The Strange Rise of Anti-Sectarianism

To many ordinary football fans in Scotland, especially but not exclusively the Old Firm fans, the ‘war’ against sectarianism in football seems utterly bizarre. For these fans, especially the older fans, five years in prison for singing a song is unfathomable. More than this, the very fact that a song at a football match can lead to your arrest is treated with complete incomprehension. Nevertheless, this is the state of play today. In Scotland at least, much of the criminalisation of football fans has come in the guise of the fight against sectarianism.

Anti-sectarianism has become part of the fabric of life in Scotland, not just in politics, law, and football, but also in education. In schools, anti-sectarianism is now described as something that is at the heart of the new Curriculum for Excellence. ‘Education,’ the Scottish government notes, ‘can play a pivotal role in challenging sectarian attitudes and religious intolerance’. As such, anti-sectarian initiatives are crucial for developing ‘informed responsible citizens’.

It is not only children who need awareness training about sectarianism. In prisons this attempt to develop ‘positive attitudes’ was given a boost in 2011 when the funding for anti-sectarian training of prisoners was doubled. The success of this re-education process would be judged by illustrating the changed behaviour of those receiving the training. For example, prisoners would be encouraged to understand that cracking sectarian jokes was harmful, something that it was claimed had been successful in 50 percent of cases so far (Scotland on Sunday 25th September 2011). By November of 2011 it was announced that anti-sectarian training would also be available for the staff of the Scottish Parliament (Herald on Sunday 20th November 2011).

To be against sectarianism is a new norm in Scottish society, an unquestioned good, something that can unproblematically become part of school curriculums and the training of prisoners, even parliamentary staff. Sectarianism is also something that all politicians in parliament oppose and indeed something that has come to be vocally denounced by Scottish governments for the last decade. As Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader explained at a debate in parliament, every single one of her MSPs is opposed to sectarianism.

At one level, opposition to sectarianism can be seen as a good thing. But to understand what is going on, we have to ask why now? Why and how has being against sectarianism become the new moral absolute, the new good, and something that the authorities feel needs to become part and parcel of all of our education?

Looking back at press coverage about sectarianism and the Old Firm from the early 1990s, what is fascinating is that the problem of Old Firm sectarianism was barely mentioned until 1997. Sectarianism at Old Firm games was simply not a political or significant pubic debating point mentioned in the Scottish broadsheets before this time. From only two articles on the subject in 1992 and 1993, in the latter part of the 1990s there were around 40 articles each year on the Old Firm and sectarianism. There was then a doubling of the number of articles in 2001 and a peak of interest in 2002 with 117 articles on the subject. Old Firm sectarianism remained of some significance until 2006 and then declined. In 2011 following the SNP’s campaign a new high of almost 200 articles were written about this ‘problem’ – one hundred times more articles than had been written in 1992.

What is most interesting about the rise and fall of interest in this issue was that it was not any rise in sectarianism that created it, but rather it was the rise in anti-sectarianism as a political, public and campaigning issue that generated the interest in sectarianism and the Old Firm. One way to describe this could be to say that the behaviour of fans did not change, what changed was the behaviour of the political elite. In essence, the Scottish authorities became less tolerant of Old Firm fans’ behaviour. From an issue that attracted little or no political interest, it became one of the most campaigned around issues in Scotland.

Aspects of this change can be witnessed by studying the changing attitudes of individuals. One example of this change can be seen in the approach taken to Old Firm sectarianism by the celebrated Scottish sports writer, Graham Spiers. Writing in the Scotland on Sunday back in 1996, Spiers challenged the exaggerated idea of bigoted football fans in an article entitled, ‘Glasgow’s sectarian image doesn’t bear close scrutiny’ (Scotland on Sunday 14th January 1996).

