Tag Archives: Scottish Government

‘Neighbourhood Bully’

‘Neighbourhood Bully’ is the title of a song on Bob Dylan’s brilliant 1983 album, Infidels.

Released shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, it was intended as an ironic response to the growing international condemnation of Israel for its tendency to retaliate with brutal and disproportionate force against attacks on its citizens and frequent Palestinian raids into its territory.

The central message was that despite how things appeared through the global press, Israel’s fundamental right to exist, and to defend itself when attacked, should not be denied:

“Neighbourhood Bully, he’s just one man

His enemies say he’s on their land…

He’s not supposed to fight back, he’s supposed to have thick skin

He’s supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in”

Today, given the absolutely horrific situation in Gaza, the title seems less ironic. However, the song itself still serves a reminder that there are two sides to most stories and that we ought to be careful not to allow our judgement to be influenced by state sponsored media.

However, even if you were to take the message of ‘Neighbourhood Bully’ seriously in the 1980’s and find a way of justifying Israel’s heavy handed behaviour at that time – and I think you would need to have been extremely charitable to do so – the utter devastation and unforgiveable loss of innocent life caused by Israel’s current campaign would now make this impossible.

Without question, the situation in Gaza is utterly shameful and the Israeli attacks need to be stopped with immediate effect. Hamas militants also need to stop. Beyond that, however, it is difficult to imagine what a permanent solution would look like that would be agreeable to all parties.

In order to understand the enduring nature of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is worth taking a quick look at both sides of the argument, however weak or strong they may be. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. When you start to dig beneath the surface, it becomes very difficult to unravel the various strands that form this very complex and highly volatile relationship.

Whilst the majority of us may never fully understand the subtleties of each side’s position, either because there are deeply cultural and religious matters at stake that outsiders will always struggle to penetrate, or simply because global politics often obscures local truths, it is nonetheless clear, and worth repeating a hundred times over, that there can be no justification whatsoever for the mass murder of innocent children and families. 

Israel might argue that it is justified in its campaign against Gaza on the grounds that the security of its citizens is under threat due to the intricate network of tunnels used by Hamas militants to gain access to Israel and because of the incessant rocket fire into Israeli territory.

Hamas might argue that these tunnels are necessary to secure access to vital supplies that have been denied to Gaza by the continued blockade of its borders. If Israel states that it wants to neutralise the effect of these tunnels, Hamas states that it simply wants the blockade to be lifted. This is too simple and we are obviously talking about short term objectives.

Scratching beneath the surface, Israel’s bigger concern would appear to be that lifting the blockade would allow Hamas to build up its military capabilities in order to achieve its longer term aim of destroying Israel – “Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it” – because, as a radical Islamist political party with a militant wing, Hamas refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel and considers it a religious duty to struggle against Zionism and its expansionist philosophy.

Hamas’ concern is therefore that Israel wants to achieve a Jewish majority across the entire area within a single and unified state, reaching from Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. This only hardens the resolve to put right the wrongs of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their ancestral homes and forced to flee consecrated lands, which the Islamic Resistance Movement describes in its Covenant as the Jewish “usurpation of Palestine”. It is most unlikely that they will ever be able to return to their home land, despite the Jewish diaspora being welcome with open arms.

It is all very complicated and there is no obvious solution to the problems here. There is too much distrust on either side to reach a peaceful solution within the existing framework. A radical rethink is required. A new overarching philosophy is needed, which would divorce nationalism from religion on the one hand – which seems impossible in this context, given that they are intrinsically connected in the Covenant – and which would embrace a different understanding of sovereignty and statehood on the other, allowing a complete reorganisation of the political communities in this part of the world – again this seems impossible in this context.

In the meantime, the ‘single state’ and ‘two state’ solutions will be proposed and rejected over and over again, Hamas will continue to attack Israel and Israel will continue to retaliate disproportionately. The rest of the world will continue to look on in horror as Israel continues to hem displaced Palestinians into a tiny strip of densely populated and blockaded land, destroying its economy and infrastructure, and murdering innocent children and families just trying to go about their daily lives.

Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels contains another very powerful song, ‘Union Sundown’, a stinging condemnation of the political and economic practices of capitalist societies and their consequences for ordinary people and their families.

