There are those who wish to keep politics and football in separate boxes. To those people I say “politics is everywhere dummies”. That’s especially true for football – cultural practices that mobilise a huge chunk of society and influence millions? Political. And where else are you going to find tens of thousands of people coming together on a regular basis? It’s no wonder that many fans have taken common political positions considering the meeting of likeminded people orientated around a shared love. Fans at clubs across Scotland have brought politics into their grounds and fan forums. The founding myths of Celtic as oppressed underdogs striving for dignity and freedom make it unsurprising that their ultras feel sympathy with Palestinians. Rangers as a club that emphasises Britishness and love of queen and country is bound to be followed by many who support members of the armed forces and their actions abroad.
Of course it’s not all that simple either – fans of a team are not monolithic blocks who share the common political stances and voting behaviours. However, teams and fan groups can take certain slants that end up associating certain clubs with political positions. In Spain, for example, FC Barcelona has a strongly Catalan identity, and expressed supported for the self-determination movement, despite their own potentially precarious situation in an independent Catalonia. In the run up and immediate aftermath of our own independence referendum, some supports bizarrely adopted Yes or No stances despite the enormous diversity of viewpoints within the fan bases. More than once on away trips I heard fans chanting “we know you voted No” as a mic dropping diss.
Politics isn’t just something that fans adopt either, it can be something that impacts on them directly. Take the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was a piece of legislation passed by the SNP in 2011 and only repealed this week. This act criminalised any behaviour that could be deemed offensive only when carried out in a footballing context, whether that is at a ground or on the way there. The SNP branded this act as an attempt to fight sectarianism, but was seen by fans of all colours and various external groups as unworkable and unfairly targeting football fans. It also alienated fans from police with mass surveillance being particularly unwelcome. The law proved so unpopular and ineffective that every opposition party in the Scottish Parliament vowed to repeal it in their election manifestos in 2016.
Of course, no one with half a brain can deny that sectarianism is a problem in Scottish football, but the OBFA was a lazy and divisive law constructed on arbitrary lines. Plus, there are already laws against the discrimination of others based on faith and against inciting violence. By implementing a law solely applicable to football fans, the SNP framed the problem as being one of football and football alone, passing the buck onto an already scapegoated group. This law did nothing to heal divides or enact change, but further entrenched groups into their corners. Arrests of fans for offensive songs have done nothing to remove said songs from the grounds, and have instead given them martyr status. The Act also has no preventative power, as evidenced by the march allowed to go ahead at the last Old Firm game by Rangers ultras the Union Bears “against the fenians”. The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has somehow managed the disreputable achievement of both failing to punish truly offensive behaviour and targeting those where the offense given is negligible.
The repeal of the act does not mean that fans are now let off the hook for singing sectarian songs, nor should they be. Neither does it mean that politics is no longer relevant to football now that the targeted law is off the books. Politics will continue to affect the way we attend games and support our teams, but hopefully now in a more appropriate and effective way. First and foremost, football fans are members of society, and so have the right to be political actors. Football does not exist in a vacuum, as much as it seems to be a world of its own, and so it shapes and is shaped by outside forces. There’s about as much point in trying to separate Willie Collum from questionable decisions or Theresa May from fields of wheat as trying to separate football from politics. Political fans are here to stay.
[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]