Scotland’s shame deniers and the silence of men

What is it about football that gets men in Scotland so passionate that they can't control themselves? Why can't we acknowledge that this is about Scottish men - male behaviour, violence and abuse - and stop blaming disadvantaged communities?

The power and pull of Scottish football reaches into every nook and cranny of Scottish society for good and ill. It obsesses us, transfixes us and blinds us to addressing so many things in our country.

The most recent Celtic v Rangers game has shown that football has a life force of its own which takes over most of Scotland: three Rangers players sent off, 13 yellow cards, the Celtic manager and Rangers assistant in a bitter exchange, hundreds of arrests, and the number of domestic violence cases rising dramatically. ‘The Old Firm’ – a term which denotes Celtic and Rangers common interests in dominating Scottish football despite their intense rivalry and acting as a kind of cartel – have overshadowed the rest of Scottish football since the advent of the professional game. 

After the game Stewart Regan, SFA chief executive called the recent match ‘inflammatory and irresponsible behaviour’, while Les Gray of the Scottish Police Federation labelled it ‘madness’ (‘What They Said’, The Times, March 4th 2011). Graham Spiers, Scotland’s most respected sports writer said, ‘The Old Firm are like a horrendous car crash’ (‘Old Firm are like a car crash – you cannot avert your eyes’, The Times, March 4th 2011).

What exactly is the Old Firm problem, given some claim it is just a game? The Celtic-Rangers rivalry produces huge amounts of male violence – of men hurting men, women and children. In the last decade there have been 15 deaths directly related to Old Firm games. Then there is the cycle of male abuse this unleashes across society; we have known for years that domestic violence spikes when the Old Firm play but only now are the police making an issue of it – at the end of their tether and facing escalating costs of policing when budgets are falling.

This is Scotland’s Shame and it is not surprising that a wide section of Celtic and Rangers fans choose to collude in all of this and turn their eyes away. What is more shocking is that outside the Old Firm a part of society also colludes in this. They are Scotland’s Shame deniers.

First up: Jim Jefferies, manager of Edinburgh club Hearts FC, who stated after the match, ‘How is this game a disaster for Scottish football? It will show around the world how much it means when Celtic and Rangers play’ (‘What They Said’). Colin Calderwood, manager of Edinburgh club Hibs made similar comments, ‘I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the evening. Everything that happened last night led to an entertainment of a sort’ (Ibid).

Alex Salmond, First Minister, has called a national summit to discuss the matter tomorrow, as his predecessor Jack McConnell did. Henry McLeish, another former First Minister and head of the recent SFA Task Force into the future of Scottish football has forcefully said about the scale of the problem, ‘I don’t think it has been hyped up or over-exaggerated’ and that ‘My plea to Celtic and Rangers is to publicly acknowledge this was a bad night for Scottish football, a bad night for them. 

Billy Dodds, a former international footballer writing in the ‘Sunday Herald’ ('Let Football Police Itself', March 6th 2011) didn’t see what all the fuss was about: 

Do we really need all these top politicians and policeman getting involved? Are they trying to say that they have never reacted in the heat of the moment? Has no politician ever got involved in a screaming match over the dispatch box in the House of Commons? Has no policeman across the country ever overreacted to a situation? I don’t think any policeman or politician has ever been under the stress an Old Firm manager feels on Old Firm day. 

Just think of that special pleading in the last sentence. Think of its insensitivity versus the challenges policemen and women face every day – put into life and death situations. Or politicians who have to think about this country’s safety and security, or take the decision to go to war. According to Billy Dodds this is nothing compared to the stress an Old Firm manager faces on the big day!

Lets turn to Kevin McKenna writing in ‘The Observer’. McKenna doesn’t like Alex Salmond and the SNP, but even less does he like politicians making football into a political football. Writing of Salmond’s summit he puts the boot in, ‘I was surprised that Celtic, in particular, didn’t tell Salmond to stick to serious politics and tell the police to behave themselves. For this is nothing other than a political stunt’ going on to accuse the police of playing ‘a police agenda’ talking up domestic violence. 

McKenna challenges the police view that domestic violence increases during Old Firm games: 

Scotland has a ruinous relationship with alcohol, and this is heightened in very poor and deprived areas. A postcode analysis of all the crimes and misdemeanours following Old Firm games will reveal that the majority of perpetrators reside in a handful of postal districts. These will be among the most socially deprived neighbourhoods in Europe.

He then concludes that not many of the arrests or troubles will come from Glasgow’s middle class areas such as ‘Bearsden, Giffnock and Bishopbriggs’. In this perspective all of the trouble is about Glasgow’s endemic poverty and deprivation, and the interweaving of drink with this. Nice middle Glasgow has nothing to do with it.

Such a view is profoundly and utterly wrong. McKenna’s denial is a standard line for a section of Scottish society. Nothing to worry about here or alter in our behaviour; all we have to do is tackle poverty. It is the hoary old left line and one which invites people to evade responsibility – individually and collectively. Has McKenna ever looked of late at how much it costs to get into a Celtic or Rangers game recently? A fortune. Or to take a recent example. The backgrounds of the Rangers thugs arrested at the infamous Manchester riot in the UEFA Cup Final of 2008. They weren’t all from the poorest areas of the city, but included people with professional careers living in some of the most middle class areas of the city.

