Dr Waiton on Rangers, Free Speech and Sectarianism

The following is an interview with Dr Stuart Waiton of Abertay University, probably Scotland's foremost free-speech campaigner. Here he gives his views on how increased censorship and authoritarianism is affecting Rangers, Celtic and Scottish football fans. He also touches on wider society.

His book, 'Snobs Law – Criminalising Football Fans in and Age of Intolerance' can be purchased here and I thoroughly recommend it. Thanks to Dr Waiton for his time.

- John DC Gow

Why is Freedom of Speech important?

Dr Waiton: It is the basis for all other major freedoms. If you do not have free speech, the very idea of free association or artistic or religious freedom have no real meaning.

I'm offended by what you say – don't I have the right to stop you upsetting me?

Dr Waiton: I go by the punch in the face rule. If you are doing something like screaming in my face or threatening my kids (with your words) and I smack you in the face, and a judge (or preferably a jury) say that I was acting in self defence – then no you don’t have the right to ‘upset’ me. But only because it is experienced as a direct threat – as a form of violence. In certain places, like schools, churches or even football grounds there will be certain rules – because these are not open public places. Football has historically been seen as largely a public space where you could be offensive without any bother. Other than that, the right to be offensive is one I would defend absolutely.

Why is this important to Rangers fans or Scottish football?

Dr Waiton: Because historically football has been a place you can go and shout and swear and sing whatever you like. Fans should regulate themselves, but criminalising words is a very dangerous thing to do and undermines the freedom that people should have. We should re-establish the very clear idea that harm means physical and economic harm. Words do not harm you in this way and must be tolerated in a free society. Because this is not the case fans are infantilised, treated like children who cannot be trusted and ultimately criminalised. This is simply authoritarian.

What is the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBaF) and why should it concern anyone?

Dr Waiton: This act makes it illegal to say anything offensive at football based on the say so of ‘right thinking people’. It targets only football fans not nice artists, comedians etc. And allows it the continuous potential to criminalise football songs.

Isn't it agreed that sectarianism is evil and oppressive? So isn't your belief that people should sing what they want evil and oppressive?

Dr Waiton: If we mean by sectarianism religious or political ‘bigotry’ then I am opposed to these things. But it, ironically, is entirely your right to be sectarian, or racist, or homophobic. These are opinions. Opinions should not be made illegal. They should be challenged by political and moral arguments. This is what a free society used to be about.

In your book 'Snobs Law' you say the political elements of British Unionism and Irish Republicanism are possibly more important to understanding sectarianism than religion. Why?

Dr Waiton: The conflict in Ireland is the basis for modern-day tensions between Catholics and Protestants – although in Scotland this remained limited even at the height of the conflict. Today the conflict has no dynamic and religion is declining in importance which means there is no basis to sectarianism. ‘Sectarianism’, so called, is essentially a football rivalry and little else.

You also say both Rangers and Celtic fans sing politically sectarian songs about the IRA and UVF, however, Celtic fans have journalists, politicians and academics supporting their right to sing about the IRA, but no-one for supporting UVF songs. Why is this?

Dr Waiton: Good question. I think this is largely because old fashioned ‘exclusive’ nationalism is now out of favour, while modern ‘cultural’ (or victim-based) nationalism is far more acceptable. See how being Scottish is easier to celebrate than being English – with the English portrayed as bullying, possible racists if they get their flag out, while the Scots are quaint kilt-wearing cultural cuties.

Five major Celtic fan groups have joined to call themselves 'Fans against Criminalisation' (FAC). They say they do this to support freedom of speech, but it seems to solely focus on the right to sing IRA songs. They are even promoting a music download of 'Roll of Honour' which is an anti-English song defending Provisional IRA and INLA terrorists. Do you support this as a positive campaign for freedom?

Dr Waiton: I support their right to sing what they like. I would be delighted if they supported the right of Rangers fans to sing what they want as well. Some of them would do, but many would probably not.

But what freedom did the Provisional IRA and INLA (or Loyalist terror groups like the UVF) bring to those they murdered for disagreeing with them? In other words, aren't you defeating your own message by not criticising those who defend killers – especially when they murdered those who do believe in freedom of speech? Isn't that a betrayal of your own ideas?

Dr Waiton: If we have a free society we have free speech. Then we can argue what we like in whatever way we like, or sing whatever songs we like. If you kill someone you should be arrested. If you sing about people killing other people – however distasteful this may be – you should be free to do so. Sing back if you like, protest against other people’s beliefs, or have a march. But do not give the power to the state to arrest people for what they say.

