The Auld Enemies Still?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, March 19th 2010

The Scotland-England relationship is one of the defining ways many Scots view the world. It ranges from football and rugby rivalry to history, politics, culture and identity.

At the weekend Scots rugby fans booed English players at Murrayfield, while we have grown accustomed to Scots football crowds booing the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ for England at Hampden. And then there is the ‘Anyone But England’ phenomenon.

Why should Scotland define so much of its identity and sense of itself via what we think of England? This gives the power over who we are to someone else. Some argue that none of this really matters, and that it is all harmless fun about football and sport, but most of us know this is about much more, and tells us something uncomfortable about ourselves.

The ‘Anyone But England’ opinion uses a lot of false memory history syndrome. It dares to suggest that the English are the ones who have the problem from arrogant English football commentators, to the constant misunderstanding of ‘England’ as ‘Britain’, and 1966 and all that.

Apart from the fact that anyone looking at the sum total of Scottish football commentators would find a sorry summary of Scotland, lets get a bit of perspective. Scots football fans like to mark down England for its commentators and reporters having a sense of joy, passion and pride about their football, qualities we value in ourselves. Parts of the English media are not edifying, but there is a global problem about football, stereotypes and xenophobia, that we don’t just need to pull the English up for.

The 1966 myth needs to be put in context. For a start, the Scots have tried to diminish this thanks to the Wembley triumph of 1967, even suggesting in jest, that given this was England’s first defeat since winning the World Cup, this made Scotland ‘unofficial’ world champions.

Then there is the tale that the English wont stop going on about ’66, when in truth the only people who cant get over it seem to be the Tartan Army. It is a fact that England did win the World Cup and don’t make that much of it anymore. And what if they did?

Scots football seems to consist of going on and on about a few very poignant events from Jim Baxter’s keepie-up at Wembley ’67 to Archie Gemmell’s 1978 goal against Holland, combined with the Lisbon Lions. Imagine if you can for a second that we had won the World Cup in ‘66; Scots football fans would constantly refer to it every minute of every day for the rest of eternity!

There is an argument in recent decades that Scotland has changed dramatically, and become more confident and outward looking. This states that once what mattered was beating England every year at football, oblivious to the fact that we often never qualified for the World Cup.

The great Scots team of Baxter and Denis Law never qualified for seven World Cups and European Championships in a row, a worse record than now, but all we choose to remember is beating England in ’67.

When the ‘Anyone But England’ group is challenged, and the mostly harmonious nature of Scottish-English relations pointed out over the last few centuries, this is discounted. When you argue that ‘the auld enemies’ is not Poland v. Russia, or even Ireland v. Britain, respondents explicitly compare Scotland’s plight to that of Ireland.

This is inaccurate and bad history, close to a collective amnesia which is both insulting to the brutal British colonialism and oppression of Ireland, and a complete misunderstanding of Scotland’s role in the union, and the obvious fact that this nation was never colonised by the English. Instead, the comparison of Scotland v. England invests in a Scots sense of victimhood and a ‘Trainspotting’ version of our history.

Such a perspective draws every slight and grievance against the Scots from the Highland Clearances to Scots soldiers losses in the two World Wars, Margaret Thatcher, and the poll tax, and sees them as part of an anti-Scottish plot. It is not a very attractive interpretation of our history to put it mildly!

The excellent Scots football, psychology and culture website More than Mind Games run by James Hamilton, shows that it is possible to have an erudite, thoughtful conversation about football, far removed from the pub bores of Stuart ‘n’ Tam. Hamilton believes that the ‘Anyone But England’ mindset ‘isn’t a first order expression of Scottish nationality’, but the equivalent of ‘a ginger wig on match day’ and ‘an inflated haggis’.

I am not so sure. The appearance of ‘Anyone But England’ t-shirts produced by Slanj tells us that such views are mainstream, seen as appropriate and legitimate enough to be commercialised. Aberdeen Police were going over the top looking into the selling of such merchandise as ‘racist’, but a police investigation into the health of Scottish culture is obviously going beyond their remit.

Where Hamilton is right is in arguing that ‘Anyone But England isn’t about England at all’, but about the limitations the Scots feel about themselves, in sport and elsewhere, and the bizarre, out of date stereotypes and caricatures we feel we have permission to create about the English.

Really things have gone way too far. Instead of cheering ‘Anyone But England’ we need to desperately normalise our relationship with our southern neighbours and friends.

If this does not involve people actively supporting England it has to challenge the small minded, knee jerk unreflective prejudice which passes for much of the public sentiment in Scotland. At the absolute minimum this has to entail not supporting not supporting England at least as a start.

Things have come to such a sorry pass that I am almost inclined to get an England strip and wear it around Scotland during the World Cup. What sort of reaction would I get? Why would people find it such a provocative act? Why would it be seen as inappropriate or boorish in a sea of Scotland football fans wearing the colours of England’s opponents?

It is much too easy to dismiss all of this as something about nothing or just a little joke. Part of Scotland has grown up in recent years, but part of it has deliberately chosen to wallow in a collective childhood of unattractive views. How we pull this back will be difficult to near nye impossible, but at least we have to stop and reflect on what we as a nation and culture are becoming, and how this appears to others.