Reforming Zeal: Jack Straw vs football fans

Black Flag article from 2001 on New Labour's proposals for draconian legislation aimed at football fans.

Submitted by Fozzie on February 1, 2021

In a recent interview with the Sunday Times, Jack Straw pondered whether he would be celebrated in history as as great a 'reforming' Home Secretary as Roy Jenkins.

Good question, given Jenkins' masterminding of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 ("a draconian Act unprecedented in peacetime" as he described it to Parliament at the time) and the purchase in 1976 of Heckler and Koch HK 33 carbines to arm the police, behind the back of the Cabinet, Parliament and the Prime minister.

'Dirty' Jack, though, is more than holding his own, with an immigration and Asylum Act more draconian than anything Howard dared attempt; a Freedom of Information Act which increases official secrecy; prison numbers (and suicides) at a record high; the privatisation of prisons and the development of a US style prison-industrial 'gulag'.

To ensure the likes of the Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut are sated, the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Act, which restricts access to trial by jury, is moving through Parliament. Access to robust defence from a team of expert solicitors is to be reduced through Legal Aid 'contracting' and, ultimately, the formation of a Public Defenders Office.

Restrictions on the right to protest embodied in Public Order legislation pushed through by the Tories are to culminate in the criminalisation of effective protest in the new Terrorism Act. The Act extends the definition of terrorism to include "...interference with or serious disruption of an electronic system" (i.e. hacking) and the "use or threat of Action involving serious violence to person or property" will automatically be classified as "terrorism" if it involves "firearms or explosives" regardless of whether the “use or threat is designed to influence the government or intimidate the public or a section of the public.” A prosecution under the PTA will only arise if the "use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideo-logical cause'', but, logically, this means that for every incident involving anything from CS gas to semtex, the police can arrest under the Terrorism Act to investigate the "ideological" aspect and dispense with the limited post-arrest safeguards of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Not a word from the left, though, because unlike the provisions related to direct action, this isn't likely to affect them.

Not content with this, Straw has decided to go the whole hog and use the Football (Disorder) Act to criminalise working class males per se. The premise for the introduction of the Act, "the disorder perpetrated by England supporters in Charleroi and Brussels" doesn't stand up to examination. As Straw concedes, 965 British nationals were arrested, 464 were deported and a "very small number of those originally arrested now face trial." So, on the basis of a linked series of events resulting in negligible criminal charges, New Labour seeks to bring in an Act to curtail the freedom of movement of a whole swathe of UK citizens.

An objective examination of the footage of Euro 2000 reveals groups of fans drinking, chanting and throwing the occasional plastic glass or plastic chair The only sustained violence resulting in serious injury was carried out by rival fans against English supporters, or by police baton charging and using CS gas and water cannons. The position of the left in relation to these sustained assaults by the police on groups of young working class lads is, at best, one of indifference.

Football "hooliganism", a process of in sociological terms, identity-formation and contestation of territory between groups of rival fans, in which few participants suffer serious injury, with the risk to non-participants minimal, has for years, been a testing ground for policing strategies. What horrifies the Guardian reading middle classes is the 'vulgar chanting' and occasional outbursts of nationalism (although the "new Britain" rhetoric and anti-refugee witch hunts don't seem to have put them off New Labour). What concerns the state is much simpler, and concerns precisely the formation of a collective working class identity. In his book Barca (Bloomsbury 1999), a collection of interviews with Barcelona fans, Jimmy Burns notes one fan's comment that what the state fears about football is precisely the sense of “collective fiesta" which accompanies it. The threat to disorder comes not from the actions of individual fans, but the potential for large mobs of working class people in one place to become aware of their sheet power as a mob. As Mark Neocleous makes clear, in his work The Fabrication of Social Order (Pluto 2000), the “Police protect the imaginary universality of particular interests within this order. The demand for order in civil society is thus a demand for class order"

The last 20 years have seen — on the back of the Thatcher government's victories over the organised working class — a mass of legislation passed to entrench the notion of working class life as "policed" life, a life boundaried and hemmed in by the state. From the increased use of CCTV to deny space for the possibility of collective relations, and to engender an almost instinctive awareness of social life as policed life, through the extension of powers of stop and search, entry, arrest and detention via the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, to the criminalisation of protest which began with the 1986 Public Order Act and culminates in the Terrorism Act, we have arrived at a position where "no human problem exists, or is imaginable, about which it would be said that this certainly could not become the proper business of the state." (Neocleous)

