Bigotry, Football and Scotland
Scots in general love football, but we’re not very good at it. Football talk in this country frequently centres around off-field issues, touching on social and political topics. In this context belongs Bigotry, Football and Scotland, a collection of academic essays edited by John Flint and John Kelly and published by Edinburgh University Press. A glance at the index gives an idea of the book’s scope: Basque policy; Battle of the Boyne; Belfast riots; Pope Benedict XI, Bhoys Against Bigotry, Pierre Bourdieu, British National Party, Scott Brown, Edmund Burke, Terry Butcher. Various theoretical traditions are mined to provide insight into the ethno-religious conflicts which, for better or worse, are a significant component of football in Scotland.
Despite significant differences in perspectives, there is broad agreement among the contributors regarding the importance of historical factors. Queens University historian ATQ Stewart is quoted to the effect that, since the time of the Plantation, “the core of the Ulster problem is the problem of the Scots”. We could simply have left the place alone, but we didn’t and the result is the current situation, both here and there. In such circumstances, the significance in our land of Irish-based identities is unsurprising.
To start with a minor quibble; some chapters seem too short, with contributions tending towards over-generalisations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the limitations of space, the clearest example of this is Joseph M. Bradley’s History and Memory in Scottish Football (a subject which could be a long enough book in itself). Although succeeding as an argument supporting the right of club fans to identify socio-cultural resonances in the sport (something international football does all the time), the chapter requires more fine-tuning as a guide to what these values actually are. For example: “Rangers and their support… celebrate the importance of the British-Scottish conquest of Ireland-Ulster [and] the British crown as a protector and symbol of the status of Protestantism in Great Britain and the north of Ireland”. Yes, many Rangers fans do hold these views, but for others they are anachronistic. Alasdair McKillop presents a more nuanced account of the culture around Rangers, and the web presence of pro-independence Rangers supporters provides further evidence of heterogeneity.
Similarly, while Bradley’s strong on the dominant culture surrounding Celtic (convincingly depicting the club as one of the very few loci in mainland-UK for alternatives to hegemonic state narratives on Ireland), he provides little acknowledgement of divergent discourses, and refers to “people born in Scotland” whose “country of origin” is Ireland. It’s not clear what’s meant by this, particularly in the light of research showing that only 8% of Catholics in Scotland claim to be Irish. There’s also an apparent contradiction in Bradley’s positioning of Celtic-oriented discourses as anti-hegemonic while simultaneously giving only minimal attention to alternative Celtic fan identities; that Celtic may well have more non-Catholic supporters than all but one other Scottish club isn’t explored at all.
The most interesting chapters are those dealing with recent times. Market ideologies, and specifically the gentrification of football, are seen as crucial in contemporary developments, and recent positioning regarding sectarianism is located in wider political currents. Joe Crawford identifies the neo-liberal shifting of emphasis from redistribution to respect. You might be shat on by bankers and their millionaire friends who administer the state, but don’t worry, here’s some parity of esteem to keep out the cold. The poor (traditional football fans, benefit recipients) are the problem, and it’s telling that legislative attempts to control fans’ behaviour were enacted hastily, while efforts to regulate the banking industry, well… maybe not today. Redistribution happens in an upward direction, both in football and society, and for this to continue, anything deemed threatening must be eliminated. Hence, clubs (like mainstream political parties) gravitate towards a generic target market, exemplified by pink supporters’ clothing, intended to be attractive to the expanding young girls market and sold by clubs who have one thing in common; none of them have ever played in pink. Thus are traditional identities increasingly marginalised.
Stuart Waiton draws on the work of Joel Feinberg to contend that the upgrading of the perceived threat posed by “offence” is resulting in a more authoritarian state, in which the sensitivities of some (“offended élites”) are prioritised over those of others. He convincingly argues that, paradoxically, attempts to increase “tolerance” via legislation often lead to less tolerance, for example the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act (2012).
In contrast, Paul Davis attempts to defend the Act by asserting that “football sectarianism is morally impermissible”, although the evidence he offers leads only to the conclusion that such conduct is undesirable. The question of who has the right to permit (or not) isn’t addressed, and there’s a condescension about his quoting Jimmy Reid’s “nothing is too good for the working class” as a justification for limiting freedom of expression. Nor is it clear why the working class are the focus; plenty of examples of undesirable sectarian-based conduct can be found in other social strata: publicly-funded “Equal Opportunities employers” who advertise jobs for teachers practising specific religions; unelected Heads of State constitutionally forbidden, on sectarian grounds, from marrying millions of their tax-paying “subjects”. As Loïc Wacquant (cited by Crawford) points out, we’re living in a centaur-state characterised by “liberalism at the top of the class structure and punitive paternalism at the bottom”.
