The ‘Anyone But England’ Phenomenon and the Scottish Psyche

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, June 23rd 2010

The Scotland-England relationship has been historically one of the defining features of Scottish life.

In recent years Scottish football fans have begun more and more to identify with whoever England is playing whether it be the World Cup, European Championships or a mere friendly.

All of this has now reached epic proportions. There has been the ‘Anyone But England’ (ABE) phenomenon which has spawned a website, campaign and numerous commercial ventures. Kilt makers Slanj have got into trouble for making ABE t-shirts and HMV for selling them.

STV have run a campaign inviting viewers to identify ‘Who will you support?’ in the World Cup, with TV advertising and billboards listing a range of countries from ‘Cameroon because it rhymes with Macaroon’ and ‘Holland because their strip matches my burd’s tan’. Gill Petrie, managing director of STV, dismissed the whole thing as a bit of ‘fun’ stating, ‘It doesn’t really matter how tenuous the link is between the country and the reason for choosing to support them; it’s all about getting involved in a great sporting event, and having a sense of humour about the fact our national team isn’t participating!’

Cameron Toll Shopping Centre, Edinburgh have run a holiday competition entitled ‘Anywhere But England Please!’ with the prize an expenses paid holiday to the nation which wins the World Cup. A spokesperson for the shopping centre claimed ‘With 32 possible destinations including Brazil, Australia, USA and Spain the advert is, of course, siding with our eventual competition winner by hoping the prize is more than just a few miles down the road’.

The thinking behind all of this is self-evident: the Scots have a problem with the English at least on the football field, and all of this is so widespread it can be used to promote a TV channel or shopping centre. Some people do take offence at this; Slanj’s t-shirts led to complaints of being ‘racist’ as did the shopping centre competition.

Many Scottish football fans have a clear sense of why all of this is happening and list a litany of supposed sins to justify the above. They include the English going on about 1966, supposed English arrogance, the assumption in the English media that England might win the World Cup, the constant confusion of ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, and even, the passionate and partisan nature of English commentators getting behind their team (as if Scottish commentators don’t do the same).

The underlying thread behind this Scottish opinion is a lack of awareness about how it comes across. Scots really don’t mind being perceived as defining themselves and how they see the world by what they think of England. Challenged about this most Scots football fans will question why should they do as they are told and support England, and that anyway there are lots of national rivalries the world over.

Some of the Scots claims border on the ridiculous. The belief that the English go on about 1966, was true forty years ago, but the only people who go on about it now are Scots football fans that cant get over it. And it is true that England actually did win the World Cup. Imagine if the Scots had won the World Cup; the Scots would never stop going on about it; instead all we have is the mesmerising Archie Genmell goal against Holland in 1978!

Moreover, we need to ask why has all this escalated in recent years? Part of this is the articulation of a form of Scottishness which isn’t just about the ‘official story’ of devolution and the Parliament, but takes pleasure in celebrating small-mindedness, xenophobia and prejudice. These trends have been hijacked and given added legitimacy by a host of commercial enterprises – including Slanj, STV, Cameron Toll shopping centre – that are looking for ways to ingratiate themselves with the local populace.

As a passionate supporter of the Scottish Parliament isn’t it just possible that its creation may have aided all of this? The slow unravelling of Britain and the decline of the British story which once held all of us together is also part of what is going on. Some of this is progressive with the rise of distinct and progressive Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish politics different from Westminster, and the emergence of England; but some of it as in ‘Anyone But England’ is petty and embarrassing.

Whatever the explanation something not very pleasant is afoot in the public air and conversation of Scotland, and it is time we stopped making excuses and confronted some unpleasant myths about ourselves. How we Scots see ourselves and our place in the world should not be about being anti-English or defining ourselves as not being English, but part of the Scots nation seems further away from this than it ever has been.