of which I approve is fine; speech of which I disapprove is not. Doubtless this helps explain why MacAskill backs a campaign for a statue of James Connolly in Edinburgh while criminalising citizens in Glasgow who sing songs about him and his ilk. You can add hypocrisy to the charge sheet against him. And priggishness too, now that I think of it.

I wish it did not have to be stressed so often that speech is speech and that includes speech of which you disapprove. Nasty brutes have precisely the same speech rights as you. And that, my friends, is the way it should be.

Of course there are certain limitations on speech but these are clear and there has been, as far as I am aware, precisely no evidence supplied to the courts that those people arrested for breaching the terms of OBFA have acted in ways liable to leave them open to prosecution absent this daft law. No reasonable person concludes that the singing of The Sash (or its green equivalents) is an incitement to violence or religious hatred. It's just a football song. If you thump or stab someone after the football, it's not because you were singing The Boys of the Old Brigade half an hour earlier; it's because you're a thug. And we have sufficient laws to deal with thuggishness already.

MacAskill, having condemned himself with his own laptop, latches onto one saving argument. Puffing himself up, he declares that polling shows the act is 'hugely popular with the public at large'. I suppose that in his mind this constitutes some kind of higher power. But so what? Hanging is hugely popular. The forcible repatriation of refugees is hugely popular. Hell, welfare reform is hugely popular. Far from being one in the eye for the 'liberals and libertarians' MacAskill scorns, this simply shows why liberals and libertarians are necessary.

Because if it weren't for them, grubby little authoritarian lackwits like Kenny MacAskill would lay waste to an even greater acreage of liberty.

*I was going to say MacAskill's article would fail the Turing test but that seems unfair. Computer algorithms write more fluently than MacAskill.

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.

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