Scotland, Independence and ABE


In years past, both Andy Murray and Gordon Brown have been placed into difficulty regarding the England national football team.

In 2006, Murray received hate mail on the BBC website after saying that he would be supporting “anyone but England” (ABE) at the World Cup in Germany that year. Coming from a sporting Scot, this is pretty unsurprising – most English people would presumably assume Scots don’t want England to win – but given Murray’s ploughing of the lone farrow of “British” tennis excellence, this worryingly rebellious (if honest) streak had to be quashed. One wit let it be known on the BBC’s website that they would be supporting “anyone but Murray” at Wimbledon (possibly before they realised the dearth of more unproblematically “British” players that had any chance of getting past the first round).

Then in 2007, Brown exhibited the anxiousness and clumsiness that was to accompany his prime ministership when he tried to pre-empt the kind of criticism Murray received by suggesting in a conversation about England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup that he’d like “the host” to win. As the BBC reported: “Asked then who he wanted to win the World Cup, Mr Brown replied: “I think the host.” When asked “Not Scotland?”, the Chancellor replied: “Well, of course, I want Scotland to do well, but let’s just see how it all works out.”” Potentially worried that this reflected a rather pessimistic attitude toward Scotland’s chances at a hypothetical tournament, and smarting from Alex Salmond’s accusation that he had “completely lost the plot,” Brown later clarified his “ideal scenario”: “Scotland play England in the final and Scotland win.””

These examples bespeak a closer and more ignorant – at least on the part of the English – relationship between England and Scotland, one hardly (then) thought about save on occasions of sporting rivalry like this. The relationship between the two countries seems a lot different now. England has been forced to learn – and think – more about Scotland, even if the prevailing attitudes are still imbued with faint bemusement; Scotland wants more and more to differentiate itself from England. If Scotland will hold an independence referendum in less than four months time, David Cameron’s Westminster government seems a lot more English than Blair’s Labour one did, which featured, in addition to Brown, the Scots Alistair Darling, John Reid and Robin Cook, among others. Cameron’s Englishness is so much the type that Scots dislike – loud-voiced, ignorant, un-self-aware, Southern – that differences which may be quite small (his cabinets have featured Glasgow Tories Liam Fox and Lord Strathclyde) are amplified. That’s not to mention the very real political differences between the Cameron government and the vast majority of Scottish people; the Scottish Government is actively engaged in sabotaging (or mitigating, if you prefer) some of Cameron’s most hated policies.

If in 2010 a shop in Aberdeen was visited by police on account of its reportedly “racist” ABE t-shirts, will similar sentiments arise at this World Cup, spurred on by the independence referendum in September?

It is hard to say. My immediate sense is that the referendum, rather than creating a space in which all sorts of nationalist blather can ooze out, is actually showing it up for the silliness it always was. My impression – cybernats and former Secretary Generals of NATO notwithstanding –  is that the debate about the referendum really has been about the issues and about politics, but also – and more inspiringly – about what sort of country we want to make and to live in. It is distinctly different to the drudgery and conspicuous lack of choice in a general election. In this context, in which the entire country is having a serious, engaged and optimistic conversation with itself about what it wants to be, ABE seems a remnant of a different age (just like those Labour governments). As my friend Ciaran said when I asked him about it, “my support for Independence comes less from a patriotic sense [than] a political perspective.” ABE has something of the pre-2008 crash about it, a negative (in the photographic sense) reflection of the boorish culture that surrounded the “golden”-WAGS-Eriksson (and, dare I say, it New Labour) generation of ten years ago. Today’s squad has largely moved on from those figures, and the ones that are left – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard – are the more introspective and palatable members. John Terry has retired from international football, David Beckham from all football, and there is not a robot dance to be seen. Instead we have “the Studge” and a host of much more likeable players – Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain et al all seem like fine upstanding young gentlemen in comparison with the group that went to Baden-Baden in 2006.

