It probably seemed like a very good idea at the time. To start as they mean to go on, to show how they intended to take Scotland forward from the outset, the SNP Government needed a hit-the-ground-running measure. Something that could be delivered fast and furious and showed the new government in tune with the zeitgeist and in touch with the burning issues of the day.
So, having sidelined sectarianism throughout the first term of government, until events forced the issue to the fore, it has now been placed firmly centre stage. The rush to outlaw odious expressions and even, thoughts, of sectarianism is causing many brows to furrow, not least because of the legal complexity of the proposed remedy and the haste at which the legislation will be formed.
The First Minister and his government are absolutely right to tackle the issue of sectarianism head on. It is a blight and a scourge, but its manifestation in football-related ditties and fan forum discussions is but an outward display of a hugely deep-seated problem in our society. Applying a sticking plaster to the symptoms of this issue or trying to fix a centuries-old malaise in a matter of weeks is the wrong approach. The Scottish Government’s instinct to address the problems besetting Scottish football is sound – we simply cannot have another season like the last one – but even to focus on sectarianism as a mainly football-related issue is misguided.
There is no quick fix to a problem like sectarianism, and it is multi-faceted in the reasons for its perniciousness. To only tackle its football-related manifestation by ill thought-out and hasty legislation will simply mask the problem, not resolve it. Yes, having a statutory offence of incitement to religious hatred might help but there are other sticks and indeed carrots, which need to be applied.
Songs, chants, banter and offensive remarks and anecdotes are tolerated not only by football clubs, the moderators of internet forums and social networking sites, but also by employers, colleagues, family and friends, and even churches. Frankly, there are grown men who indulge in sectarian bile who should know better, who often hold down responsible jobs and have respectable lives, and use their football allegiance as an escape valve. Few will even practise any form of religion: they wear their sectarianism lightly, mostly on match days.
If the newly enacted law is used to make an example of one such, it will send a clear message and encourage others to clean up their act. But applying the law must sit alongside other measures – a clear signal to football authorities to stop passing the buck, equality training and measures led by significant employers, an approach in schools that amounts to more than banning football colours and a peer pressure education campaign.
But even all this will not unravel the threads that cause sectarianism to persist in our society. In a welcome move, the First Minister made the link between sectarianism and alcohol misuse in his excellent Taking Scotland Forward speech in the Scottish Parliament. But its relationship with violence and poverty must also be exposed and addressed.
Just as the poorest whites in the United States choose poorer African Americans as their foe and not their friend in a wider struggle against inequality, so do Catholics and Protestants living cheek by jowl in some of the poorest areas of Scotland. It is easier for families and communities to turn on each other, to fuel those fires with a sense of religious difference and inequality caused by such difference, than face up to the common enemy in their lives. Sectarianism cloaks some inconvenient and unpalatable truths in their lives. The state and the rest of society are complicit in this, for we do not want people united in protesting at their lot in life, and demanding a more equitable fix or distribution of wealth and resources. Sectarianism has been allowed to fester in certain communities because it suits us, the haves, well.
Moreover, outlawing sectarian thought and deed, will not address the availability of cheap drink, nor the reasons why so many approach every football game as an excuse to get bevvied, nor why so many, once fuelled and fired up by a sense of religious outrage, resort to violence as the most appropriate way to express their feelings. Violence towards their partner, their children, their friends and family, and towards people they do not even know, their football colours being sufficient flag to justify wholly irrational responses. To dress it up as religious hatred is to miss the point: religion has very little to do with the modern phenomenon of sectarianism.
Modern sectarianism, intrinsically linked to poverty, violence and alcohol misuse, is largely (though not exclusively so) a male culture. Women and weans are bit-part players, along for the ride, the bruises and the broken bones, whether they like it or not. The reason so many eejits can issue idle threats to opposition players and managers’ safety so casually is because they dole them out daily. Yet, as a society we tolerate grown men behaving as boors, for it to be acceptable for the tribe to be more important in many cases than family. We nurture their tribal allegiances by never questioning the appropriateness of them.
Until society as a whole is prepared to tackle the underlying reasons why so many men behave so inordinately badly, using football and religious affiliation as a poor excuse, then sectarianism and its travelling companions of violence, crime and drunkenness will persist. It will take more than a legislative sticking plaster to heal this particular disease.