Analysis By G.A.Ponsonby
Jim Murphy says he will repeal the anti-sectarianism legislation if he becomes First Minister. Scottish Labour’s saviour in waiting has vowed to “scrap the Football Act right away.” if Labour wins the 2016 Scottish election.
Murphy’s announcement was reported in a manner that suggested it was a novel policy statement from the Labour MP. It was splashed on the front pages of both The Herald and Scotsman.
The respective authors Magnus Gardham and Scott Macnab must have been on holiday back in March when Anas Sarwar announced that repealing the legislation was Labour party policy. Sarwar was Deputy leader of Scottish Labour when he made the pledge, he’s now the interim leader. So news it wasn’t.
So if as is clear Murphy’s promise to scrap the legislation was already party policy then why did he feel the need to package it up as a brand new idea thought up by himself? Well there are two possible reasons.
The first is that Murphy is currently vying for the vacant role of leader of Labour in Scotland. With trade unions openly calling for their members to back Neil Findlay, the East Renfrewshire MP needed a bit of exposure. The media in Scotland favours Murphy – who represents “good copy” far more than his opponents – and is content therefore to help out by presenting existing party policy as a Murphy initiative.
The other reason is that Labour in Scotland desperately needs some headlines in order to try to deflect from their very public woes. Poll after poll is confirming the party is flat lining.
But as ever with Jim Murphy, the real story may be lurking in the background.
Here is the statement Murphy released this week:
“The law was an attempt to chase headlines rather than actually fix a complex problem. Sectarianism and intolerance goes far beyond 90 minutes on a Saturday or 140 characters in a tweet.
“Instead of fixing the problem, they have created a pointless culture of mistrust between football fans and the police.
“Only when sectarianism in Scotland is seen by future generations to be just as unacceptable as racism and homophobia will we get rid of this stain on Scottish society for good.
“The Football Act is not helping us towards the fair and tolerant Scotland we all want to live in.”
The legislation is controversial, there’s no doubt about that, and certainly needs its current review. However the claim that the Scottish Government introduced it in order to “chase headlines” lacks credible evidence .
When legislation was first mooted, Scottish Labour supported it. In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, then deputy leader Johann Lamont said: “We look forward to scrutinising the detail of these proposals and working closely with the Scottish Government to improve this legislation and ensuring it is in place as quickly as possible.”
Weeks later, outgoing leader Iain Gray repeated his party’s commitment and said: “It is certainly the intention on this side of the chamber to support the principles of the bill. I made it clear that we want to support the Government in legislating against bigotry in football and, indeed, anywhere else.” (our emphasis).
This coincided with a heightening of tension around certain football matches, and individuals related to Rangers and Celtic. Three Tangers players had been red carded during a Cup tie that was rowdier than usual. Around the same time, Celtic manager Neil Lennon had been sent bullets and parcel bombs through the post.
The late Paul McBride QC and Labour MSP Trish Godman had also received similar parcel bombs. Ms Godman was sent an explosive device after she was pictured in the Holyrood chamber wearing a Celtic football top. There was a general feeling that football was incapable or unwilling to deal with an issue that had dogged it for decades. The police called for a summit in order to address the issue.
Indeed speaking in May 2011, Jim Murphy himself urged the Scottish Government to act, after he claimed to have been assaulted.
“Just in the last few weeks, there’s something particular going on when I got assaulted because of my faith and because I’m pretty public about my faith; it’s not a secret.
“So for people to shout at you in the street, simply because of the faith that you follow, I think it is a throwback to a dark period. Scotland should be pretty clear this is a shameful, dark underbelly of our culture.”
“It is downright ignorance, it’s violence,” he said. “It’s fuelled by drink but the government in Scotland, with support from all of us, has to get on top of it. Warm words from politicians won’t fix this problem.”
So Murphy wanted the Scottish Government to “get on top of it”, warning that “warm words” would not solve the problem.
In 1999 when former vice chairman of Rangers, Donald Findlay was caught on camera singing what many claimed were sectarian songs, Murphy called for the QC to be investigated.
Findlay had been celebrating Rangers’ Scottish Cup win and sang The Sash and Follow Follow at a Rangers supporters’ event.
Commenting at the time, Murphy said: “I think what he did was tasteless and irresponsible.
“A man who should be acting in a responsible manner has behaved as badly as some of the most irresponsible fans.”
And he added: “The matter shouldn’t rest here. The appropriate authority, whoever that may be, has to look at this and decide if any action is taken.”
Murphy now appears not to want to take action against people who sing sectarian songs in a football environment. What’s changed Jim’s mind?
The Offensive Behaviour At Football And Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 is in need of review, no-one doubts this. However one of the things most people will also agree on is that political posturing and naked opportunism of the kind displayed by Jim Murphy is almost as offensive as the behaviour the legislation seeks to address.
Perhaps the journalists who slavishly reported Murphy’s reheated Labour press release might ask how he intends to tackle the kind of behaviour he himself has described as “sickening”. After all, he has already insisted that “warm words” are not enough.