The “anti-sectarianism Bill” is a dog’s breakfast, but Labour should allow ministers to retreat without losing face, writes TOM HARRIS
I left yesterday’s “People First” STUC-sponsored march through Glasgow in order to head to Ibrox. No, not to watch the game – I am well known for having less than no interest in kickerball, despite the national stadium being next door to my constituency office.
I was at Ibrox to help Dr Stuart Waiton, the founder of Take a Liberty (Scotland), Councillor David Fagan and others distribute leaflets to fans, asking for their support in opposing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill, or the “Anti-Sectarianism Bill”, as it has become more commonly known.
My neutrality when it comes to the Great Divide on football has proved useful these past ten years. But like everyone else who grew up in the west of Scotland, it’s not something you can be entirely unaware of. In Ayrshire you knew when it was the marching season, although my parents, both non-practising members of the Church of Scotland, never encouraged me or my siblings to get involved in the Lodge beyond watching the marches pass our house. By the time my first child was born, I was living in Glasgow and for the first time I considered moving south of the border so that he wouldn’t have to grow up having to answer the question: “Which school did you go to?”
After the end of my first marriage, my oldest son was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended RC schools, so the sectarian issue is one in which I have an emotional vested interest. I’ve therefore followed the debate on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill with interest and nervousness. And the two points I want to make are these:
First, it is a bad Bill and if it makes it through the parliamentary process, it will create bad law. It will take up a hell of a lot of police and court time, cost a huge amount of money in the process and make many lawyers very large amounts of money. It may or may not send people – people who, as the law stands today, are guilty of no crime – to prison. And if the Bill does as it’s intended, it will send large numbers of people to prison, piling ever more pressure on our already pressed prison regime. And that’s if the Bill were even workable, which I very much doubt. Sending someone to prison for five years for singing an offensive song may have sounded a great soundbite when the media were howling at ministers demanding the Something Must be Done. But when violent rapists are having their sentences cut to less than that, you know that something is very, very wrong.
The second point is that Labour should acknowledge that the SNP Government, in proposing this legislation, were acting in good faith. Had Labour been elected in May, ministers would have come under exactly the same pressure and would have been offered exactly the same advice from the same civil servants. Who knows? They may even have accepted it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Roseanna Cunningham and Alex Salmond were, as I write, hoping for a way to back out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves without losing political face. There is, and Labour should provide it.
Labour should oppose this Bill, but we should also be prepared to applaud ministers if they display the courage and integrity required to admit that on this occasion, they made a human and honest misjudgment. Sectarianism is too ugly, too divisive, too serious a subject to make political capital out of.
Salmond was trying to do good in a very difficult and delicate area. He should be congratulated for that and he should be reassured that Labour can recognise that a government admitting it got it wrong and wishing to start afresh is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. He Tweets as @Tom4Scotland.