Football hooliganism and the death of English liberty
For five consecutive weekends this autumn, large crowds have assembled in central London and other major metropolitan areas to voice the concerns of the Ummah at the events occurring in the Middle East. This has caused a great deal of upset amongst establishment commentators, particularly with regard to the perception that the police are giving the protesters excessive leeway to commit criminal activity. Protesters seemed to have evaded arrest for graffitiing a statue of Field Marshal Haig, setting off flares on statues in full view of police, and attacking people with England flags. In addition to the interpersonal and property crime, there was also incessant, noisy shouting of arguably genocidal levels of rage. Conservatives are welcome to debate whether ‘Jihad’ is necessarily a call to violence, or why ‘Khaybar Khaybar Yahud’ chants go unprosecuted, but you can be sure that if a single football fan ended a hostile chant with the word ‘Jew,’ he would rather quickly have his life turned over.
While Hamas announces the coming demise of Israel twice a week, you could perhaps argue that we ought to now take their nutty Arabic chanting a little more seriously. They have been chanting ‘from the river to the sea’ for as long as I can remember, but maybe this time is different, at least in terms of the probability of British Muslims starting pogroms. Strangely, however, the far less deadly war in Northern Ireland had been over for around a decade when the SNP made it illegal to sing a variety of highly popular sectarian songs at football matches. The British state often seems to have much more confidence kicking at the hobbies of young white men than suppressing the hordes of angry brown men once chaos has broken out.
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Granted, the police did manage to charge five people for the day of mayhem in October, so perhaps they are doing some light policing work. That said, they manage to arrest forty-six people a week at football matches for shouting offensive things, lighting flares, and scrapping in the street. Moreover, they managed to book eighty-two people today when British people congregated to object to the occupation of their streets by foreigners on Remembrance Day. While the Metropolitan police were busy debating the legality of firing off marine flares in a large crowd in central London, the law clearly states that doing the same thing near a football stadium can get you banged up for three months with a Football Banning Order to boot. I do not think the average weekend at the football is nine times more unruly than the events of October, and instead suspect this is a case of preferential policing.
Crime at football matches is regulated very differently to all other crime in Britain.
Freedom of speech is a non-starter inside stadia. Recently, in the aftermath of the death of Bobby Charlton, an apey Manc 17-year-old decided to chant something offensive about him at Manchester City vs Manchester United. For the crime of being rude about a dead person, this teenager has been arrested and charged with a Public Order Offence. At Sheffield Wednesday vs Sunderland, a fan of Wednesday decided to wave a picture of a recently deceased Sunderland fan at the opposing fans. He was duly arrested the next day for outraging public decency. For decades, opposition fans have taken to shouting ‘Rent Boy’ at Chelsea fans, allegedly because a member of their hooligan firm was found in bed with one in the 1980s. This has been chanted on hundreds of occasions over decades resulting in zero outbursts of homophobic violence. Yet in 2022, the CPS decided that this was a homophobic slur, and fans are now being arrested for using it.
The examples above are all deliberately offensive, which is hardly surprising: part of the reason British football is internationally popular is because of packed, segregated away ends creating a charged atmosphere as opposing fans attempt to offend each other. The extent to which fans should be allowed to offend each other would, in a sane society, be a matter for the owner of the stadium, but in Britain, this is a police matter wherever the fan can be found — which they usually are, because the police invest a lot of money in filming you at football.
It would be dishonest to suggest that this apparatus appeared from thin air. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, British football fans were world-renowned for their capacity for violence and intimidation. Domestic chaos broke out on an almost weekly basis. When drawn in Europe, fans would follow their teams abroad, wreaking havoc across the continent. This culminated in the 1985 Heysel Stadium Disaster in Belgium, in which disorderly Liverpool fans caused thirty-nine deaths and 600 injuries. This led to a ban on English football clubs participating in European competitions until 1990. Also in 1985, after a particularly violent riot at Luton Town vs Millwall at Kenilworth Road, Margaret Thatcher announced a ‘war cabinet’ (*nods*) to deal with football violence.
It is noteworthy that hooliganism was extremely right-wing, with the National Front vastly overrepresented amongst firms. As late as 1995, an entire game against the Republic of Ireland was called off halfway through as Landsdowne Road erupted into a nationalist, anti-IRA riot. These elements would go on to form the basis of support for the English Defence League (EDL) and the Football Lads Alliance (FLA), both heavily suppressed by the political establishment.
