Football, Politics and Police
Scottish football has always been plagued by outside political interference. As far back as a century ago when the establishment searched for a club where they could propagate and influence society through large crowds of football fans. Initially trying to find a home at Queens Park (then one of the most successful teams in Scottish football) where they were swiftly rejected before finding a home at Rangers. It was here they found a space to politicise and spread social disharmony in a direct response to the formation of Celtic FC. A rivalry and division which has endured and strengthened for over a century at the detriment of every other team in Scotland, with far-reaching implications into the very fabric of society throughout the country. For an academic treatment see for eg ‘They Sing that Song, Football and Sectarianism in Glasgow’, Andrew Davies, in Bigotry Football and Politics (Eds John Flint and John Kelly).
This Glasgow city derby with given a political, social and religious edge which was drummed up by the media and influential figures of the time. Pitching the working classes of the city and beyond against each other, lines drawn between religion and ethnicity. All this at a time when west central Scotland was an industrial powerhouse on a global scale. Political awareness and agitation of socialism was arguably at its highest it’s ever been. Churchill then secretary of state for war, locked Glaswegian soldiers in their barracks, deployed troops and tanks in the city centre in response to strikes calling for a shorter working week and full employment. Mary Barbour successfully led rent strikes which captured the support of thousands upon thousands of workers downing tools across the city forcing the Government to step in and force all landlords to reduce rents and lock them at the same rates as before the First World War.
Against this backdrop of working class unity and activism the country’s most popular sport amongst the working classes, football was used as a tool to tear the city and the wider industrial area in two. 100 years later Scotland is still struggling to combat the deep-rooted division in our society the much talked about Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) was intended to be the flagship policy that was going to cure a Scotland sick with sectarianism. In reality it has turned out to be one of the most ineffective acts in history, With conviction rates embarrassingly low and no clear definition in most cases as to what constitutes offensive behavior or even sectarian. It has been used to harass charge and disrupt the lives of many otherwise law-abiding citizens who have the audacity to say the word “baldy” at a football match.
But for me this is only scratching the surface of poltical interference, oppressive police tactics and one of the last fronts of a class war that’s been raging for decades in football.
Football historically would come at the end of the working week for millions of men, woman and children on a Saturday afternoon. Providing an escape and release from the graft and hardship of the time. As successive Conservative governments gradually broke down and tore apart industry the communities built around them football remained and still endures as the last beacon and focus of working class pride and community spirit. Countless clubs owe their nicknames, club crest and identity to their town, local industries and the people who worked there and supported the club. With the loss of industry, work places and the social clubs adjoined to many, football also became the last place where people could congregate in large numbers show pride in their area, share stories beliefs and feel part of something feel that camaraderie and sense of society that Thatcher had tried so had to break going as far as to say “there is no such thing as society”.
After breaking the miners where else would the police, the government and the press turn to in order to ensure the tactics and training and mentality honed during miners strikes weren’t lost? Football became the obvious target with hundreds of thousands of young disillusioned working class men seemingly marauding up and down the country every weekend. The riotous behavior – perhaps a result of a breakdown in the community structure, loss of industry or even a direct reaction to the pressure’s of the conservative ideology at the time. An outlet to express a sense of abandonment and lack of hope. Those on the right-wing at the time seem to have picked up on that and used the crowds as massive recruitment centres places to spread their own propaganda and hatred. A point apparently lost on the left at the time, no doubt swept up in the government and press propaganda labeling football fans as vile right-wing riotous thugs. Which I have no doubt has truth in it but also became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The terraces were largely left to be breeding grounds for the right wing which only fuelled the press and government agenda to demonise and almost dehumanise football crowds to the point where tactics employed, charges pressed and custodial sentences enforced today on football fans are accepted without fuss and even lauded by many.
Many could argue that the tactics employed by the government and police were successful in driving trouble out of the game. I would argue that all-seater stadiums, higher ticket prices the growth of other social movements throughout the 90’s had just as big an impact. But as the game and society has changed the mindset of the police the papers and government hasn’t.
We now live in a situation where large-scale disorder at football games has all but died out. The ring wing groups who used the game to exploit angry disillusioned young men have been chased out. Clubs are a playground and toy for the rich, the game is marketed to those who can afford the extortionate ticket prices, the £5 pies and all the club merchandise and trinkets you could possibly think of.
Clubs are a playground and toy for the rich, the game is marketed to those who can afford the extortionate ticket prices, the £5 pies and all the club merchandise and trinkets you could possibly think of.
Semi-organised groups of young people are to be feared, scrutinised, stalked, filmed, intimidated, have their movements restricted. At a time where police budgets are being slashed and scrutinized, their presence at games have never been higher the technology and resources have never been more available all this at a cost to the clubs themselves. Every officer, horse, surveillance unit and overtime logged is charged back to the clubs. Not a bad little earner.
In order to justify this exceptional source of extra income police are forced to find new and imaginative ways in which to meet targets and keep public opinion on their side. Standing in a seating area, crossing a road at a time that displeased a police officer, singing in an aggressive manner can all allow yourself to be treated to a head lock down a flight of stairs, a criminal record, hundreds of pounds worth of fines, surrendering of your passport on certain days, restrictions on where you can walk or in some cases even live on pre-determined dates and times. Not to mention any knock on effects all this can have on your employment.
Teenagers with no previous convictions or even police interactions outside a football game are now subjected to having their movements monitored, Details taken of what clothes they are wearing, social media accounts tracked and recorded, constantly filmed without consent, police escorts to fast food outlets, having their parents houses front doors kicked in at 6am and greeted with police storm troopers and national press photographers greeting them outside only for charges to be dropped quietly a few months down the line with no apology. Persistently harassed and goaded into reaction from a young age (Heels clipped from behind, ears flicked and their scarves pulled tight to the point of strangulation whilst stopped on their way to a football game) their mentality and attitude is shaped into one of distrust with our police forces.
There is a growing feeling that this is only been allowed to continue due to the working class image football still holds, the image a group of mainly working class teenagers having the audacity to create their own cohesive and functioning large social circle centered around and ideal or goal in this case supporting a football team. Something than enables them to create that feeling of togetherness and pride, create an identity and a collective voice that they are denied anywhere else in our modern “society”. Something that is just slightly outside their influence and control, something that they have shown time and time again that they do not understand.
What other section of society would we allow to be subjected to such level of intense supervision? What other section of society would we allow to politically targeted? What other section of society would we allow to have their ideas, movements, voice and identity suppressed?
Politics and class have always been part of football, Society has a whole is still struggling to overcome the mistakes made in the past. Lets not allow them to be made again. We are allowing a generation to be criminalised to suit a political agenda and top up police budgets. Football and its fans have the potential and ability to be the rock where we can build community spirit and the foundations of a better society. There is very few places left where people can organise, build a sense of community and identity that can take pride each other and fight for what they believe in. Lets not lose football to corporate business and overzealous political policing. Lets not make the same mistakes of the past.