A wake-up call for the SNP

Thursday’s vote in Parliament on my bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act might just provide the wake-up call the SNP needs.

The writing has been on the wall for the Nationalist’s Football Act since the results of the Scottish Parliament election were announced in May 2016. In the last Parliament, the legislation was rushed through by the SNP when the party had a majority – the first law passed without the support of any other party in the history of Holyrood. Every party has remained committed to its repeal since.

This is not without good reason: from the original Bill’s drafting in 2011 a comprehensive list of concerns has remained, and nothing of substance exists to prove the law’s success.

The message this legislation sends out is a weak one, creating more confusion than any meaningful progress in combating bigotry.

Professor Sir Tom Devine has described it as “the most illiberal and counterproductive act passed by our young Parliament to date” and a “stain on the reputation of the Scottish legal system for fair dealing”.

Expert evidence sessions run by the Justice Committee over the past few months have reinforced the arguments for repeal. Equalities campaigners said that they did not believe it had done anything to tackle hate crime, supporters’ groups reported a growing distrust between fans and the police, and legal experts confirmed its repeal would leave no gap in the law.

Published statistics prove this discredited legislation fails to do anything to tackle sectarianism. In 2016-17, of 719 charges for religious aggravation, only 46 were reported under the Act. The message to the committee was clear: that the unclear and illiberal law’s time is up.

The explicit commitment of my party – alongside the Greens, Lib Dems and Conservatives – to repeal makes it all the more ridiculous for SNP ministers to continue to suggest it is someone else’s responsibility to fix the law. The Football Act is not worthy of reform and its repeal will leave nothing missing in statute books.

The Football Act is symbolic of the SNP’s time in office: governance by sticking plaster. Much as the Nationalists love to make noise about the issues facing Scotland, for a range of problems, it is always the quickest and least radical option that they choose in order to tackle them. This law shows the damage such poor legislating can do.

There is a great opportunity for government to lead the way with meaningful action in targeting bigotry, but arresting young men with no prior convictions in dramatic dawn raids will do nothing meaningful to tackle hate crime.

Thursday’s vote gives the SNP the chance to hit the reset button, to build consensus and produce a united approach to tackling sectarianism. They must listen to experts in the field: education is the best route to change views, not lining terraces with police and cameras.

They can, and must, do so much more. There have been a handful of prosecutions for online abuse under the legislation. This is not the role of the Football Act, but it is clear we need to arm prosecutors with better tools to stamp out hatred on the internet.

If the SNP is serious about government, it should start listening to the real problems with this Football Act, back my repeal Bill and reform its approach to tackling sectarianism. If it continues to defend this failed legislation, then it just shows the Nationalists for who they are: a party of protest incapable of taking Scotland’s issues seriously.

This column first appeared in the Herald on Tuesday 23 January 2018.