Dylan goes deep to the heart of this particular issue to remind us that those who hold the real power in this world do so, not because they have observed proper democratic process, but because they have the frightening capacity to control, bribe, manipulate or destroy whoever, or whatever, happens to be an impediment to the world being organised in exactly the way that suits their own despicable ends:  

“Democracy don’t rule the world

You’d better get that in your head

This world is ruled by violence

But I guess that’s better left unsaid”

It is worth thinking about this: perhaps there are other significant political communities in other parts of the world which, for a long time, have been content to allow the situation between Israel and Palestine to continue as it is, for whatever reason, and despite what they would have us believe when called to comment.

As long as the ‘world is ruled by violence’, the prospect of a permanent and peaceful solution will never be on the cards, and that is regrettable, shameful and unforgiveable.

I am delighted that the Scottish Government has offered to welcome refugees from Gaza and has also given £500,000 funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to provide water, food, shelter and medical assistance to the people of Gaza.

The Scottish Government has also urged the United Kingdom Government and the international community to do more to achieve a permanent ceasefire and have the blockade lifted…    

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British Elitist Extremism

When Governments feel the need to offer definitions of certain socio-religious concepts, you immediately start to question their motivation for doing so. Which of their unpalatable, unfair or unethical policies are they about to justify by reference to one of their carefully crafted definitions?

For example, the Scottish Government made the mistake of trying to offer a ‘working definition of sectarianism in Scotland’ that looked more like a dodgy attempt to justify its unpopular and unnecessary legislation against Offensive Behaviour at Football matches:


The United Kingdom Government is just as transparent. David Cameron recently tried to remind us that the United Kingdom is a Christian country. He now wants to encourage us to feel less bashful about promoting the traditional values that underpin British society, for which too many individuals living in this country appear to have lost respect. To that end, education must play a vital role.

Cameron’s argument quickly jumps to the astonishing conclusion that being too bashful about celebrating traditional British values creates the type of space which allows extremism to flourish. There is something seriously wrong with this way of thinking.


Extremism is defined by the UK Government in a 2013 publication, as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’:


The publication goes on to claim that extremism creates an environment for radicalising individuals and it can set them on the path to terrorism; extremist ideologies, including Islamist extremism, run counter to our traditional values and therefore must be tackled before they get a chance to take root. 

For example, we have been informed recently that there are around four or five hundred young British Muslims who have recently gone to fight in Syria, and who may commit acts of violence and terrorism on their return. That this poses a long term security threat to the United Kingdom means that tracking the activities of young British Muslims fighting in Syria is now a top priority for MI5.

In Cameron’s mind, it also means that the United Kingdom Government needs to find a way of blocking off the path to terrorism before it begins. This can be done through making it compulsory to teach British values in schools in England and Wales, and through so called counter-messaging agencies hammering home the importance of respect for democracy and the rule of law, particularly to those identified as being potentially vulnerable to radicalisation.

So the condensed version of Cameron’s argument is that unless we are more confident about promoting British values, we run the risk of terrorists growing up in our own streets and attacking our country from within. This is nonsense and Cameron knows it!

Apart from defining extremism in such a narrow way that it can only be avoided through teaching and reinforcing traditional British values at every opportunity, Cameron appears to link the decline in the latter with the rise in extremist religious ideologies that lead to terrorist activities, which is dangerously arrogant of him.  

Cameron’s arrogance also seems to have blinded him to the obvious, and this is one of the key reasons why Governments need to think twice before they tie themselves up in knots trying to control our thinking – by his own Government’s definition of the term, the United Kingdom has been harbouring more than its fair share of home grown extremists for generations, no doubt brought up to respect the fundamental and traditional British values that he insists are the solution to the rise of Islamist extremism in this country –

They are the self-serving, greedy Westminster MPs caught up in the parliamentary expenses scandal; the dishonest, profit-crazy City of London bankers found guilty of fixing LIBOR rates; the shameless South Yorkshire Police officers who altered witness statements to conceal their own failures at the Hillsborough stadium disaster; the UK Government’s Child Migrant Programme that sent 130,000 children from the UK to live in Australia and Canada on the basis of an ugly lie; its decision to illegally invade Iraq on the basis of another lie; the out of control British soldiers who committed the unjustified and unjustifiable killing of innocent Civil Rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday; the British colonial forces who tortured Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising.

