So the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill has been kicked into the long grass, or at least the rough. Quite right, too. Seemingly it is to be looked at again later in the year, but the longer the verdure into which it is shanked the better.
Not being in the country I haven’t seen them with my own eyes, but I can well imagine the shrill headlines on the front pages of the Scottish editions of the Mail and Express after the minister sponsoring the thing, Roseanna Cunningham, acknowledged in parliament that under its provisions singing God Save the Queen or crossing oneself might “in certain circumstances” (we’re sort of, um, not sure) constitute an offence. As those organs of truth will have taken delight in pointing out, you couldn’t make it up, and they’d be right: you couldn’t. But you didn’t have to. It may be a small few who take an interest in what goes on inside the Scottish Parliament, but the transcripts are there for all to read. And Cunningham was attempting to make the case for the bill.
Equally certain is that ponderous commentarists in the lefty, Alex Salmond-hugging broadsheets will have been at great pains to point out that only a relatively small number of prosecutions would ever be likely to arise from this Bill and that nobody would actually be arrested for banging on about the queen because that would be absurd. And furthermore give the Scottish government some credit for trying to Do Something, etcetera etcetera. And in their ponderous way they would probably be right about some of this too.
But if it is agreed that a piece of legislation is so vague that it is only ever likely to be patchily enforced, or indeed so vague that you won’t know you’re breaking the law until you end up in jail (“behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive” is the key line here), then why bother with it in the first place? The chief constable of Strathclyde police was quoted as saying that “if the legislation stops one person” from doing anything vaguely sectarian, then it will be worthwhile. Really? A wiser man once said that “a corrupt society has many laws”, and it is a matter of fact that we already have numerous laws capable of banging those guilty of sectarian crimes to rights, including some fairly robust anti-terrorism laws whose passage I seem to think the SNP, rightly or wrongly, opposed. Yet quite apart from the issue of its superfluity, in extending strictures on sectarian behaviour and language within football grounds to pubs, cyberspace and anywhere else Celtic and Rangers supporters might convey themselves, this Bill strikes rather a sinister, Draconian note. It is, in fact, illiberal in the extreme to presume that the state should have any business peering into men’s souls on the feeble-minded presumption that people crossing themselves in an “aggressive” manner may be to blame for the violence of others.
One final point. It is often in the make-up of nationalists to be irritated and exasperated by the nation they would wish to remould in their own image. Neither Rangers or Celtic supporters have tended to promulgate a feverishly Scottish identity. But if we’re in the business of proscribing songs about bygone bloodshed, what makes Flower of Scotland exempt?