James Kelly: Football Act Repeal Shows Power Of Grassroots Organising

The Football Act says a lot about the SNP’s attitude to government. It was cheap, PR-stunt law which targeted people who the Nationalists did not think would fight back. It was the state abusing its power and holding one group of society to a different standard than the rest. 

Repealing it was a historic moment for the Scottish Parliament and an unprecedented victory for fans and campaigners. Rushed through by Alex Salmond abusing his majority in government, the Football Act became the first ever law to be passed without the support of any other party. It remained something so fundamentally damaging that from the point of its introduction all the way to its repeal, it united Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Tories.

Throughout the process, the SNP demonised fans, shamelessly defending the law which treated people like second class citizens just for going to the football. From the point of the Act’s introduction, scenes of aggressive policing became all too common. Match days were increasingly dominated by walls of high-viz clad police officers, and young fans became used to having CCTV cameras pointed in their faces for whole games. The legislation and its implementation created a toxic atmosphere in stands, damaging the football experience for a generation. 

Not only were the strategies at matches completely disproportionate, but the tactics developed by police spiralled into the ridiculous. Throughout the repeal process, I heard from fans who had lost out on jobs and suffered huge embarrassment in their local communities, all because of a mistaken identity for something someone else did months before being arrested. Stories about young, working class men being dragged out of their beds at the crack of dawn by four or five police cars, arrested to the humiliation of their families and in front of the whole street were not uncommon. One teenager told me about choosing to hand himself in, alongside his worried parents, only to be detained overnight, despite posing no danger to anyone. On the day of repeal, I was sent a message on Facebook detailing another experience, of someone whose life has been torn apart because of being arrested eight months after a game, disrupting his exams and a year of school, with no evidence to prove the police’s case.

The arrogance from the SNP on the Football Act stinks. Politicians have consistently refused to accept responsibility for the impact of their flagship policy, and despite their lip-service offers to amend it, nobody in the government could come up with a single idea. It was clear from the outset that the Football Act was so discredited, the only way forward was for it to be repealed.

The government tried to make match days out to be horrendous occasions, painting a picture as if it was another world. Ministers spoke of fans like they were in a different league to the rest of society, at no point listening to their real concerns or doing anything to change police tactics. Annabelle Ewing’s attitude was elitist and represented exactly the view of the SNP’s leadership on those who dare to support Scotland’s national game.

From day one, the Football Act was about the SNP wanting to be seen to be doing something, while doing very little at all. Valuable programmes tackling bigoted views, often in the most deprived communities in Scotland, have had funding slashed year on year, while at the same time the cash going to council services in many of these communities has been decimated. Make no mistake, the Football Act shows exactly the lack of respect that the SNP gives to working class Scots. And it is working class men who have been affected the most, almost always needlessly caught up in the justice system and treated appallingly by police, just so that a government which does not understand the problem of sectarianism could feel good about itself.

The Fans Against Criminalisation campaign has been inspirational in how it gave voice and agency to people who had never been involved in a group like it before. It was persistent and it was effective: few grassroots causes ever come close to achieving full repeal of a law. It showed the power of organising effectively, and that if you stick at it, you can achieve justice.

Last week’s repeal is more than just a legislative defeat for the government. It shows the power of an organised campaign and the importance of listening to those who have been looked down on by the powerful. It also has opened people’s eyes to the attitude held by SNP ministers. The Football Act will become a metaphor for this elitism. We should celebrate repeal of the Act because it is a victory for so many Scots caught up in Nationalist governance, where anyone who dares stand in their way is pushed aside.

James Kelly is a Scottish Labour and Co-op MSP for Glasgow and Labour’s Shadow Finance and Constitution Secretary. His Bill to repeal the Football Act was passed by MSPs on 15 March 2018 and makes the Football Act the first government law to ever be repealed by an opposition party in Holyrood’s history.


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