Surely these actions show active opposition to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs? It would appear to me that it is not just so-called Islamist extremism that runs counter to the fundamental British values that David Cameron apparently cherishes. We might want to refer to it as British Elitist extremism.

It is practiced by too many of the individuals who have been elected or otherwise to govern our country and appointed to manage our great institutions. It is their entitlement. And of course, despite the occasional apology to appease public outrage, British Elitist extremists would seem to operate without a social conscience and with impunity, because the United Kingdom Government would never define them as such.




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The Limited Effect of Education on ‘Eradicating Sectarianism’

I strongly believe in education as a powerful driver of social change.

Unfortunately there are times when education alone is not sufficient, and the type of change we need to see can only come about through radical reform of the framework itself which commissioned that education based response.

In its recent reply to the ‘Report of the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland’, the Scottish Government declared that education remains central to its work to tackle sectarianism and has already committed £9 million up until March 2015 to help achieve that aim.

Click to access 00445032.pdf

Some of that funding will be spent on supporting existing, and developing new, community based anti-sectarian initiatives that place learning and education at the centre. Whilst this sounds good in principle, the obvious question to ask is why so many government funded anti-sectarian initiatives have tried and failed to achieve the aim of ‘eradicating sectarianism from Scottish society’?

The question might be obvious, but the answer is not. Even if we make a start by trying to achieve clarity on what sectarianism actually means, we are not necessarily any further forward with respect to the aim of eradicating it from our society.

It is useful to remind ourselves at this point that it is not sectarianism per se that is wrong, despite the very premise of the Scottish Government’s anti-sectarian project, but ‘sectarian bigotry’, or ‘sectarian conflict’, and so on.

By definition, sectarianism is simply about having a rigid commitment to a particular sect – in this case we are mostly talking about doctrinal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism as sects of Christianity – and unless committing to one of these sects demands being disrespectful or hateful towards the other, then there is nothing essentially wrong with it.

Of course, grammatical perspicuity is important, however it doesn’t detract from an ugly reality, or dilute the bitterness often experienced in this context; nor would it ever imply that we do not have a difficult social problem that needs to be tackled.

It is arguably the case that what we typically perceive to be instances of sectarian bigotry in Scotland are more accurately described as instances of racial bigotry, with adherence to different religious sects often being an indicator of ethnicity, rather than of specific doctrinal preference.

Whilst we live in a multicultural society in which the coexistence of different ethnic groups brings certain claims to rights, there is no compulsion among politicians who are steeped in nineteenth and twentieth century thinking to reform the political order that is defined by the idea of a ‘nation state’ and its central role in shaping a unifying British identity, to which other nationalities and ethnicities are necessarily subordinate, and subconsciously perceived as a threat to the establishment.

This is the deep psychological space in which fear and distrust of otherness has been politically engineered for centuries. The key difference is between living in a society that reluctantly acknowledges a plurality of nationalities, many of which continually have to compete for acceptance, recognition, legitimacy and equality, and living in a society in which nationality is necessarily plural, with its citizens having the freedom to express multiple identities, and participate in multiple, autonomously structured, political communities.

British history provides the background to the religious and racial challenges we face today and the unchanging political order that sustains them. Teaching tolerance of different religions and ethnicities within a multicultural society is an important response; dismantling the framework within which there is little room or appetite for legitimising multiple identities and multiple political communities would be a much more significant driver of change, however far off that may seem.

Therefore, highly commendable efforts to educate sectarian bigotry out of our society may prove to have limited effect because they are being driven forward in isolation from radical political change. If their objective is to encourage tolerance and respect for different religious beliefs, then we may have to acknowledge that some ‘anti-sectarian’ initiatives are occasionally misunderstanding the problem, whilst others will only ever be able to scratch the surface.

