The government believe the Football Disorder Bill can end hooliganism, Ken Gall reports from Westminster

One of the great travesties of history is the legend of King Canute, who is remembered – if at all – as some kind of megalomaniac who thought he could control the tides. Canute, how­ever, was actually the wise man of the tale, attempting to demonstrate to his credulous court­iers that there were limits to the events over which even a monarch could legislate.

Funnily enough, the Canute an­alogy springs immediately to mind in considering the Football (Disorder) Bill, the latest attempt by West­minster to deal with English hooliganism. Unfortunately, there is no one who ap­­pears willing or able to play the role of the King, as the belief that legislation can cure all known evils prevails among MPs.

As with many parliamentary pro­posals, the Bill seems to have re­sulted not from the deliberations of chin-stroking eminences, but from the ravings of half-wits. The story is simple, if barely credible. Prior to Euro 2000 – with Eng­land’s 2006 World Cup bid hanging in the balance and the dread spectre of Charleroi looming over the bid and the tournament itself – politicians, football administrators and the media clamoured for emergency legislation to prevent English fans from causing trouble abroad. The government, however, declined to act.

A matter of days after the tournament ended – with the glossy “England 2006” broch­ures torn up and forgotten and the bar owners of Charleroi lamenting the loss of ⌦their no-claims bonuses – the government prop­osed the Football (Disorder) Bill, which contained much of what had been mooted six weeks previously, and proceeded to rush the Bill through the House. With England’s next away international not due until September, the logic behind all this was unfathomable.

The Bill itself – containing passages such as “for ‘(n), (o) or (p)’ there is substituted ‘l(q), (r), (s) or (t)’” – hardly sets the pulse racing. The arcane legal language, however, masks some interesting innovations. First, the cur­rent domestic and international orders ban­ning individuals from matches following a conviction for a football-related offence are to be combined.

Second, anyone on the receiving end of a banning order must surrender their passport when a major match is to be played. Fair en­ough, one might think; but it is the following measures that have raised concerns with, among others, the civil rights group Liberty and the Law Society. The Bill will make it possible to impose banning orders on individuals without a football-related conviction – or, indeed, any conviction at all – where other evidence may be relevant. Also, the police will have powers to prevent a person from leaving the country where they believe there may be grounds for making a banning order.

The important word here is “grounds”, as opposed to “proof”. In effect, a basic tenet of British law – that someone is innocent until prov­ed guilty – has been set aside, if not exactly quashed, by the Bill. Jack Straw – basically a liberal man who feels obliged by his position as home secretary to occasionally assume the persona of Stone Cold Steve Austin – said that the Bill was evidence of the government’s determination to stamp out the “obnoxious taint of football hooliganism”. He cunningly omitted to mention the fact that the Bill will not apply in Scotland or Northern Ire­land, meaning the truly dedicated headbanger has only to book his flight from Glasgow or Belfast to circumvent the new measures.

The Tories’ spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe had no doubt who was to blame for all the trouble in Belgium; Jack Straw himself. Widdecombe seemed to be suggesting that the home secretary – accompanied, perhaps, by Tony Blair – had been out in the Low Countries, hurling around the patio furniture, giving the Nazi salute and generally putting the boot in. She stated, with a straight face, that the Bill had “serious implications for civil liberties”. (This from a woman whose tenure at the Home Office resulted in such civil liberties advances as the chaining of pregnant prisoners to hospital gurneys.) However, the civil rights line produced some strange allies in the Commons, such as hard-line right-winger Peter Lilley and left-wing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn warned, not unreasonably, that the Bill might contravene the European convention on human rights. Lilley, bizarrely, quoted from his own passport and declaimed about the right of British citizens to travel abroad, as if two world wars had been fought to allow “Pussyhunter”, “Oathead” and the like to travel to, and subsequently smash up, our continental neighbours’ major cities.

Subject to approval from the House of Lords, the Football (Disorder) Bill will become law before England’s autumn friendlies in France and Italy. In the minds of MPs, the problem of English football hooliganism has been solved for ever. One wonders what the ever-increasing “small minority of English fans” makes of it all.

From WSC 163 September 2000. What was happening this month

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