A hat-tip to Love and Garbage on twitter for this sterling example of intellectual consistency and serious-mindedness from Herald football columnist, Graham Spiers. The topic: the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and subsequent police enforcement measures taken under it. In an article headlined "How the SNP have made policing fans a minefield" published yesterday, Spiers suggests that the Act was
"... a piece of legislation that many - this writer included - had doubts about. The act seeks to do what it says on the tin: stamp out “offensive behaviour” such as bigoted or sectarian expression. There has been plenty of that around the Old Firm over the years, so to that end all decent-minded people felt that the law should crack down on bigots."
Cataloguing what he now perceives as the Act's problems, Spiers continues:
"Someone said to me: “A law never works if it cannot be objectively measured.” This absolutely captures the problem of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation. We got a glimpse of the mess the Scottish government was getting into when, in June 2011, Roseanna Cunningham, not having realised how much she had chewed off, had to frantically backtrack and delay the processing of the bill.
That day it took a mere half hour of questions to realise that Alex Salmond and the SNP, wobbling towards their legislation, hadn’t quite appreciated the acuity of supporters who wanted to defend their right to hold political or cultural positions in song and slogan. The Offensive Behaviour bill was duly delayed.
But its final clarity, when put on the statute book last year, was scarcely enhanced. It has all become quite a dog’s breakfast. Meanwhile, football supporters in Scotland feel like they are under a type of surveillance once associated with life behind the old Iron Curtain."
All of which gives the impression that the judicious Mr Spiers was a long-standing critic of these proposals, who set out these concerns about the clarity of the legislation and its definitions at the time, sorry to see his predictions about the illiberal and reactionary potential of this legislation borne out in practice. The only problem with this little pen-portrait is that it's a self-serving counterfeit.
Spiers refers to Roseanna Cunningham's Justice Committee appearance in 2011 which was not, with the best will in the world, her most triumphant parliamentary performance. He neatly glosses over his own. On the 6th of September 2011, the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee had the benefit of Mr Spiers' own evidence on the Offensive Behaviour a Football Bill as it was being rammed through Holyrood. No doubt he put his concerns to our tribunes? Articulated these "doubts"? Quantified those anxieties about how this vaguely-drafted piece of legislation might operate in practice?
Er. Not really. Quoth Spiers:
"I am in favour of this bill in principle. If someone asks whether I want to live in a country where thousands of people can shout about the Pope and say “F the Pope”, I say that I do not want that in a football stadium in my country. In principle, I am in favour of the bill."
Okay. So that isn't exactly a doubt-wracked assessment of the draft legislation, but perhaps further on in his testimony, Spiers really got to grips with the detail of the Bill, and the concerns many folk articulated at the time about the scope of its provisions? Fife SNP MSP Roderick Campbell, himself an advocate in a past instantiation, raised some of these concerns with him in the Committee session.
Roderick Campbell: "I will follow up on three themes that were developed in the earlier session. I would like to hear the panel’s views on the suggestion by the Rangers representative in the previous session that by legislating we are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and any comments on the context and clarity of the legislation, particularly from Graham Spiers and Pat Nevin."
In all fairness, Spiers' response was not the model of clarity, but the gist of his answer and the scope of his doubts was not that the Bill was too broadly drafted, overcriminalised football fans or threatened free expression, but that its provisions may be extraneous to requirements, given existing common law and statutory offences which apply to conduct in and out of football grounds.
Graham Spiers: "There is probably some substance to that complaint. As much as I wish the bill well, it seems to me—although I am not an expert on the statute book—that there are already contingencies in place such as religious hate crime law, breach of the peace, and other laws that give the police powers such as banning orders to apprehend supporters. There is a lot of stuff currently on the statute book that could deal with many of these problems, so I am a bit mystified as to why we must have an extra load of law—if I can put it in that way—to deal with the issue.
I suppose I need to qualify that by saying that I have been aware this morning that a lot of people are complaining about the anomaly between crimes that are committed in a football stadium and crimes that are committed in the street or in a bus shelter. People have said that that is odd, but a part of me says that it is not. I have been going to these games for decades, and there can be a particular poison in a football stadium. The expression of that may be found out in the street, on the factory floor or wherever, but it nonetheless finds particularly acerbic expression in a football stadium, so a part of me wants some type of specific law to deal with that.
That answer is perhaps as clear as mud, but I hope that you get what I am trying to say."
As Spiers notes in yesterday's Herald piece, the legislation he approved of in September did not differ materially from the final text adopted by the Scottish Parliament in November. He looked at the "dog's breakfast" in the autumn of 2011, and enthusiastically endorsed it.
Better one sinner repenteth and all that, but mightn't the entire debate have been improved, if folk like Spiers hadn't given the Scottish Government spurious political cover for this cobbled-together enterprise, had actually read the draft legislation properly when it really mattered, rather than composing self-righteous jeremiads now, when the reactionary legislation which Spiers himself helped to get on the statute book is enforced by the police in a predictably illiberal fashion?