Can we learn from the Goodwillie mess?

by | 4 Feb 2022

In the last week we've seen another complex social issue tackled in slogans rather than serious thought and debate. Can Scottish politics grow up?

Thank goodness for Neil Findlay’s intervention in the Goodwillie/Raith Rovers affair. Up until that point you might have just about thought all the virtue-signalling politicians and celebrities were the good guys in this story.

But as best as I can see there are two people who can hold their heads up – Neil was the constituency MSP of Denise Clair who got no justice from Scotland’s justice system and supported her for years in her fight to get that justice. Neil couldn’t get any real support from those politicians now piling in for social media likes. That tells you all you need to know about contemporary Scottish political culture.

Can we coax any real hope from this sorry story? To find out it’s worth going right back to the culture which enabled and created it.

Most obviously that means the genuinely disgusting culture of football in the 1990s and 2000s. When revelations came out about the way some footballers talked about their ‘conquests’ it went way beyond sexism; it was genuinely misogynistic, genuinely hate-filled.

It speaks appallingly of the men involved, but hardly speaks well of both the whole Premiership machine and the tabloid media which did so little to support young men suddenly rich, hero-worshiped and desired.

But it is far too easy just to blame some young men alone. Another cultural current which fed into this was the entire ‘woman’s gossip magazine’ industry, its readers and its promoters. The normalisation of the idea that the glamour of being a ‘footballers wives’ or ‘WAG’ was a legitimate ‘career choice’ was not only promoted by the media but by our entire culture.

I knew woman who idolised footballers and their relationships, followed every inch of their personal lives, didn’t only admire the lifestyle but aspired to it with a passion. That vacuous, venal culture put the woman who chased after footballers at increased risk. Critical faculties were suspended in the face of a fairytale of wealth and fame. This was a culture of greed, a culture which has never truly been challenged in our society. It is a culture which ruins lives.

Of course fundamentally this is a matter of a crime and ultimately a failure to prosecute that crime. Our prosecution service refused to take action, leaving the victim to pursue justice through civil courts. Yet with next to no support she was able to present more than enough evidence to a judge in a civil case to get a non-ambiguous ruling.

Perhaps some of the politicians scoring moral justice points on social media might like to think about whether a review of that decision might not be in order, though of course the fact that Scotland’s prosecution service isn’t properly independent of government makes that seem unlikely.

This ambiguous outcome – guilty but not guilty – left everyone with no obvious structure with which to deal with what would inevitably come next

This ambiguous outcome – guilty but not guilty – left everyone with no obvious structure with which to deal with what would inevitably come next.

If someone is convicted of a violent or sexual crime then that immediately disbars them from a range of types of employment, particularly those with access to vulnerable people like teaching or nursing. If the person (in a small number of cases it isn’t a man) is an electrician or an accountant, they are free to go back to work after serving their sentence.

But the general perception is that, while a footballer doesn’t have direct access to vulnerable people, they are generally taken to be ‘role models’. Are they? Is that a legally-justifiable position to take or are we just wishing away more difficult questions?

We could have had a debate. The ‘role model’ thesis is widely supported but if we want to draw a workable conclusion (‘no, this is just a job like a supermarket assistant’ or ‘it is something more than that’) we need to examine it. If supported, then presumably everyone would agree that, short of legal regulation, an enforceable code of conduct would be appropriate.

But the word ‘enforceable’ is important – a bunch of adjectives about being a ‘good fellow’ and then leaving it to a football club to interpret is woefully inadequate. There are ‘fitness to practice’ hearings in many other professions, not necessarily related to (legally confirmed) criminal behaviour. Why not football?

Perhaps the Professional Players Association or the SPL should have both a code of conduct and a process for excluding players found not to have met it.

Because I really do have some sympathy for Raith Rovers. While it is inexplicable that they didn’t see what was coming and at the very least consult much more widely in their own footballing community, Goodwillie has been playing professional football in Scotland week-in, week-out. Perhaps there is a logic that supports ‘Clyde – OK, Raith – no way’ – but I can’t see it.

All of this leaves us only with ‘mob democracy’, an unholy alliance of people trying to change society and people trying to score ‘moral points’ on social media all diving into the scandal-de-jour. There is no question that there was damned good reason for people to be angry here, but there are loads of other cases where there isn’t – and yet we are normalising this as a means of dealing with sensitive, difficult, complicated social issues.

We can’t run society like this indefinitely. After the Me Too movement and its revelations it was essential that social pressure was brought to bear to create change, and when there is change there is heat and anger and it is seldom tidy.

But it’s supposed to lead to change, not institute heat and anger as the way we solve social problems. I’m not on social media; perhaps there was an upsurge of pressure to create a proper, policeable code of conduct in football, but if there was I didn’t hear it over the din of virtue signalling.

Punitive, merciless attitudes to offenders is not and has never been ‘progressive’

Equally harmful is what this is doing to ‘progressive’ views of justice in our society. Some who would proclaim themselves on the ‘progressive left’ are now adopting draconian ‘one-strike-and-you’re-out’ attitudes to criminal justice. But punitive, merciless attitudes to offenders is not and has never been considered ‘progressive’ at any point in history.

Since way before Tolstoy illustrated it so clearly in his wonderful novel Resurrection, the progressive view has always been that everyone has a chance to change, to rehabilitate, to be better, to get a second chance and, if need be, a third one.

This is no free pass; there must be real rehabilitation. But that isn’t a performative statement of regret and it can’t come from someone sitting in a cell alone having an epiphany. People need professional support with rehabilitation and in Scotland they get damn little of it – if any at all.

England and Wales have the highest per-capita prison population in Western Europe and Scotland is only a whisker behind. We’re very clearly not getting this right – but politicians score points for being ‘tough on crime’ so they see prison as a place where they can hide social problems rather than tackle them.

The post-Me Too culture is at risk of extinguishing opposition to the kind of vicious ‘one-strike-and-you’re-out’ approach to crime that used to be the preserve for the hard right. The US should also provide ample warning that demanding admissions of guilt before rehabilitation can begin is a dangerous path to travel.

Yet again there is so, so much about this whole sorry affair which shines a harsh light on Scotland and its political culture and no sign that anything that has happened is going to lead to any change whatsoever.

Our politics seems incapable of self-reflection, of intelligent thinking, of grown-up debate. It doesn’t seem to care about solving problems, only looking good.

The Goodwillie affair should have prompted a real debate about cultural expectations of both men and women, the state of our justice system, the means of creating consistent and lasting change post-Me Too. Instead it has prompted a rush for Twitter likes. And so all this is destined to repeat again and again, in a new, awful, life-ruining guise each time.

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