A wise old German proverb was quoted in the Guardian recently. It runs like this:
"What do two monsters do when they meet each other in the forest?"
It's hard not to think of it as you watch the progress of the Scottish Government's anti-sectarianism bill through Parliament. The media has devoted a lot of column inches to the bill in recent days, with a variety of viewpoints. SNP MSP Joan McAlpine wrote an impassioned opinion piece for the Scotsman in support of the bill yesterday, while legal blogger Lallands Peat Worrier took the opposite approach, forensically examining the finer details and concluding that in extreme circumstances it could conceivably be used to criminalise behaviour that might seem trivial at worst.
The Scotsman's main editorial coverage today takes an uncharacteristically neutral stance, reporting the fact that the opposition parties, particularly Labour, are refusing to back the bill despite having put forward no amendments to it. They also provide two further short opinion comments, one from each side of the debate.
Against the bill, a sociology lecturer from Abertay University (no, us either) offers a rather unfocused ramble that sounds uncomfortably like some bloke in the pub sounding off after a couple of pints and concludes dramatically that the bill is "the most authoritarian piece of legislation in recent history", while the President of the Association Of Scottish Police Superintendents contends that in fact it's a welcome clarification and simplification of the law with regard to sectarian offences.
The vast majority of the Scottish people, meanwhile, heartily sick of the poison that spreads outward from Ibrox and Celtic Park and infects the rest of Scottish society, wait to see if something is finally going to be done.
In this blog's view, the bill is perhaps the bravest act to date of the SNP government, eclipsing even the release of the "Lockerbie bomber". Scotland is just six months away from local elections in which the party desperately wants to wrest control of (in particular) Glasgow City Council away from Labour, and with most opposition to the bill centred in Scotland's second city, the smart political move would be to kick the bill into the long grass for a year or so.
The SNP could claim to be seeking consensus – since yet another delay is what Labour are demanding – fight the council elections and then pass the bill whenever they liked with their comfortable Holyrood majority. Instead, they're boldly pressing ahead with a plan which has united the twin monsters from Govan and Parkhead in opposition, and which is certain to cost the party support in Glasgow from the sectarian factions who angrily assert their "right" to sing songs of centuries-old battles in a foreign country at Scottish football matches, in what (despite their wounded, pious protestations about "heritage" and "pride") are nothing more than a pitifully transparent attempt to provoke each other into self-perpetuating violence.
The most cynical view it's possible to take is that the SNP has calculated that there are more votes to be won from the silent majority who despise the Neanderthal bigotry of the Old Firm's supporters than there are to be lost, but that's a gamble at best. Even if people welcome the measures, it's hard to see them being enough to result in a change of allegiance. So it's hard to conclude that the pushing through of the bill is motivated by anything other than a belief that it's the right thing to do.
And beyond any rational dispute, it is. The analysis by Lallands Peat Worrier, which notes (correctly) that in theory someone could be arrested and prosecuted for expressing bigoted opinions even in a gathering of solely like-minded people where there would be no danger of it causing public disorder, seems to us to be missing the crucial point. If Scotland is ever to be freed of the curse of sectarianism, the problem has to be tackled long before the point where it erupts in a punch-up. The expression of bigoted views in the first place has to be de-normalised, and that concept is an approach which is currently paying dividends with regard to smoking.
The original big bang of a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces was stubbornly resisted by the sizeable pro-smoking lobby, but it's now almost impossible to go into a pub and imagine that it was ever allowed to be filled with choking carcinogenic fumes. And the process of de-normalisation continues worldwide, with steps now being taken to remove all branding, ban cigarettes from open display and impose or propose further restrictions on smoking near other people. The habit is becoming less and less tolerated, and steadily forced backwards into a smaller and smaller ghetto, to the indisputable benefit of everyone except the tobacco companies.
Sectarianism is a sort of smoking of the mind. It usually begins when the culprit is too young to know any better, it poisons not only them but those around them, and it's nurtured by large businesses for their own financial advantage, usually under a pretence that it's about individual freedom of expression. In this case those businesses are Rangers FC and Celtic FC, who over many decades have grown big and rich and powerful primarily on the strength of their supposed antipathy towards each other, and by providing a weekly focal point for sectarian hatred to keep the flames stoked and burning in a way that occasional marches just can't do.
It's true, of course, that Rangers and Celtic aren't the root cause of sectarianism, although they've been the primary forces keeping it alive in Scotland for most of the last century. (With Rangers in particular doing so openly for most of that time, by refusing to employ Catholics until the very late 1980s. As with smoking in pubs and restaurants, if you weren't there at the time it's mind-boggling to think such a thing was ever tolerated.) But Scotland isn't yet ready to tackle the insanity of dividing its children into religious groups at the age of five, or to acknowledge the fact that actively creating sects in such a way might just (duh) have something to do with sectarianism.
You might reasonably imagine that the clue was in the name, but such arguments cut little ice in Scotland. The Catholic minority reacts with outraged hysteria and accusations of persecution to any suggestion that just maybe it isn't that great an idea to separate a community's toddlers from each other on the basis of slight differences of interpretation between rival versions of primitive superstitions that none of them have the remotest understanding of, keep them apart from their friends and neighbours every day throughout their formative years, and then expect them to get along when released into the wider world as teenagers pumped full of hormones and deeply ingrained with the notion that they're somehow fundamentally different to each other.
(The usual argument here is that Catholic schools don't teach bigotry, and of course they don't, any more than "non-denominational" – de facto Protestant – schools do. But humans are genetically inclined towards tribalism, and if you separate people of the same community from each other on any grounds, especially at a young age, they will learn to behave tribally along those lines, with invariably ugly consequences. Particularly, of course, if you reinforce it by doing it for generation after generation.)
So no, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill is not a complete solution to Scotland's sectarian woes in itself. But it takes important steps towards tackling both the symptoms of the disease and (albeit indirectly) the cause. Those who quibble and nitpick academically over the fine details, or shriek about "freedom of speech", are missing the point, and risk condemning Scotland to still more generations of bigotry and hate.
If the bill is imperfect, it can be fixed in the future. The people have run out of patience with the glacial, reluctant progress of self-policing from the football clubs (and the despicable opportunism of the opposition parties at Holyrood trying to stall the bill for petty political advantage). It's long past time that something was done, and that a message was sent to both the Billy Boys and the Boys Of The Old Brigade. The next time they meet in the forest, they should have less to smile about.