Insightfully observing the middle class preoccupation to go on and on about sectarianism, Spiers notes that: ‘In Glasgow, in the pubs and wine bars and especially around the hearths of the chattering classes, you wonder if we can't let go of the tough subject-matter of bigotry. You wonder if some of us would feel stripped naked if we couldn't continually hark on about this "hate-filled" city of ours. For a community that has made great strides in softening the divide, too many of us crave the expression of a bygone era.’

His own colleagues in the press were his next target of attack as he explained how, ‘We lay thick the heaving vocabulary of hate and venom and rancour, and before you know it word is back on the streets of the further disfigurement of society wherever Rangers and Celtic meet’. Spiers then outlined very well the myth and reality of Old Firm sectarianism behaviour: ‘There is a richly-titillating, but utterly empty, ritual about much of the Old Firm environment today. Remarkable and unremarkable men, who have good jobs and bad and who couldn't practice bigotry if they tried, nonetheless get swept into the firmament of these occasions. Before they know it they are hollering their heads off about the Queen or the Pope or both.’

Many of these people work together, drink together, play their five-a-side football in bantering friendship together, but for the Old Firm, for 90 minutes of screaming, they take choir stalls at opposite ends of the ground. Some of us who feel the fiery indignation well up within us misunderstand this aspect of contemporary Glasgow life.

Spiers mocks the English who take the Old Firm fans at their word before ridiculing the idea that there is a serious problem of violence between these fans. Having asked Strathclyde Police for the arrest figures for these ‘hate-filled’ encounters he found that only 24 people were arrested. These are, ‘stupendously paltry statistics’, he pointed out, ‘for peoples supposedly needing to tear the skin off each other’. The police officer giving Spiers these statistics even pointed out that, ‘A Rangers-Celtic game can sometimes be like a Sunday picnic’.

Turn the clock forward fifteen years and Graham Spiers is found at the Justice Committee debate on the Offensive Behaviour Bill supporting the criminalisation of Old Firm ‘sectarian’ songs. No longer prepared to tolerate (if disagree with) Billy Boys or IRA songs, Spiers asks, ‘Do you want to live in a country where thousands of people can shout ‘F’ the Pope?’. Spiers answer was that he did not and that was why he was supporting the Offensive Behaviour Bill. These songs, he continued, are ‘downright discrimination and prejudice’ and should therefore be made illegal. By 2011, Graham Spiers felt that these men who couldn’t practice bigotry if they tried, who worked together and drank together, whose bantering friendship meant that violence between them was stupendously paltry, should now be arrested for the songs they sang! One can only assume that the infectious ‘chattering classes’ harking on about our ‘hate-filled’ city, backed up by journalists’ vocabulary of ‘hate and venom’ had helped to disfigure Mr Spiers' understanding of a city’s image that in the past simply ‘didn’t bear close scrutiny’. Back in 1996 it seems that the hype about sectarianism and violence at Old Firm games was seen as nonsense by Graham Spiers. By 2011, this ‘Sunday picnic’ was facing the full wrath of the state. These games had become understood as a cause of domestic violence, a context where the police had ‘grown wearily accustomed to weeding out killers’ and a poisonous milieu that shamed Scotland. With the support of Spiers, a law that could imprison these fans for up to five years for their ‘sectarian’ behaviour was soon to be passed.

It is worth reiterating, the rise of anti-sectarianism did not emerge because of a rise in sectarian behaviour, or of sectarian violence; yet anti-sectarianism became a significant political, media, policing and legal matter in Scotland. As we have seen, the rise of interest in sectarianism has absolutely nothing to do with the behaviour of people on the terraces or on the streets. It has, on the contrary, everything to do with the activities and rhetoric of the Scottish elites and their establishment of a virtual industry of anti-sectarianism. It appears that the ‘chattering class’s’ moralising hatred of the Old Firm has taken centre stage.

Dr Stuart Waiton is lecturer in sociology at the University of Abertay Dundee. His new book ‘Snob’s Law: The Criminalisation of Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance’ is out now.

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