Do you believe FAC truly believe in freedom of speech, or do you believe the majority would still hope to criminalise Rangers fans who offend them with their songs?

Dr Waiton: I know some who believe in free speech. I know more who do not. Indeed some Celtic fans have pushed for laws against Rangers singing their songs and are now being hoist by their own petard. I suspect in the past most Celtic and Rangers fans would have opposed the criminalisation of songs – but today it is becoming the norm for us all to cry offence and call in the police.

Who do you believe are wrongly targeted the most: Rangers fans, Celtic fans or both equally? Why is this?

Dr Waiton: Rangers fans have been targeted because their songs can be interpreted as being religiously sectarian. Rangers also have an old school form of British nationalism which does not fit with the cosmopolitan elites who run institutions today. This adds to the focus on them and their presumed bigoted, wife-beating fans. Now, however, Celtic fans can also be targeted for singing songs that have been seen as political – e.g. IRA songs. And it appears that the Scottish elites and police are keen to stop political offensiveness as much as any other kind.

If the OBaF Act is repealed, won't we have a society where we can sing in support of terrorists like the IRA and UVF who have murdered thousands? Why is this freedom of expression?

Dr Waiton: If the OBAF Act was repealed I suspect it would make little difference to the way fans are policed – except it might be more difficult to police, as you say IRA or UVF songs. We didn’t have free speech before it was introduced and we won’t even if it is repealed.

How much is class a factor in this crackdown on football fans?

Dr Waiton: It is not a direct factor in some respect i.e. being offensive can lead to anyone being arrested on Twitter etc. But it is a factor, in that football fans who are being targeted specifically in the new law and generally in terms of the obsession with campaigns to kick racism, sectarianism, wife beating, anti-semitism etc etc out of football. The modern liberal elite hate football fans who they often casually insult as knuckle-dragging bigots. This of course reflects their prejudices far more than it does the outlook if fans. This couples up with an old conservative fear of the ‘mob’ and loathing of the ‘unwashed’. Taken together we have a very dangerous hate-filled dynamic of regulation and control being targeted at the white working class in Scotland and indeed across the UK.

In 'Snobs Law' you single out Graham Spiers' thoughts on sectarianism and censorship. Why?

Dr Waiton: Because he brilliantly portrayed the obsession with sectarianism in the 1990's as a middle-class self-indulgent fantasy that did not reflect the reality of the 90 minute pantomime of offence that is the Old Firm fixtures. Today he, rather embarrassingly, has turned into a middle-class self-indulgent fantasist. But don’t blame Mr Spiers for this as most people have gone the same way (and I strangely quite like him).

What do you think about anti-sectarian charities and movements? Do they help or hinder freedom?

Dr Waiton: They are at the forefront of limiting people’s freedoms. They have an interest in maintaining the myth of sectarianism. And they will continue to have a negative impact on Scottish society – especially in their work with children, where football rivalries are confused and transformed into this bogey of sectarianism.

Why do anti-sectarian groups focus on reducing organised marches?

Dr Waiton: I’m not sure if they do. But marches are again very old school and often too much for the offence brigade who are terrified of ordinary people organising about anything that they are not fronting.

Do you think the SNP government is more or less authoritarian than others by introducing OBaF Act? 

Dr Waiton: I think they simply follow in the shameful trend started by Liberal and Labour MSPs to campaign around the problem of sectarianism precisely at the time when it was losing its significance. Jack McConnell helped to really kick off the anti-sectarian industry largely as a way to promote himself in the new cosmopolitan world. Salmond has simply stolen his clothes and done likewise.

Do you believe an independent Scotland would be more or less authoritarian?

Dr Waiton: Probably more, because the trends towards regulating life, song-singing, parents, drinking, smoking and just about everything else you can think of are generally introduced first and furthest in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Although only just.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr Waiton: Yes. The problem for fans today is that what we are creating is a snitch society where it has become normal to grass on one another, to report your own and other fans to the police because you find something offensive. This is the most depressing development. It is anti-social and a tragic result of the policies that have been introduced in the last 15 years.

'Snobs Law – Criminalising Football Fans in and Age of Intolerance' can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0957155905/ref=dp_olp_0/275-7126018-7298105?ie=UTF8&condition=all