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Three Dogmas of Sectarianism in Scotland

It is common to hear sectarianism being described as ‘Scotland’s shame’. This description is often repeated without much thought in public debates on the issue by politicians, journalists and the like, and the general consensus appears to be that sectarianism is a problem that needs to be eradicated from Scottish society. Yet despite substantial sums of money being spent over the years to achieve that aim, the problem as perceived still exists. Why is that?

I would be inclined to think that part of the reason might be this: our thinking about sectarianism in Scotland has been channelled in the wrong direction by at least three dogmas*. The first dogma is that sectarianism is always wrong. The second dogma is that sectarianism is caused by denominational schooling. The third is that expressions of ethnicity and celebrations of cultural heritage are necessarily sectarian.

The first dogma of sectarianism in Scotland is that it is always wrong. Putting the incredibly complex, and perhaps deliberately vague, definition of sectarianism offered by the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland to one side, according to the dictionary definition, sectarianism is simply this: it is the excessive devotion, or fanatical commitment, to a particular sect, doctrine, denomination, group or party.

The simplicity of this definition makes it easy to understand and helps avoid the mistake of picking out conditions and criteria that ought not to figure in our thinking. If we keep it simple, we can argue the case that religious leaders who demonstrate the utmost devotion and unwavering commitment to their sect over another one could be described as sectarian. And this would be an entirely innocent use of the term.

In this sense, the use of the term sectarian does not imply any wrong doing. It may suggest that someone correctly described as sectarian could be regarded as being very narrow in their outlook, but that should not necessarily be vilified. Nor does it mean that they are expressing hatred towards another sect, and nor should they be held to account in a court of law. It is their right to be passionately committed to their particular sect, denomination, doctrine or group, if they so choose.

The second dogma of sectarianism is that it is caused and perpetuated by denominational schooling. In Scotland, we are typically talking about the existence of Catholic schools. There are many examples of this view. Consider this one: in a Parliamentary debate on sectarianism in 2011, Scottish Conservative MSP John Lamont suggested that the education system in this country was effectively the “state-sponsored conditioning” of sectarian attitudes and that the resulting “segregation of our young people has brought them up to believe that the two communities should be kept separate”.

Lamont deliberately uses the term ‘state-sponsored’, suggesting that he believes the Scottish Government has been guilty of putting money and resources behind a framework that created just the right environment for sectarianism to flourish in the first place, and despite the shame that it has brought on our country, continues to do nothing to change that framework. This completely flies in the face of the Scottish Government’s attitude to faith schooling in general and its recognition of the very positive contribution faith schools make to Scottish society.

Lamont is also telling us to believe that there is a direct link between ‘segregated education’ and ‘sectarianism’. This is too quick. It is also an unjustified attack on the professionalism of Scottish teachers. Additional conditions would need to be factored in to make this link more likely. It is not immediately obvious that children attending different schools would have the belief that, if they attend different schools because of their different religious beliefs, they must therefore belong to ‘communities that should be kept separate’. This would attribute an interpretation to the children’s own understanding of their separate schooling arrangements that most of them probably do not have.

The third dogma is that expressions of ethnicity and celebrations of cultural heritage, particularly in or around football matches in Scotland, are necessarily sectarian. This can be a difficult misconception to unravel, but it is important to do so because it is has resulted in the creation of new offences in Scotland which criminalise much of this type of behaviour.

The best place to start unravelling this misconception is by thinking about how language, culture and identity, are intrinsically linked concepts, and how historical events can (i) have a negative impact on the confidence of a nation to celebrate and express its identity and (ii) breed an alarming way of thinking that encourages offence to be taken at the first sight of the latter.

A language is woven into a way of life. It comprises a complex mix of human relationships, cultural practices, histories, traditions and values. It is a living embodiment of a nation’s sense of identity. Whether that way of life is viewed as uncivilised and unsophisticated, savage or spooky, through the eyes of a culturally imperialistic neighbour, is of absolutely no relevance to its intrinsic value, nor its right to be freely celebrated.

Being immersed in a particular language and a culture is inextricably part of who we are. To suppress another nation’s language and culture in order to promote your own can create a sense of alienation within an ethnic group towards its own identity. It can also create a sense of hatred towards the suppressor, an attitude which may become less vivid over time, but still remain subconsciously active within the psychology of the suppressed culture for as long as its people’s right to fully re-engage with the past and express themselves are denied.

