Putting free men under house arrest

Banning ‘football hooligans’ from going abroad during the World Cup is a shocking violation of free movement.

David Bowden

Topics Politics

When it was revealed last year that the then UK home secretary Jacqui Smith had a ‘least wanted’ list of people not allowed to enter the UK, it provoked howls of derision from civil liberties campaigners. Who was she to decide whether a US shock jock or cranky cleric should be allowed to have the ‘privilege’ to enter the country?

Yet this week it emerged that Smith’s successor at the Home Office, Alan Johnson, has his own little list of people not allowed to leave the country, yet those same campaigners have stayed strangely quiet. It couldn’t be because the individuals having their free movement restricted are football hooligans, could it?

It was announced yesterday by the Home Office that new measures about to be passed in parliament will prevent 3,200 football fans from leaving Britain this summer, in case they head to South Africa to watch the World Cup and cause havoc. While this power is not new – it was created by the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 and has been used on a handful of occasions previously – this marks a radical extension of the policy. Fans already under a national banning order for previous offences – not serving a sentence or out on parole, mind – will be expected to surrender their passports before the tournament starts on 11 June or face arrest. They won’t be able to get them back until a month later when it’s all over. They will essentially be imprisoned in the British Isles.

So what reason could be given for Alan Johnson imposing such an illiberal measure on citizens not serving a prison sentence or awaiting trial? This is a decision based on a pre-emptive rationale – that is, on what people may do outside the safe havens of Blighty. Are we really back to the bad old days of football hooliganism, when a terrible reputation and the Heysel Stadium disaster led to English clubs being banned from European competition? Not quite. This month Home Office figures revealed the number of arrests at football matches fell by two per cent last season: there were a total of 3,752 arrests out of 37million attendances at matches. When you consider that half of these arrests were for disorder and a third were related to alcohol – refusal to stop while drinking in sight of a football pitch is an arrestable offence these days – you wonder whether South Africans really need to be that worried at the prospect of ‘the English invasion’.

Indeed, a Home Office spokesman pointed out that there had been no ‘significant violence’ at England games since Euro 2000, when much handwringing led to the Disorder Act being brought in. Even then, commentators noted that the rioting in Charleroi was the result of excessive and provocative policing, which itself had been whipped into a frenzy by months of speculation in the media about the problem of British hooligans.

The real reason for the absence of violence at England matches abroad since then probably has more to do with sensible, hands-off policing and the good nature of the hosts rather than the long arm of the Home Office regulating who attends. Ironically, the only serious incident after an England match since then came after the last-minute defeat to France at Euro 2004, where thugs tore up the streets of Croydon (home of the UK Border Agency) and made front page news worldwide. Far from an act of one-off animal barbarity, even life-long residents of Croydon (such as myself) would consider that a perfectly reasonable human reaction to finding oneself there.

Admittedly there have been skirmishes involving British fans abroad since, although many would observe that these often take place in Italy and Turkey where organised hooliganism and overzealous policing is a strong domestic feature. Of course, back in August there was much soul-searching after rioting at the Millwall-West Ham derby. ‘The behaviour of English fans has improved dramatically in recent years’, said the spokesman, sounding like a cane-wielding schoolmaster, but ‘there is no complacency’.

So a handful of isolated incidents over the past decade is enough to justify the Home Office receiving special powers from parliament to ban several thousand people from leaving the country in case they go to South Africa and in case they cause trouble while there? As Brendan O’Neill noted last August, the recurring feature of the ‘English disease’ of hooliganism is the overreaction of the authorities and the palpable sense of disgust at the types of people who might get a bit violent: you can bet there aren’t many prawn sandwich-munching, Nick Hornby-reading types on Mr Johnson’s list.

Even more curiously much of the discussion around violence at the World Cup has focused on the risks posed to our boys in the dark wilds of South Africa. One journalist was even frightened about the prospects of fans contracting HIV during encounters with prostitutes. Well, you know what most football fans are like.

In fact, one of the reasons why the Football Disorders Act was put in place was because of a reluctance of host countries to prosecute fans for ‘anti-social, threatening and low-level violent behaviour’ – that is, all the behaviours New Labour are keen to clamp down on. Johnny Foreigner can’t even be trusted to follow their own laws and police our boys properly, so we have to become even more illiberal to make sure our thugs don’t get up to no good. Bloody typical, eh? Only with the British establishment could you get such a weird mixture of colonial arrogance (don’t trust the natives) with an intense suspicion of the frothing, tattooed masses (definitely don’t trust our natives).

Some may remember that after the G20 protests last year there was much outrage over heavy-handed policing and the controversial ‘kettling’ techniques. Even at the time many civil liberties campaigners observed that most of those techniques had been honed, not on the playing fields of Eton, but at football matches across Britain. So has there been a similar outpouring of concern about this latest fantastically illiberal measure in the UK’s freedom-loving press? It barely warranted a mention, and certainly no criticism. Because it’s not really infringing against liberty when it’s nasty, lager-swilling louts rather than nice environmentally-conscious protesters being deprived of their freedom of movement.

Except it is: and those unfortunate to find themselves on the wrong side of the establishment’s moral panics could also soon be preparing for an extended stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure, whether they’ve committed a proper crime or not.

David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill recalled when football was dominated by the hooligan panic. Mick Hume pointed out that the Hillsborough tragedy was not just an accident, but also the unintended consequence of a deliberate policy. Duleep Allirajah argued that post-Hillsborough, the policing of fans has become more insidious. After a riot at Hull City’s KC Stadium, he said hooliganism was still largely a thing of the past. Rob Lyons talked to Tony Evans about the sanitisation of football. Tim Black argued that football fans deserve freedom of speech, too! Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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