Review: Bigotry, Football and Scotland: Perspectives and Debates, ed. by John Flint and John Kelly

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: Bigotry, Football and Scotland, ed. by John Flint and John Kelly, International Journal of the History of Sport (forthcoming 2014). There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Bigotry, Football and Scotland, edited by John Flint and John Kelly, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, viii + 232 pp., index, £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7486-7037-6

John Flint’s and John Kelly’s 2013 edited collection Bigotry, Football and Scotland, gives the title topic a twenty-first century sheen. The ends here are arguably more productive than they were in the 1999 T.M. Devine-edited Scotland’s Shame? While both books share a few of the authors, the academics, writers, and supporter-bloggers (a welcome addition) here are engaging in a constructive dialogue. Bigotry, Football and Scotland, despite being designed to foster debate and accept disagreement, nevertheless works as a cohesive whole. Crucially, it is self-aware, and ever-so-slightly irreverent: contributors, for example, openly fret about taking part in a publication which arguably furthers Scotland’s ‘sectarianism industry’.

A lot has happened in Scotland in the past fifteen years, but the bigotry associated with Scottish football still exists, even if it is often tough to quantify. Devine’s collection was released at the time Scotland gained devolved powers and reconvened its Parliament; and, at the time of writing, Scotland is preparing for a referendum to decide its constitutional future in the UK altogether. This was after a clear and astonishing Scottish National Party (SNP) victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections. One of the SNP’s landmark pieces of legislation, aside from the 2014 independence referendum bill, has been the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, rushed through Holyrood after a series of high-profile ‘Old Firm’ conflicts, including an in-match altercation between Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Rangers manager Ally McCoist. This is before touching on Rangers’ liquidation and subsequent reconstitution in the lower leagues of Scottish football during 2012.

Not all of the contributions in Bigotry, Football and Scotland work equally. Joseph Bradley’s chapter on Scottish football’s ‘memory’ of Ireland and British colonialism, and Irene Reid’s piece on the Scottish media’s treatment of Lennon in the context of broader discourses on sectarianism, do not venture too far beyond the comfort zones of their previous work. These chapters work in the context of the collection, and for a popular audience that will not necessarily be familiar with long-standing academic debates on the subject, but would probably be weaker as standalone pieces. In other chapters, the reader is directly prodded and provoked by what appears to be the moral relativism of the Old Firm’s terrace cultures. Stuart Waiton believes that the Act exemplifies a society where supporters are robbed of their right to be ‘offensive’. Beyond reducing this imagined working class to a crude stereotype, Waiton employs pop philosophy to belittle people who are, in his view, too easily offended by bad words. Slavoj Žižek is invoked in a seemingly Richard Keys/ Andy Gray defence: it’s only ‘banter’. Language being used as a spur to violence is not considered a realistic possibility. Waiton’s Randian libertarian fundamentalism is countered by an overly literal Paul Davis, a believer in the Act who does not adequately allow for football fandom’s performative aspects, despite being a Celtic supporter himself who has witnessed displays that probably cannot always be categorised so earnestly.

Then again, one can arguably take the inclusion of such pieces as a positive, as they fit well into the wider context of a work that shows the Act to be inadequate in addressing real bigotry, and heavy-handed towards silencing football supporters who do not conveniently fit the SNP’s narratives of Scottish identity. Pieces by Rangers Standard blogger Alasdair McKillop and Celtic supporters’ blogger Patrick McVey besides reveal the dangers in attributing monolithic identities to either set of supporters. But what about those supporters who sing unedited versions of the songs on the terraces? Niall Hamilton-Smith’s and David McArdle’s essay on the authorities’ confused views on the Act show us something of a legal purgatory, with poorly-advised police – usually taking into account guidance given for disturbances at English football matches – interpreting the Act very differently given individual circumstances. Sometimes supporters are arrested for chants which do not explicitly refer to anti-Catholicism or anti-Protestantism, and other times obvious incitements towards violence are allowed to go unpunished. The Act, in this case, is shown to be highly fluid and open to a liberal interpretation by police and by match stewards, with the latter essentially forced to act as deputies. It all has the potential to inflame tensions, rather than defuse them, and one is necessarily concerned about this being a pretext towards the curtailment of supporters’ civil liberties.

Readers of this journal will justifiably wonder what the relevance of this collection is to the historiography of Scottish and British football. I have certainly been critical of the tendency to isolate sectarianism from wider class and power dynamics within my previous work. And yet, this collection includes a significant addition to the historiography: Andrew Davies’s brilliant essay, which builds upon his own previous work on interwar gang culture in Glasgow and Liverpool to show that football-related bigotry was a crucial dynamic in street violence in Glasgow during the period. Flint’s and Ryan Powell’s essay on the ‘civilising offensive’ inherent in policing sectarianism features a bit of process sociology –anathema to some readers of this journal – but is still nevertheless helpful in showing that the Act has historical antecedents, and is part of a long-term framing of sectarianism within policing and social policy circles.

Beyond historical explorations, many of the themes discussed in this book are novel, at least within the context of Scottish football and ethno-religious bigotry. Kelly’s and Michael Rosie’s pieces necessarily take us beyond the west of Scotland to examine the thoughts of football supporters beyond the Old Firm. In Kelly’s case, his interviews with Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian supporters show both Edinburgh clubs’ sets of fans display a definite antipathy towards Glasgow’s major clubs, while some of their more subtle loyalties to their clubs are nevertheless based around similar discourses on historic migration to Scotland. Rosie, often a critic of studies which show sectarianism to be a massive problem in Scotland’s central belt, includes the words of non-Old Firm supporters from internet message boards in showing readers that they too have a role to play in debates on ethno-religious bigotry in Scottish football.

At the close of this book, there are still many unexplored avenues. A piece by Kay Goodall and Margaret Malloch on gender and its relationship to sectarianism and football adds a long-overdue strand to this research, but this comes after years of neglect on the topic by (male) academics. Additionally, what are the perspectives of LGBT supporters of Scottish football clubs? Along the same line, what are the relationships of new migrants to football and bigotry? Discrimination against Polish migrants might be viewed as fitting in neatly with previous trends of anti-Catholic bigotry, but that of second-generation Asians, as well as the newly-arrived Roma, does not. Some (middle-class) English, North American and Australian migrants might still be altogether perplexed by the Scotland being discussed within this book. There is still a need to reconcile these very disparate experiences of integration, discrimination and sport within twenty-first century Scotland. And, since it is discrimination being discussed here, there is also still a need to discuss work, unemployment, and how historic inequalities manifest themselves, if at all, in the depressed labour market of the 2010s. The editors, however, justifiably feel that they have put together a collection whereby scholars and policy-makers can hopefully build upon the opening-up of the topic, and can begin to move beyond the most superficial discourses of sectarianism.

Matthew L. McDowell

University of Edinburgh


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