From 1985 until 2000, there followed a flurry of legislation to create new criminal offences for violence at football which marked the beginnings of two-tier policing. Rather than improving the state’s general capacity for dealing with public disorder, efforts were focused specifically on football, with unique and unusual punishments for offenders.
Chief among the new tools for the police and the courts was the Football Banning Order (FBO), which primarily serves to ban fans from attending domestic football matches. But in achieving this goal, it also imposes some bizarrely authoritarian restraints on the banned.
Perhaps the queerest of these is the conditions around the use of one’s passport. Ostensibly to deal with the problem of rioting in Europe, those that receive a FBO (1,624 currently in force) must hand in their passport to a police station every time their club plays in a European football match. Further, it is not just the club’s international fixtures for which the passport drop-off applies. Those with FBOs must also hand in their passports every time the England national team plays abroad. In 2022, this would have been about six weeks for England games. I have been told the police are now, on occasion, requesting fans’ passports when the England Women’s team plays abroad. This a staggeringly authoritarian overreach given that nobody with an FBO has ever been to a women’s football match, and that they nearly universally detest that it is on television at all.
Even if we ignore the farcical suggestion that anyone cares about women’s football, it is worth considering why the British government is taking responsibility for the policing of foreign countries. If a foreign government wishes to deny me entry to their country, this would be entirely reasonable: I am not an Italian; I do not get Italian liberties. For example, the Americans could not have a problem with football hooligans entering their country because they deny anyone with a criminal record access to a visa. Reasonable. What does not seem reasonable is that everyone caught scrapping outside a pub near a football stadium will be banned from going on holiday in Europe for a month in 2026, despite the fact that their prior convictions mean that there is no possibility that they would be able to attend a World Cup game in the first place.
It is in theory still legal for fans to visit Europe for a holiday, or indeed to view a football match between two foreign teams. After all, it could be of no concern to the British state if one of their citizens wanted to visit an entirely foreign spectacle. Any crimes committed by the individual could be dealt with entirely by the local police force. But in practice, those on FBOs who attempt this may on return find themselves stopped at the airport and detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. This Blair-era legislation allows police to detain you for six hours of questioning during which you have no right to remain silent or access legal advice. Your electronic devices can be seized and searched with little likelihood that they will be returned. Police have been known to subsequently roll their investigations to Section B of the Act so that they can continue to search your electronic equipment for evidence of a crime indefinitely. Section B relates to financial crime and therefore has nothing to do with scrapping at football matches, and its use for such purposes is a foul overreach.
In addition to the ban on entering all stadiums in Britain, fans can be banned from entering areas near a stadium for three hours on either side of a football match. This would not be such an inconvenience were it not for the fact this zone will often include a railway line that a person would use to get into London on a Saturday, thus denying them the individual liberty to access the capital city for other lawful activities. Police have been known to deny fans the ability to exit the train at the station prior to the exclusion zone so that the fan can be forced into an offence and arrested at the one after.
When it comes to football, the restrictions on speech, capacity for surveillance, and capriciousness of the treatment of known offenders are all far beyond what would be needed for a light-touch treatment of the most dangerous elements of football fandom. Circling back: a 17-year-old is likely to lose his passport for ten weeks per year for three to five years for being rude about the recently deceased.
Meanwhile, not only are the Muslim Brotherhood out in London chanting things that, if said in English at a football stadium, would have you jailed, the police are focusing their efforts on taking down posters that might offend this ugly mob.
The state’s divergent definition of, and reaction to, public disorder is largely dependent on the perpetrators. As I have shown, for the predominantly white and right-wing group there is a vast legal framework that the police enforce zealously. This framework never recedes, even as football violence remains at levels far below those that caused its construction. Instead, it grows with new and more eagerly enforced offences and restrictions heaped upon the young, predominantly white men who wish to (mostly) harmlessly blow off steam at a football match. Meanwhile, for the Islamists, hate crime legislation falls away, and potential offences to the mob are managed for them. In the former case, the state has been training itself for authoritarianism for decades; in the other, it shirks from using the new powers that it is has been granted to deal with what the public view as a nuisance. Britain is a highly authoritarian country if you don’t own a Koran.
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