The interplay between these subconscious attitudes within a nation and the continued sense of cultural supremacy harboured by its historical suppressors, can be dangerous and damaging. It can take very little to reignite the tensions and troubles it creates, even in cases where some of those caught up in the middle of it all have little or no understanding of the complexities of the past, yet still claim to be affected by it in some way.

But we should be hard pushed to offer a sound justification for using the term sectarian in these instances, unless there are specific religious elements to the tension; in many cases there are none. They are spontaneously drawn into the conversation, or are just assumed to be part of it, because we are confused over the correct use of the term. For some reason we like to think that expressions of Irish ethnicity in Scotland, including all references to social, political and historical injustices and causes, necessarily have sectarian intent. They don’t.

Recognising these dogmas for what they are is important. It helps channel our thoughts in the right direction when trying to tackle the problem of sectarianism in Scotland. We may need to make the uncomfortable admission that we have been spending our money and efforts trying to tackle the wrong problems, which are important problems in their own right, but are not instances of the problem of sectarianism. It is important to know what you are dealing with before you can work out how to eradicate it. We don’t appear to be there yet, and that’s a shame.

*For the avoidance of doubt, I should admit that I stole the idea for this title from the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine’s seminal piece, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’.

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Scotland’s Separation Anxiety?

Unsurprisingly there are a number of people who intend to vote ‘no’ in next year’s independence referendum, whilst there are many others who remain to be convinced either way. It is interesting to consider whether part of the reason for this is that as a nation, Scotland may be suffering from a type of separation anxiety?

Whilst there might not be a single specific cause of separation anxiety in every instance, it is sometimes the case that it affects individuals who have been deprived of opportunities to fully explore their autonomy during their formative years, and therefore believe that they are limited in their capacity to make significant decisions, and take independent action, when it matters most.

In severe cases, it can have a crippling and suffocating effect on confidence, particularly when the reduced state of autonomy has been enforced over a considerable period of time by a third person on whom we have become dependent as our decision maker, and whom we have been trained to perceive as a necessary condition for our survival.

Whilst the negative psychological impact of this process is not always easy to recognise or articulate from a first person perspective, its behavioural manifestations can be easy pickings for those who have a vested interest in reinforcing the desired direction of power, particularly if there is the slightest indication of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

And so it is instructive that the Better Together campaigners frequently use the term ‘separation’ when criticising the Scottish Government’s ambition to regain full decision making powers for Holyrood. It is almost as if they were trying to manipulate the vulnerable psychology of a nation that has had its autonomy denied or restricted in order to secure the political and economic interests of others.

But that would be immoral, particularly if you questioned whether the type of separation anxiety that Scotland may be suffering from, whilst it would have already existed in a basic form as a result of generations of external control, had been deliberately exaggerated and exploited for the purpose of securing a ‘no’ vote in 2014.

Exploiting the natural anxieties that exist among some of its people, in order to make a nation believe that it would not be in its best interests to make its own decisions, would be incredibly damaging. It would be the point at which Scotland decided to turn its back for good on an opportunity to come up with its own distinctive solutions to its own unique problems, and it would be the point at which Scotland chose to avoid living through the social and cultural changes that would be required to achieve its true potential.

The main problem I have with this is not so much that I would be devastated by the outcome – if the majority of Scotland decides to vote ‘no’, then so be it – but that it would not be obvious that any such decision was actually made from an authentic standpoint. To vote that you disagreed with Scotland being an independent country may in fact turn out to be a vote not to experience a very uncomfortable episode of separation anxiety.

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Opting into Scotland

Generations of workless families; undernourished children living in poor quality housing; the choice between eating a healthy meal, or heating your home; low educational attainment, low life expectancy and ill health; alcoholism and drug addiction; theft, violence and vandalism; corruption and exploitation; sectarianism, racism and bigotry.

This is the state of the country we live in today. It is neither great, nor is it united. Unashamed adherence to neoliberal economics, the reckless pursuit of individual wealth and the preservation of elite privilege, hereditary power and status at the expense and misery of others, have created one of the most unequal and unethical societies in the developed world.