One of the arenas for this "pacification through policing" of working class life has been football. From the late 1970s, football became a testing ground for techniques that would later be deployed against the trade union movement and the left. The dispersal and crowd control techniques employed by the Tactical Support Groups were originally developed against football crowds. The use of CCTV and mobile video cameras, now commonplace at demonstrations, first appeared outside football grounds, The use of restrictive bail conditions and Community Service Orders, deployed throughout the miners strike, were a regular feature of the policing of "hooligans", as was the use of affray as a catch all charge in relation to crowd activities. The intelligence and surveillance techniques devised by the National Football Intelligence Unit were later set against militant anti-fascists and incorporated. into the workings of the National Criminal Intelligence Service more generally.

The provision in the 1986 Public Order Act for "Exclusion Orders" to bar those convicted of hooligan-related offences from football grounds for specified periods, and the subsequent extended provisions of the 1991 Football Offences Act, were predicated, as Straw makes explicit, on the notion that "football hooliganism... is perpetrated by a relatively small minority of known football troublemakers.” However, "The blunt truth… which has become very clear from events last month is this football hooliganism abroad is no longer confined to a small minority of known troublemakers.” In other words the "organised conspiracies" used to ram through the 1991 Act don't exist. Rather than give up this particular ghost though, Straw intends to extend the powers of the 1991 Act to cover the "'spectre" of the white working class male per se. Faced with an absence of conspiratorial intent (arid a reality that consists of a few drunks throwing chairs) Straw determines that everyone who seeks to attend a football match will be part of the conspiracy.

Does anyone really believe that the Act is a response to the fear engendered in Her Majesty's government by a few misbehaving lads with Union Jack face paint? This is, literally, policing for the sake of it, an opportunity to police the freedom of movement of a large minority of working class youth (which, once on the statute books, could. be extended by the use of police "discretion" to cover groups beyond. the remit of the Act) and to reintroduce the freedom of movement restrictions, embodied in the old PTA in the form of exclusion orders, (and dropped in the Terrorism Act) in a new guise.

The Act provides for the making of a "banning order" on the complaint of a police officer (whether or not there are criminal proceedings). Moreover a "constable in uniform" during a "control period" can ask any British citizen to surrender his passport and appear before a magistrates court on the basis of “reasonable suspicion" about that individuals behaviour and intent. If the possibility of a generalised removal of the right to freedom of movement on the basis of “reasonable suspicion", doesn't trouble the liberal mind; consider section 2, which allows the Secretary of State to make any supplementary, incidental or consequential provision, and any transitory, transitional or saving provision, which he considers necessary or expedient for the purposes of, in consequence of or for giving full effect to the Act. Still, it's only for the yobs, so why worry?


Gives magistrates the power to make banning orders for both domestic and international games:

  • Where magistrates fail to make a banning order, and otherwise where police believe they have "reasonable grounds", a "chief officer of police" may make an application for a banning order to a magistrates court, where s/he believes the respondent has "caused or contributed to any violence or disorder in the UK or elsewhere." Note that the violence or disorder need not have led to a conviction, nor need it relate to football. The Home Office have made it explicit that "violence' and "disorder" are not limited to football or "conduct which constitutes a crime." (Membership of for instance, an anti-fascist group or any group with links to 'disorder" might suffice.)
  • Any banning order will ordinarily lead to surrender of passport and any reporting conditions the court thinks appropriate.
  • The bill allows for the creation of control periods during which any "constable in uniform" can, if he "reasonably" suspects an individual before him of involvement In "violence and disorder" (as previously defined):

[1] issue that person a notice in writing requiring him to appear before a magistrates at a stated time;
[2] order that person to not leave the UK before that time;
[3] if the control period relates to an International match surrender his/her passport;
[4] if he believes the person before him may fail to comply with a notice, the constable may arrest without warrant, detain that person and hold for a period of up to four hours (six with authorisation from an inspector or above) before producing before a magistrate.

These provisions allow for the police to restrict freedom of movement even where grounds for a banning order cannot be made out, simply on the basis of reasonable suspicion, to "enable enquiries to be made."


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