Violence On The Terraces

In the heyday of organized protests against the Vietnam war, seven or eight years ago, most of them culminated in fights between demonstrators and police and perhaps forty arrests for disorder and assault. This happened two or three times a year, and each occasion was followed by grave enquiries. It was repeatedly proposed that political demonstrations be banned, on the grounds that such violence could not be tolerated and the police were being subjected to undue strain.


Every Saturday, crowds whose numbers were not dreamed of by the organizers of demonstrations go to League football grounds in Britain, and for the past three years sections of them have produced violence on a scale which has made the matter a major social problem. Some weeks there are a hundred or more arrests in various towns. Shopkeepers and publicans close their doors and board-up their windows; cars are overturned and injuries inflicted. Last year a youth died after being stabbed at a football match. Because of damage running to many thousands of pounds, the railways have withdrawn facilities on Saturdays. Some of the most spectacular episodes have been when crowds going to see British teams playing in European countries have run riot.


Attempted remedial measures have all failed so far. Young people going into football grounds are searched for weapons. Some time ago several clubs fenced off areas behind the goals, allowing no-one to stand there, because of missiles (including darts) being thrown at goalkeepers; but spectators have invaded the playing pitches, and last month at one ground a crowd ran over the field and attacked players. Other measures have been the digging of moats and the erection of high fences, but these only direct the violence from one place to another. Magistrates impose heavy fines, apparently without deterrent effect, and there have been cases of men being banned from entering football grounds (how this is enforced is not known). Other “solutions” are advocated. They include bringing back the birch, i.e. corporal punishment for those convicted, and imposing “community work” for them to do on Saturdays.


One other method, apparently partly being put into operation now, is for television and the newspapers not to report the outbreaks. It is argued that pictures and accounts have an imitative effect, and have helped make football hooliganism an infection. Presumably the thought is that any theory is worth trying: the implications of this one are curious. Could inflation be checked by not publishing news of it? How about all the other problems, evils and disasters? Or is it just to lull the Citizens and have them think that no such problem exists? However, the idea which has not been mooted is the one which occurred to so many spokesmen so readily, apropos political demonstrations — that society cannot put up with it, and football for paying spectators should be banned.


Crowds and Competition
In one sense it is not a new departure at all. Physical violence has always been latent and verbal violence a characteristic in football crowds: their “roar” is often an aggregate of abuse, accusation and incitements. The collective identity and security of a crowd can provide extraordinary sanctions for an individual to do what he would not dare by himself. Just as timid clerks conscripted in wartime whistle after girls from the backs of lorries, respectable men can stand among thirty thousand others and shout threats and curses. The step from this “healthy partisanship” to actual hooliganism is not a great one.


The desire of all those who are exercising themselves over the problem is, in fact, to avoid the things which stare them in the face. The politics of it are obvious. Up to about twenty years ago the Football Association’s standard procedure when there had been crowd misbehaviour at any ground was first to order warning notices to be posted and then, on a repetition, to have the ground closed for a period. It sounds just the thing, but has rarely been done in recent years. It is not just that the worst places are some of the biggest and most famous clubs; the rise of violence has coincided with the rise of European and world competition, in which these clubs carry British prestige abroad. The hooligans are always carefully delineated as an uncharacteristic minority, and the sterling qualities of most football followers asserted. There is the feeling too that Saturday football is one of those institutions which help guard against revolution.


Competition plays a strong part. With its extent greater and participation in international club competitions — dependent on national success — essential for the highest rewards, clubs are desperate for results as never before. Thus, ends-and-means philosophies predominate. Much big-time football now is about as attractive to watch as cement-mixing, and is won by “method”; and the result is uncritical spectators attached not to the pleasures of the game but to winning no matter how. Likewise, cynical and vindictive play has increased. The football authorities manoeuvre frantically with disciplinary rules which the clubs and players do their best to sabotage. This obviously rubs off on supporters too: not the rough play in itself, but the sentiment that power supported by dishonesty is the ideal policy.


That takes us to the social and political world outside. There has not been lacking a school of commentators to tell us that the football hooligans reflect social deficiencies; though, as is usual with sociologists, these commentators cannot say what the deficiencies actually are. It is more to the point to note that the same violence and vandalism go on elsewhere without a twentieth of the fuss being made about them. One manifestation for some years has been gangs looking for black men and homosexuals to beat up. Another, resolutely concealed as far as possible, is bullying by gangs in schools. In Northern Ireland it gets its outlet in political warfare. The fields can be seen brought together in Glasgow in the annual football matches between Rangers and Celtic, which are traditional occasions for violence between Catholics and Protestants.


An Irresponsible Society
The single social fact about football violence is that it is not only working-class, but working-class in the limited — and incorrect — sense; it belongs to the poorer-off, poorer-educated sections. (That is why one does not hear complaints about “police brutality” when they are arrested, as there were continually in the demonstration days.) Superficially it might be said that is because association football is a poor people’s sport, but it is not the case today. All grounds have reduced their cheap standing-up accommodation to make way for more expensive seats, and the better-off followers simply do not go by cheap excursion trains.


The problem is connected with that of “youth” at large, since the hooligans are mostly in their teens. Over the last twenty years the traditional waywardness of youth has taken more extreme and violent forms. Previously it could be assumed that schools provided a central discipline, since young people were bound to attend and made to conform in them. Today very large numbers in the cities either refuse to go to school or create havoc when they are there, and there have been repeated reports of teachers being beaten up.


This has happened in the era of the 1944 Education Act and the comprehensive schools, which according to the Labour Party would confer innumerable benefits on society, and have turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The basis of these reorganizations of education was the idea of selection, of grading children according to their apparent suitability for different rôles in capitalism. But there is always a reverse side. “Selection” implies “rejection” as well, the leaving behind of the not-much-good. A major outcome has been the creation of an army of young people who were written off at eight or nine and treated like that throughout the rest of their schooldays. It is hardly surprising that they respond in kind towards society: an anti-social scheme produced anti-social results.


Behind the educational schemes lie, of course, the needs of the capitalist system. These are what hooligan behaviour in the streets and at football games should be measured against. Saturday afternoons in Britain bring displays of irresponsible conduct; yet the fact is that capitalism depends on irresponsibility. It is not even just a matter of competition and the idealization of the top dog. The mass of people have to be persuaded continually to surrender control of their own lives, to accept paradoxes which should not deceive a child, to act complaisantly while being swindled from all sides day in and out. A revealing suggestion made at the time when “private armies” were in the news was that they be used to keep order among football spectators — implying what we know to be true anyway, that violence is re-named when it is on the right side.


The struggle against football hooligans is to get them to stop their irresponsibility and adopt another kind. There is nothing to be said in their favour. The victims of their violence and destructiveness are other working men and women. The opposing arguments over them are, on one hand, that they must be put down forcibly and, on the other, that they must be treated as victims themselves of social errors. Both show the same misconception. They are products of the society we live in now; and to brush its effects under the carpet in one way or the other will not change its nature, or stop other expressions of it. What a problem like this demonstrates is the never-ending futile scurry of reformers from one ugly spot to another. Instead of facing facts, they are running away from them.


Robert Barltrop