What will it take for the Scotland’s Shame deniers to admit that we have a massive problem and secondly, that we need to do something about it? That problem is about a couple of things – which go much wider than the game of football. There is a problem with Scottish men, with Scottish society and then the issue of the nature of the game itself. We need to confront all three. 

The Silence of Scottish Men

Scotland is obsessed with football, and while there are female football fans, the game itself is one of the last great male bastions. Part of being a man for many in Scotland is about following your football team, and taking part in the national conversation or more accurately male national conversation about the game.

Why can't we talk about why football matters so much to men in their lives? That grown men talk about ‘their love’ for an inanimate object – such as a football club? And that, at points, with some men – that ‘love’ – can boil over uncontrollably into aggression, hatred and sometimes violence? There is a language and culture of violence across large parts of Scottish society – of conducting yourself in a way which is close to or spills over into violence, and football is a central part of all this.

Scotland has a shaming record in terms of a host of violent activities: its murder rate per head, record on knife violence, domestic violence, and drinking, are amongst the highest in the world. This is mostly to nearly entirely about Scottish men behaving badly to other men, women and children. In the 21st century – we have to ask – why do we seem to be uncomfortable and unwilling to begin a debate about men behaving badly?

This isn’t just about football, it is about society, the role and identity of men, and male power, violence and abuse. Scottish society has made progress on addressing domestic abuse of women by men with the ‘Zero Tolerance’ campaign, but we came to all of this late, and what has been notably missing from these debates has been the voice of men saying enough is enough.

The Sad Story of Scottish Football

There is a particular football angle to this: the slow decline of Scottish football. Celtic and Rangers increasingly strangle Scottish football to death, while themselves each year becoming smaller and smaller versus the big teams in Europe. 

It is now 26 years since a team other than Celtic or Rangers won the league: the longest period in Scottish football; it was so long ago that the team was Aberdeen led by Alex Ferguson in 1985. Scottish football fans like to boast that we are a football crazy nation – per head only beaten by Iceland and Cyprus – and miles more addicted than England, Italy or Brazil. But that fact hides that the way things are going all that will be left are Celtic and Rangers fans.

If you go back sixty odd years 1 in every 6 football fan in Scotland supported Celtic or Rangers. Then 40 years ago it was 1 in 4; then 20 years ago 1 in 3; and now it is 1 in 2, as David Ross sets out. The way Scottish football is going – we will soon just have Celtic and Rangers fans – while Easter Road, Tannadice and Pittodrie will be reduced to having tumbleweed blowing through them. Fans will have rightly voted with their feet.

This combination of the culture and language of male violence and the increasing concentration of Scottish football in an Old Firm – that is detached from the rest of the game – produces the unedifying spectacle of last week’s game. 

Some of us have had enough. A tipping point has surely been reached – where Celtic and Rangers need to be forced to changed their ways – or pay the price. And the Scotland’s Shame deniers need to be told it is not good enough to excuse violence as people did decades previously about domestic violence.

I want to ask those deniers what will it take for them to admit we have an out of control problem and address:

  • What is it about football that gets people so passionate and animated that they often cannot control themselves?
  • Why is there a silence around Scotland about the fact that this is about men – male behaviour, violence and abuse?
  • When can we stop trotting out the lame excuse that this is all about poverty and disadvantage – as if that would somehow make it alright? 

There is a simple way we can begin to address the football element of all this. The Scottish football authorities have so far shown themselves unwilling to act; they are basically scared of the power of Celtic and Rangers. However, the football authorities have it in their power to force the Old Firm’s hand. Significant point deductions – of 25 points per season – until they cleaned up their act would soon force them. Given poor little Dundee, who nearly went out of business in Third Lanark style, were deducted 25 points for going into administration – that would surely be proportionate. 

If Scottish football doesn’t act eventually, UEFA will – as they have already shown with Rangers. The two Scottish clubs are on a thin end of a wedge with Europe. I have a suggestion for them which would hurt and humiliate the Old Firm and bring change. In 1985 after 38 Juventus fans lost their lives at Heysel English football clubs were banned from Europe for five years. Well we know that 15 people have died in the last decade because of Old Firm matches – so threaten them with a five year ban in Europe – unless they clean up their act.

Celtic and Rangers need to compete in Europe to raise money and try to compete with their much more affluent rivals. Banning them would be a financial disaster and international humiliation. It would treat them as the pariahs they deserve to be treated as. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Scottish football authorities had the gumption to do it first. Whoever did it, change would begin instantly. 

Scotland has put up with this shame, scar and blight on our culture, society and reputation for too long. It reflects badly on us that we have refused to act, and that we still have prominent people making excuses for violence. Lets begin to put a stop to it. And lets start talking – as Scottish men – about the problems some Scottish men pose to all of our society.

This article was originally published on Gerry Hassan's blog.

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com