To commit Scotland to the United Kingdom is to commit this depressingly sad future to the absolute supremacy of Westminster with its London centric policies and its belief that granting Scotland the right to develop its own taxation and welfare systems in the manner best suited to addressing a raft of social inequalities in Scotland, would be inconsistent with being in the union.

In other words, there is no clearer indication that we will never be able to address Scotland’s social and economic problems whilst part of the United Kingdom than that the policies required to do so are simply not compatible with the terms of the union and the Westminster agenda.

The specific powers required to introduce the right type of social and economic policies for Scotland cannot be devolved without radically disrupting the primary focus of the union, a scenario which has been mockingly referred to as the ‘race to the bottom’, by the Better Together campaign.

The decision to remain in the United Kingdom is therefore the decision to opt out of regaining the full range of powers needed to make Scotland a fairer, more progressive and more socially just nation; it is the decision to opt out of Scotland, to leave this country forever at the disposal of a Government with no real ability to make our society any better than it is. The union doesn’t work for Scotland’s benefit.

The set of skills which enables the majority of individuals to engage meaningfully and respectfully in a wide range of social and cultural activities is the set of skills which will only ever take root and flourish within a new type of political, economic and moral framework that genuinely values education, equality and social justice over wealth generation, global positioning and military clout.

It will be up to the people of Scotland to make sure that, in the event of independence, the newly acquired powers are used to bring about the changes the country actually needs. It may take a couple of generations to reshape our damaged society.

But in doing so, we would be addressing problems specific to Scotland using powers previously reserved to a Government that has always had an entirely different focus – which is to get what it needs out of the union, rather than to get the best out of Scotland.

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An Ugly Impasse

It is hard to think that the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation has had anything but a negative impact on the attitudes and behaviours of those it was intended to manage, despite the Scottish Government’s bullish claims to the contrary.

Whilst the police argued that they required a greater range of powers in order to deal with the perceived escalation in sectarian hatred in connection with some aspects of Scottish football, many others were reluctant to entertain the idea that existing laws were inadequate.

One outcome of this is that the greater range of powers seems to be stretchable to match whichever interpretation of the occasion is deemed to suit, with the interpretation sometimes appearing to be influenced by the media, other times by an inability to understand political context and poor knowledge of historical fact.

As a result, a strong belief has emerged within certain groups, particularly the Green Brigade, that the manner in which they choose to support their team has been criminalised unnecessarily and that some of their members have been subject to police harassment, victimisation and disproportionate response.

Whether the controversial containment tactics used by Strathclyde Police in Glasgow on Saturday were appropriate to the situation has been challenged. Whatever the eventual outcome of that, it is clear that the march was unlawful in the sense that no permission was sought from the local authorities in advance. The police would have failed in their duty had they not intervened.

It is difficult not to acknowledge that the Green Brigade has become a powerful force with strong political views, a fact which may sit uncomfortably with some individuals within Celtic FC. But it is even more difficult to avoid the thought that extinguishing, rather than monitoring, a force of this nature is a primary objective of the police. It may draw into a long and complicated war of attrition. Neither side will back down. Neither side will win.

Whichever way you view it, the central issue remains that the Scottish Government caved into pressure to introduce a piece of poorly written and completely unnecessary legislation. In doing so it managed to create a context of confusion, mistrust and tension – perfectly illustrated by the now toxic relationship between the police and the Green Brigade – and we are still no closer to eradicating the problem of bigotry in Scotland.

Like most, I would be relieved to see the end of the type of bigotry that infects football here. As it happens, I would also prefer that political views were not expressed at football matches in a manner that risked creating the impression that such views were in some way reflective of an unwritten part of a club’s story.

Given the background causes, I am not convinced that either will transpire any time soon – but that neither justifies the Scottish Government’s poorly conceived legislative solution to the problem, nor does it excuse disproportionate police response to perceived episodes of non-compliance with that legislation.

We may have reached an ugly impasse. It is time for a re-think – without the media circus, without politicians positioning themselves to win favour, and this time with people who understand the true nature of the problem in this country.