Equally unconvincing, as a defence of the 2012 Act, is the view of sports journalist Graham Spiers (cited critically by Waiton) that no-one would “want to live in a country where thousands of people can shout ‘F[uck] the Pope’”. It’s not the F-word that’s important here, it’s the C-word (“can”). Omit it and Spiers is correct; include it and the key issue is no longer sectarianism, but free speech, and in the context of the Act, the powers devolved by a free people to their servants, the police. Do we want to live in a country where a “reasonable person” is legally defined as someone who happens to agree with the nearest police officer as to what constitutes offensive? Sectarianism, as Davis acknowledges is notoriously difficult to define; indeed, he does not attempt a definition. If, as the editors demonstrate in the conclusion, there is a requirement for “greater conceptual clarity about the extent to which sectarianism is or is not different from other forms of racism or hate crime” then one might expect a definition as a prerequisite.
The lack of sympathy in many quarters towards Rangers’ recent problems may reflect the truism of rising Scottish (at the expense of British) identity since the 1970s. However, the SNP do not come off particularly well, being identified by some as cynically passing the Act in order to pose as a strong potential government of an independent Scotland, a party who won’t shrink from tackling difficult problems. This, however, may not benefit the nationalist cause. I’m reminded of my grandmother (Irish, RC and with a Scottish accent), who spent decades warning about the “anti-Catholic” SNP, only to vote for that party at the last election before her death in the 1990s. The SNP have come a long way in broadening their appeal among Catholics; how ironic if criminalising Celtic fans made a difference at the referendum.
The book might have benefitted from more on the self-described “anti-sectarian” position of some outwith the spheres of the two big Glasgow clubs. The positing of such “anti-sectarianism”, no less dependent on construction of the oppositional “other”, as more authentically Scottish is acknowledged as unhelpful, but wider analysis could have provided deeper insight. There’s an obscurantist streak to the “why can’t we all just forget history?” tendency, which presumably doesn’t include William Wallace, but does appear to encompass the Irish exploits of Robert the Bruce’s younger brother. The argument seems to be that everyone should join in demonising the “bigot brothers” who are, of course, less civilised than real Scots, and some of us will demonstrate our superiority by using the term “slum-dwelling weedgies”. Join us in our anti-Old Firm crusade for love and peace, and if you want to know how to be Scottish, just ask. What could be more inclusive?
However, there’s much that will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary society. John Flint and Ryan Powell show that attempts by the state to improve / homogenise the masses are not new. The crowd being an ancient metaphor for uncivilised behaviour, the real surprise might be that it took the authorities so long to get round to their current civilising offensive. Kay Goodall and Margaret Malloch explore women’s experiences of sectarianism, their conclusions including the persuasive thesis that it acts to support patriarchal structures. John Kelly’s analysis of the rivalry between Edinburgh’s major clubs shows that prescriptive notions of Scottishness are neither new nor confined to Glasgow, with Hibernian being refused entry to the SFA in the 1880s for not being “Scotchmen”. Ideas conceptualised by Bourdieu are rarely far from the action; Crawford, for example, notes that “to name the world is to make the world”, a recent example being that the SNP’s electoral success is accompanied by their de facto right to define the problem; hence the 2012 Act. The unpacking (by Irene A. Reid) of journalistic depictions of Celtic manager Neil Lennon outlines a case study in how the media shape perceptions.
Overall, Bigotry, Football and Scotland is a work of high quality, although, like everything else, it establishes its own discursive formation, effectively setting parameters on legitimate subjects for discussion. There’s very little on how either our segregated school system or constitutionally sectarian monarchy promote peace, love and understanding. The reader is left with the suspicion that the brevity of the chapters restricts the complexity of some ideas, although it’s clear that work has been done to prevent the language slipping into jargon. Conclusions include a number of creative suggestions, including the allocation of public funds to compensate Rangers for revenue lost as a result of genuine desectarianising. Another intriguing idea is the possibility of games played in front of audiences restricted to women and children, as has been done to great effect in Turkey. Above all, the reader is encouraged to question whether legislative attempts to forbid certain types of expressions among a restricted set of social groups are a price worth paying in terms of state hegemony and individual freedom.