Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lift the alcohol ban at Scotland's football matches?

Ever since a large-scale riot following the Scottish Cup final in 1980, the sale of alcohol at football matches in Scotland has been banned.

And now, thirty-five years after the riot, Scotland is pondering whether to lift the alcohol ban.

The ban came as a reaction to a clash between the supporters of two Glaswegian football teams, Celtic and Rangers. The two clubs are by far the dominant teams in Scotland, having been hated rivals since the late 1800s. Called the "Old Firm," the rivalry has been as heated as any rivalry in football in the world, or indeed of any sport. Traditionally, the Celtic supporters are Catholic, with many of their fans Irish immigrants to Scotland; Ranger supporters are Protestant and with more native Scots as fans. Historically, the Celtic supporters leaned politically left while Rangers supporters leaned right. And Celtic fans often supported Northern Ireland leaving the U.K. and joining the Republic of Ireland (and, to some extent, the terrorist activities of the I.R.A.), while Rangers fans generally supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the U.K. and pro-Union forces.

Celtic Park in Glasgow
Celtic Park in Glasgow, known to supporters as "Paradise."
Clashes between the fans are frequent. Sometimes it's purely vocal shouting matches, or minor vandalism. At other times, however, the clashes escalate to violence, from throwing objects to individual skirmishes to gang fights. Old Firm matches have strongly correlated to reports of sectarian violence in Glasgow. Violent crimes, and even domestic abuse, typically increase on Old Firm match days.

Many of these demographic, religious, political, and social differences between the teams and their fans have lessened, or even disappeared entirely. The violence has greatly receded. It helps a bit that Rangers have gone into a tailspin of bad management, falling out of Scotland's top league and thus making Old Firm matches quite rare. Nevertheless, animosity is still strong, and it would be a mistake to believe that bad seeds couldn't rile up a serious conflict.

{Ed.'s note: Two notes for our 'Murican readers. (1) When we refer to "football," that's what you call soccer. (2) "Celtic" is pronounced sell-tick, just like the Boston Celtics. Anything else in Britain that is written "celtic" is pronounced with a hard "c" to sound like kell-tick.}

The 1980 Scottish Cup final was held in Hampden Park, the national stadium for Scottish football. Celtic won 1-0, in overtime. After the game, supporters of both teams climbed a fence around the pitch and entered the field, tossing bottles and cans, taking swings and kicks, and so on. A general melee broke out. Although a large contingent of police were on hand for the game, the vast majority were stationed outside the stadium to prevent clashes as the supporters departed; no one anticipated a large-scale fight on the pitch. A dozen mounted police dashed back and forth to try to regain order. The battle raged for quite a while.

Ultimately, the police made more than 200 arrests in and around Hampden Park.

The U.K. parliament — at the time, there was no Scottish parliament — instituted a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages within all Scottish sports grounds. Thirty-five years later, the ban remains in place for all football matches. Why change it now?

Several reasons. First, the alcohol ban was lifted in 2007 for international rugby matches, and then extended to other rugby matches generally. Both football and rugby have their boisterous fans, but only football fans are banned from drinking at matches.

Second, alcohol can be consumed at English football matches. Fans can drink before games and at half-time in the stadium, and can drink during the game at certain designated concourses outside the seating area.

Third, alcohol can be served at Scottish football matches. Huh? No joke. Alcohol can be served at Scottish football matches so long as it is in a corporate hospitality suite. In other words, the well-heeled fans can imbibe, while the common folk are banned.

Say what? It cannae be!
You can see how that might not go over well with the hoi polloi.

Scotland is, in fact, in the midst of reconsidering its relationship with public alcohol consumption. Just this past December, Scotland implemented a new drunk-driving law that lowered the permissible blood alcohol content to 0.05. That's less than a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Functionally, the low BAC level works as a ban. Scotland's implementation of the new law brings it in line with almost all of Europe.

Allowing a surge of alcohol consumption at football matches might work at cross-purposes to the new drunk-driving law. Scotland's ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), has in the past rejected lifting the alcohol ban at football matches.

But this is an election year, at least on the national level (i.e., the U.K. parliament). The Labour Party, which last month trailed the SNP by a 52% to 24% margin, recently announced its desire to lift the alcohol ban. Indeed, one of the first pronouncements in December by Labour's new party leader was a suggestion to lift the ban. Last week, the polls showed a lead by SNP of only 41% to 31%.

This past weekend, Labour made a spectacle of polling football fans at matches regarding their thoughts on the matter. There's not much mystery about how the "polling" will go. In previous research by the Scottish Football Association, 62% of football fans favor lifting the ban, and 72% would support small-scale trials of alcohol at a limited number of events. Labour has also said it wants to hold a "summit" on the issue.

Where are the Tories on this matter? Well, they have supported lifting the alcohol ban since 2013. But they're something of a fringe party in Scotland; their announcement got little notice.

The SNP, which controls the Scottish parliament, holds the keys to whether the ban is lifted. Although the U.K. parliament put the ban into place, the power over the ban has devolved to Scotland and its (relatively) new parliament. It seems unlikely the SNP would deliver a win on this issue to their opposition parties.

But that's not the point for Labour. The Scottish parliament does not have an election this year, and are not due for one until May 2016. Instead, the Labour party seeks to make this an issue for the U.K. parliament elections in May 2015, even though the U.K. parliament has no say over this matter. Labour's merely engaged in a political posture aimed at garnering the goodwill of the common man for the elections.

All in all, a lifting of the ban is unlikely for this year. But if the issue helps Labour in the U.K. parliament elections this year, we can expect a return of the issue for the Scottish parliament elections next year.


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    P: 212-231-7716
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