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‘Offensive Behaviour’, One Year Later

By the end of this week, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (Scotland) 2012 will have been in force for one year:


One year on, I don’t think we are any closer to fully understanding how to apply this legislation properly. It was a hastily written piece of work, popularly referred to in the media as the ‘anti-bigotry law’, or the ‘anti-sectarian law’.

It hinges on a definition of ‘offensive’ which seems to imply that certain forms of behaviour at football matches are illegal if they cause a certain type of response in others. It has largely been about singing certain songs, or versions of these songs, that provoke an angry reaction because of their inflammatory, racist or sectarian content.

When trying to decide whether a piece of behaviour is offensive, an obvious question to ask is, ‘offensive to whom?’ and the most likely answer is, ‘to any individual belonging to a religious, social or cultural group that feels annoyed, angered, upset or intimidated by that behaviour’.

But relying on a shared emotional response as the criterion by which we judge certain displays of behaviour as offensive is tricky. It not only renders our definition too subjective, it also puts too much weight on a bundle of loosely structured emotions whose inherent volatility ought to mark them out as unreliable markers of definitional consistency in the first place.

The problem is exacerbated by the recognition that the types of emotional response in question are typically learned – but in an entirely damaging sense through involuntary exposure to a negative form of breeding from a young age and into adult life. It is from that perspective that much of what is regarded as offensive tends to be judged by the man in the street.

I think there is a general consensus among many people that the Act was introduced as a desperate measure to deal with an ugly spike in activity within the context of an embarrassing and shameful socio-cultural problem in Scotland. This ugly spike was still too raw in the public consciousness when the Bill was originally shaped, and that was a mistake.

It produced a situation in which the immediate response in some quarters to almost any form of behaviour, even loosely perceived to have a connection with a certain type of religious outlook or ethnicity, has been one of anger and outrage. The upshot is that too many different forms of behaviour have been popularly tarred with the same brush through a distortion in our understanding of what ought to count as offensive.

And from time to time it would appear that even those in positions of authority on match days have done little to prevent the view that what counts as offensive hinges on the misconception that if certain types of behaviour cause upset or anger, simply because they contain references to a particular race, religion or a political agenda, then they must be illegal.

In fairness, the Act itself does appear to recognise that being offensive isn’t simply about individuals feeling upset or angered that the group they belong to has been challenged, parodied or criticised; the key seems to be that the challenge must be made in a form that expresses or arouses hatred and is likely to lead to public disorder.

But surely expressing or arousing hatred cannot be sufficient either, when it is so easy for one group of individuals to feel hatred towards another, just because they are there and making a noise about everything that is important to them? It is all too subjective.

Clearly, there has to be more to it than that. I think it must also come down to whether belonging to a particular group has been challenged or criticised in a way that is contrary to that group’s integrity, or contrary to historical fact.

This would never constitute a definition in its own right, of course, but it would help sharpen up our understanding of what is permissible and what isn’t in a more objective context, provided we can be historically accurate in our assessment!

And whilst this would legally permit certain forms of behaviour to continue, and certain types of song to be sung at football matches, the appropriateness of doing so must nonetheless be assessed against the wishes and expectations of the club they represent – that should always be a key consideration.

It is fairly obvious to me that not every song or action that arouses anger, hatred or annoyance in ill-informed minds is in fact offensive. It is too easy to blame the wrong people here. Not everyone will think the same way about this, but perhaps it is the irrational response that ought to be criminalised in these cases, rather than the initial behaviour.

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History, Myths and Value Systems

An article in today’s Herald reports on the decision of the Scotland Office to temporarily block the publication of certain files relating to the Scottish devolution process, with Whitehall ministers having the final say on their release. SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn describes it as “cheating Scotland of its history”:


It is unsurprising that this would happen, of course, given that the independence referendum is not that far away and there are likely to be vital pieces of information – which quiet deals were made, when and by whom, who gave away what and why – that could have an effect on how the people of Scotland vote in 2014.

One of the difficulties we have when trying to make sense of key political events today is that their causes, and reasons for occurring, may be inextricably linked to certain people and events in the past, the motives of whom, and the significance of which, are not always easy to understand.