That said, given that 2014 sees both the referendum in Scotland and a World Cup at which England – and not Scotland – will be present, one might be forgiven for expecting a resurfacing of ABE sentiments. While there are always going to be ironic cheers when this year’s Heskey hoofs a shot over the bar, I wouldn’t bet on an upsurge of nationalist-infused ABE. Part of the reason is because of the negative nature of the sentiment itself. As a friend said to me, “part of the reason that Scottish people often are so vehemently anti-English when it comes to sports is a perceived sense of entitlement and ludicrous degree of expectation that comes with every major tournament. Up until the last World Cup there was still a lot of talk about England being contenders. Now that expectations south of the border are so much lower, it’s difficult to generate as much bile – it’s just not as fun anymore.” No matter how many Clive Tyldesleys there are in the world, if the team they’re cheerleading are so conspicuously average, it’s hard to work up too much excitement about them.

The comparative muteness of ABE sentiment is also partly due to what Ciaran described as a “lack of general interest in international football.” Although he “can’t stop [himself] basking in their defeat,” his schadenfreude has “less vigour” because of this. If it’s always been the case for fans of the larger clubs, I think this lack of interest is increasingly the case for the average football fan too, for whom the international side of the game is pretty uninteresting and for whom a growing proportion of their football interest is devoted to worrying that their precariously-financed club gets its bit of the TV-and-advertising deal bonanza. This isn’t helped by the fact that the players themselves hardly seem bothered by it (no matter how many times they claim to be “proud to wear the shirt” and that “it’s a dream to represent your country”) and also by the impression that it is simply not the place where the best football can be seen. Fans support teams named after the city where their stadium is, but they watch a team made up of players from around the world. Globalization and capitalism are responsible not just for massive TV deals but also the decreasing importance of the nation state – and individual and collective identities connected to them – in general. If you don’t feel particularly English, then it’s hard to support a team whose whole identity is based on marshalling some sort of anachronistic Three Lions-St George sense of Englishness. And anyway, for many the Champions League is a better tournament than the World Cup.

Brief, unscientific research since the beginning of this year’s tournament seems to confirm at least part of this. If most pubs in Glasgow have put up flag bunting, like they do for every tournament, some have chosen a team to support, usually one of the favourites. I’ve seen Brazilian, Spanish and German ones displayed prominently in bar windows. Watching the opening Brazil v Croatia match in the pub the other night, there was a lot of investment in Brazil not embarrassing themselves (revealed in the strength of the cheers when Neymar equalised) but a similar amount who found the possibility of Croatia upsetting the narrative an appealing prospect. I’ve been in Glasgow for the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 and this World Cup, and I’m always struck by the way these tournaments are here a way for people to become more internationalist, boning up on the rivalries between Central American minnows or how Bosnia’s political history translates into their midfield dynamism. This is obviously partly due to Scotland’s absence from those tournaments; if they’d been present, I’m sure much more focus would be on them at the expense of this welcome cosmopolitanism. I didn’t go to the pub for the England v Italy game, but you don’t often need to go that far to hear evidence of ABE feeling. Earlier this year, I could pretty much tell the score in the Six Nations matches featuring England because a particularly raucous neighbour would scream every time whoever England were playing took the lead. Watching Saturday’s game at a friend’s, the surrounding flats were dead silent. Of course this could be for many reasons, but it seemed apt.

Before this World Cup, there was perhaps a better occasion to gauge the current strength of ABE sentiments, when Scotland played England at Wembley last summer. In addition to the excitement of the game, with Scotland taking the lead twice and England pegging them back and eventually winning, the event was noteworthy for the pre- and post-game opinions of fans, players, and commentators, all of whom seemed to be on the same page, both Scottish and English. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone was excited to have the fixture back on the calendar, and that it was fun to indulge in a bit of friendly rivalry. There was talk of a home nations tournament being revived. Even the result seemed to please everyone: Scotland didn’t expect to win, but gave a good account of themselves, while England didn’t risk fan invective by losing to a team who at the time were ranked 36 places below them. There wasn’t, to my knowledge, any violence outside the game, and it ended with all involved saying “this was nice, we must do this again sometime,” Scotland basically inviting England up to Hampden next year. It may be possible that I’m gilt-edging this, and that others might have a completely different impression. My assumption that both teams were happy with the result might smack to some of precisely the condescension Scottish football fans hate in the English, but it comes from talking to a co-worker, a member of Scotland Supporter’s Club who travelled to Wembley for the game. On his return it wasn’t the result he wanted to talk (or moan) about; instead he wanted to show me photos of the trip on his phone. He was looking forward to the return game at Hampden in 2015, and politely suggested that Scotland might win it.

Posted by Mark West

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.


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