While I understand that the opposition parties had commitments to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, I think that for many of the people who voted for them this was not a make or break issue, and indeed many of those voters will no doubt support the act in one form or another. Polling carried out on behalf of organisations as far apart as You Gov and Wings over Scotland showed that there was a wide level of support for the act, even within Rangers and Celtic supporters. The idea that the act should be repealed is utterly backwards. In the last four years we have been very lucky in that Celtic and Rangers have not been competing in the same leagues, so the problems which generated the controversy which led to the act being introduced have not been front and centre, but they haven’t gone away. Earlier this year it was reported that Police Scotland were rounding up domestic abusers before the recent cup meeting between the two teams. A 2009 newsletter issued by Greater Glasgow Health Board noted a trebling of Royal Infirmary A&E admissions following one Glasgow derby. The internet remains awash with sectarian bile and bigotry. Earlier this year an Aberdeen fan was sentenced to 200 hours community service and banned from football for his online attack on a disabled Celtic supporter. The reasons for having the OBFA remain.
So for these parties to team up to repeal the act flies in the face of what the public want and what Scotland needs. I think everyone is agreed that the legislation is not the greatest, but it needs fixed, not discarded. Opponents to the legislation bizarrely claim that the act does not convict enough people while simultaneously complaining that convicted people are unfairly criminalised. The Scottish Socialist Party are amongst those opponents who refer to the findings of a study by the University of Stirling as evidence of how wrong the act is, but fail to cite the parts of the act which run counter to their aims, such as the statement that “Eighty-five percent of surveyed fans agreed it was offensive to sing songs or make remarks about people’s religious beliefs or backgrounds and 90 percent agreed it was offensive to celebrate the loss of life”, or that “Reaction from Sheriffs ranged from strongly supportive to emphatically critical, with most in between, whilst Police Scotland felt the act gave them greater clarity on how to act.”
This runs counter to media reports of the police either not applying the legislation properly or being over enthusiastic in their interpretation of the act. Similarly there are sheriffs who have publicly criticised the act. Sheriff Richard Donaldson is often quoted by those anti OBFA campaigners as having described the act as “mince”, as though this gives gravitas to their argument. Sheriff Donaldson was also quoted this year as saying that Scotland’s domestic abuse laws were “way over the top” and an illustration of the Scottish Parliaments fixation on domestic abuse.
Perhaps it is just my imagination, but it seems to me that there are a significant number of people within the workings of the system who wish to see this legislation fail. Well, I for one don’t. If it doesn’t work, fix it. Scrapping the legislation is a rallying call to the bigots to dig out their songbooks and give it laldy, and is a moral victory for those who wish to see Scots divided against each other.
Those opposed to the act offer no solution to the problem, bar the tried, tested and failed method of educating the children. There are elements out there who are vehemently opposed the named person scheme in case it brainwashes children; those same people are hardly going to be enamoured when little Johnny comes home and asks why the teacher says Daddy is a bigot, are they?
The OBFA is but one tool in the fight against bigotry and sectarianism in Scotland, but it fails to go far enough. The police stand back and fail to act as thousands of people sing sectarian songs at the football. They will not pick out anyone and the crowds become emboldened, knowing they are untouchable. The SFA and the SPFL have to be made to take tough action in this regard, and it’s time they stopped mucking around and introduced the compulsory docking of points for sectarian behaviour by the fans. It’s time that the broadcasters faced up to the fact they have a part to play, and silence the mikes when sectarian chanting is taking place. The ultimate sanction is to have the clubs play matches behind closed doors, and perhaps it’s when these kind of actions are taken that the message will start to get through.
These days the leaders of the political parties are more than willing to comment on the most frivolous matters on social media. I asked all the opposition leaders on twitter what they would do to replace the act with something better. They didn’t reply. They are a silent minority trying to impose their will on the silent majority, and it’s time they answered for it.