The problem is not necessarily that we are poor at understanding occurrences in the past. Sometimes it is that we are simply unable to arrive at a true account of events because of inherent ambiguities and compelling alternative interpretations, with no means of corroborating any of the versions given.

Other times it is because the truth – as in the case cited above – has been deliberately withheld for political reasons, with lighter and more digestible accounts of events offered up to us in their place through carefully controlled press releases and media coverage.

All of which can make it difficult to fully understand why certain political decisions are being made today – or why some key ones were made in the recent past – and therefore deny us the opportunity to make informed judgements about our country’s future.

The sickening part is that it is perfectly legal for our ‘democratically elected’ Government to manage the truth in this manner on our behalf, and as a result, through the variety of institutions in which we are immersed, control the history we think we lived through in the past, and manipulate the present we believe we are experiencing today.

Almost on a daily basis we have representatives of the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments accusing each other of peddling dangerous myths about independence or otherwise and attempting to mislead the people of Scotland through their own particular slant on events.

Whilst the passage of time will help to loosen the grip of the political and economic myths we build our lives around today, we may never achieve complete transparency in these matters until it is too late for the truth to make a difference. That’s just how this country operates.

When we elect a Government, we are not simply authorising politicians to make decisions on our behalf; we are also gifting them the right to manage the truth behind those decisions. And when a Government appoints itself, as the case may be, we may find that the value systems they carve out from the truths they have been entrusted with begin to diverge from our own in drastic fashion.

In 2014, Scotland’s choice is not simply about where the ultimate seat of political and economic decision making for this country should be. It is about choosing the values that best reflect Scottish interests and the needs of the people of Scotland.

It is about choosing Scottish priorities, such as free education and welfare policies to support social justice, over Westminster ones, such as dismantling the NHS, engaging in illegal wars and keeping Trident out of harm’s way of London.

But the problem is this: these values are easily lost in the mix of dangerous myths and historical inaccuracies we are asked to accept as fact; they are easily promoted by clever rhetoric as the root cause of our economic problems and the reasons behind many of our social ills.

When you manage the truth behind political decisions, you ultimately manage the country’s value systems. And when you manage that, you are a short step away, not only from ‘cheating a country of its history’, but also depriving it of a better future.

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What’s So Anti-Scottish about Free Education?

A clear sign of Scottish Labour’s gradual drift towards Tory type thinking was posted yesterday in Johann Lamont’s speech to mark her first anniversary as leader of the party:


Her general point is the obvious one, which Cameron and Osborne have never tired of ramming home, that the policy of free universal services is unsustainable in the current economic climate.

Perhaps that is the case, but they always omit to say that the current economic climate includes horrendous sums of money wasted every year on unnecessary and illegal wars, and the vast amounts of revenue lost by turning a blind-eye to multinational organisations choosing not to pay their share in corporation tax. Not to mention the unforgivable betrayal of Scotland’s future that occurred when the decision was taken not to set up an Oil Fund.

Lamont develops her point by arguing that persisting with the unaffordable policy of free higher education has been made possible at the expense of significant cuts to the further education sector, which has in turn created huge inequalities between Colleges and Universities.

So whereas Lamont claims that the policy of free higher education in Scotland is being paid for by the college sector, others might feel justified in countering that claim with the reminder that there would have been no need to reduce spending on education at all, had successive Conservative and Labour governments in Westminster not chosen to squander substantial sums of money elsewhere.

The most troubling part of her position is the manner in which her argument progresses from the economic sustainability concern to an attack on the fairness of free education, when graduates are said to expect higher earnings over their lifetime compared to non-graduates. Free education is either fair or it isn’t, regardless how much money self-helping politicians have thrown to the wind.

And perhaps the most baffling part of her position is the contention that the Scottish Government’s policy of free education is anti-Scottish. It is difficult to understand exactly what this is supposed to mean. How can it be anti-Scottish to promote a principle that has been distinctively Scottish for generations?

In his St Andrew’s Day message, Alex Salmond commented:

“Scotland is proud of its history of invention and discovery. We actually invented quite a bit of the modern world, from the telephone, to television to penicillin to beta blockers. However, perhaps – actually certainly – our greatest invention of all, the one that made all of the others possible, was the invention of universal free education.”

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