It’s almost 25 years since my dear old chum, Tam Dalyell, framed the West Lothian Question. To paraphrase, how can it be that Scottish MPs can vote on questions which are purely English matters? He pointed out the constitutional absurdity that after the devolved Scottish Parliament came into being he could vote on concerns aff ecting people in Blackburn, Lancashire but not on the majority of issues in Blackburn, West Lothian.
My own question – call it the Bradford West Question – is far less historically and politically profound, but still timely and important to a major section of Scottish society. It’s Rangers.
And it’s this. How can a club that either doesn’t exist, or hasn’t yet become a member, vote on its own future in the Scottish Premier League?
Rangers plans to be reborn on the 4 July and slip back into the Premier League, by casting what could be the deciding vote in their own favour.
You really couldn’t make it up if you were Kafka, Lewis Carroll or Groucho Marx but apparently, they have.
Let’s get the baggage out of the way fi rst, because commentary on the Old Firm always drags it in. I was born and brought up a Catholic and my loyalties are to the other and remaining half of the duo and to my fi rst love, Dundee United. But my proposals and criticisms would equally apply to Celtic – although since they’ve binned the biscuit tin they’re unlikely to apply – and to any other club in the country, from Crewe to Cowdenbeath. A football club which fails cannot be allowed to simply slough off its debts, and in Rangers case, that could be upwards of £100m, and re-emerge with a cloned identity to be welcomed back, not just by the football community, but, through gritted teeth, accepted by HM Revenue and Customs.
I’m not going to regurgitate the Rangers debt story. Th e jury is still out, literally, on what’s been called the Big Tax Case, but whether it’s £9m, £49m or more, HMRC has been robbed.
Th ey were absolutely right to refuse the paltry pennies in the pound deal under the mooted Creditors Voluntary Agreement, as an example to discourage others similarly minded to welsh on what’s owed. Th ey’ve been there before with football clubs.
And football clubs just aren’t like normal businesses, for all the reasons we understand. If a limited company goes bust, that’s it, a director or two in extreme cases may be banned for a year or two, but it doesn’t re-emerge with a marginally diff erent identity and with all its customers still loyally there and just as willing to hand over the cash again. Unlike Rangers, or Motherwell or Dundee. HMRC may well lose when a company founders, but where Rangers, as the example, is diff erent, it’s that what they love to call the ‘football community’ surrounds them. And that community, which profi ts from them, must shoulder the responsibility when they fail.
Here’s my idea, which tax accountants and fi tba’ heid yins are welcome to pick over. Th e Chancellor of the Exchequer, to safeguard the taxpayer, should introduce special measures to compel the football leagues and, or, the national associations, to make recompense for the clubs that default on their tax debts. Now if Manchester United, heaven forfend, should go belly up, it would make just a tiny red entry in the debit column in the books of the Premier League, fed by the mega-billions of Sky and now BT. Not so with Rangers or even, I hazard, St Mirren or Cowdenbeath. Th e SPL and the SFA simply couldn’t aff ord failure. Which would certainly make them look a damn sight closer at who was running the football companies, ensuring it couldn’t happen by, perhaps, seeking personal indemnities from directors or requiring substantial upfront deposits from clubs in return for registration.
Th ere’s been a gross failure of leadership by the football authorities in Scotland and, indeed, by the Government. Th e fans are far more astute and demanding in accountability. I have sympathy for the other clubs in the SPL, like Kilmarnock with a debt of around £10m and which views the prospect of losing £300,000 a season if Rangers aren’t in the league, with absolute horror. It might even drive them to bankruptcy. So the chairman has let it be known that he’ll vote to let them in, despite the wishes of his own fans. But self-interest can’t be allowed to beggar principle.
I haven’t studied the constitution of the SPL, life’s way too short, but Newco Rangers must be treated like any potential member, like Spartans or Auchinleck Talbot, they have to graduate through the lower leagues. Th ey can’t be allowed to vote on 4 July for their own admission – I’m sure they don’t even allow that in George Osborne’s old fraternity the Bullingdon Club – so it has to be a vote of 11 members, sans the applicant. And if the SPL don’t ensure this, then the SFA must and if they won’t – and heavens they’ve been craven enough in this whole farce – then, ultimately, the courts must decide.
No one wants to see Aberdeen or Hearts or any other of the clubs opposed to the bid take it to law, where they’d surely win, if expensively, so let’s hope sense prevails. And let’s see the sports minister, Shona Robison, banging some heads together now. She’s reported to have had a recent meeting with SPL chief Ralph Topping.
But she’s said nothing publicly, and neither have the vast majority of MSPs, presumably because they don’t want to unleash the hate brigade. But football is too important to be silent about or to be left just to its administrators.