Qualifying Group no. 7 for the 1988 European Championship read as follows:
Republic of Ireland
I bumped into Big Charlie in the office the day the groups were announced.
‘Did you see who we got in the qualifiers?’ he asked me.
Big Charlie, like me and just about everyone else in Glasgow City Council’s Housing Benefits Office was Scottish. Technically.
But he was also from exactly the same ‘community’ as I was – Glaswegian, working class … and Catholic. That meant he voted Labour and supported Celtic in the same way it meant he ate food and drank water. It also meant he concerned himself with matters across the Irish Sea more than in the land of his birth.
Scotland, we told each other, was no more than the ground we stood on. At Old Firm games we waved Irish tricolours, sang The Soldier’s Song and booed the ranks opposite who were busy waving Union Jacks and singing the Sash. Away from football, we railed against Thatcher’s government, sympathised with striking Yorkshire miners and lusted after Kate Bush. We watched the BBC News from London, but the moment it was over and Reporting Scotland came on with its parochial shite about fish quotas and Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, we switched the TV off.
When Scotland did force its way into our consciousness, it was not as a welcome visitor; Hogmanay was a couthy, embarrassing teuchter-fest; the Scottish National Party were ‘tartan Tories’; Scottish football fans; ‘Huns in fancy dress’ and anyone in a kilt basically asking for a kick up the arse. People who asserted their pride in Scotland were living in a romanticised and irrelevant past; Bannockburn and the pneumatic tyre were no excuses for independence and Nazi-like delusions of superiority.
Fast forward 25 years and Scotland is about to make history – one way or another – and that dismissiveness is simply impossible to maintain. As the polls currently stand, the Yes Campaign has a job on its hands; at the time of writing there is something like a 20 per cent gap on the No camp to bridge. On the other hand, the substantial number of ‘don’t knows’ who remain suggests there is at least the chance of narrowing this. To that end, there has been much discussion recently about ‘forms’ of nationalism that may be deployed to win over the doubters.
Nicola Sturgeon spoke at Strathclyde University of her belief in a utilitarian nationalism – wanting an independent Scotland, not for its own sake, but for what it will make possible, in social and economic policy initiatives, for the betterment of the Scottish people.
Allied to this is economic nationalism which makes the case for a small, dynamic and adaptable Scottish economy, underpinned by a wealth of natural resources and tailored to our own needs and capacity.
Then there is constitutional nationalism which argues for a fairer democracy and more open government freed from the arcane hole-and-corner nonsense of Westminster.
I can understand, indeed subscribe to, these essentially intellectual strands of political philosophy. But what, I ask myself, of that old fashioned nationalism of identity? It has almost become the nationalism that dare not speak its name. Because for those who hold to this first and foremost the answer to the question ‘Why do you want an independent Scotland?’ is simply: ‘Because I’m Scottish.’ And that, for some, takes us dangerously close to questions of ethnicity and race.
But does it? And by eschewing all talk of identity and culture in an effort to present a ‘modern’, civic – safe – nationalism, do we perhaps risk chucking the wean out with the bath water? Besides which, there is Scottish … and there is Scottish.
I realise my defence of Scottish identity as a legitimate subject to explore in the context of the 2014 vote would carry more weight were I first or second generation Pakistani, or even English! But talk to any SNP activist in the west of Scotland still gamely trying to sow the seeds of a nationalist sentiment and you will appreciate just how stony the ground is in Labour’s Glasgow wastelands. And that is now. Back in the day, an SNP canvasser was as welcome on the average Glaswegian doorstep as the angel of death. For many years I shared those hostile instincts towards Scotland and all things Scottish. I had no choice; they were as much a part of my environment as council housing and rain. Even the annual Scotland/England match was compromised for us. Sure we liked the idea of beating England, but supporting Scotland meant supporting the Scottish Football Association and that meant supporting the dour, protestant, Masonic, ‘anti-us’ establishment we had been brought up to believe existed throughout Scotland.
John Grieg of Rangers, a lumbering thug of a centre half who trapped the ball further than most could kick it – 44 caps.
Bobby Murdoch of Celtic, arguably the most accomplished midfielder in Britain at the time – 12.
Our fathers rested their case.
And, of course, when Scotland lost, as they usually did, that was simply more proof that everything up here was rubbish: the weather, the music (I still flinch at the opening ‘ta-da’ of anything played on the accordion) but mostly, the football. The glories of the 1960s (Lisbon and Wembley) had faded. Scottish football was on the slide and, if we were honest, Sportscene on a Saturday night was a chore to endure before the reward of Match of the Day which followed.
This was our version of the Scottish cringe and, as is perhaps already clear, it consisted of two apparently contradictory elements; indifference and disdain. Mention of matters important to the realm of Scotland would, depending on circumstances and our mood, elicit either a dismissive shrug, as if we’d been asked to opine on Clackmannanshire’s municipal budget, or heartfelt, passionate scorn. Scotland either wasn’t worth wasting breath on … or it got a derisory earful of abuse.
Odd behaviour, and odder still that it was not the preserve of Glaswegian working class Tims. I don’t remember being self aware enough to notice this at the time, but it is undeniable that we shared this view of Scotland with those at the opposite end of the human spectrum to us – the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Through their prism too, Scotland was either unimportant or it was duff. The whole tartan/shortbread tin/Granny’s Hielin’ Hame/Wha’s Like Us deal was pathetic. Scots were puffed up yet second rate fools who lived in the past and off government subsidies, who spent their time squabbling over the trivialities of local government or banging on about North Sea oil – the greedy, selfish bastards. (See Tory manifestoes passim).
Even more troubling for us – had we bothered to analyse it – would be the parallels with the obvious multiple personalities of our friends at Ibrox. (Apologies for bringing it back once more to football – not an unimportant element of growing up in Glasgow). They would stand during a Wednesday cup tie, say, against Celtic and sing God Save the Queen with gusto … only to drown out the same tune with jeers as England lined up against Scotland at Hampden the following weekend.
Confused we certainly were. And annoyed.
As will be obvious to any halfway competent psychoanalyst, our apparent indifference to Scotland was an act. The truth was Scotland troubled us. It asked questions we didn’t want to be asked, and – much more significantly – stirred up emotions we would rather stayed hidden in the mud at the bottom of our murky little ponds.
For ‘Scotland’ in those pre Holyrood days, read ‘nationalism’ – of any sort – and that was a dirty word. We were socialist, usually republican (apart from my mum and others who remembered the royal family staying in Buckingham Palace during the blitz and thought it terribly heroic) and, thanks to Thatcher, growing ever more militant. We were the keepers of the flame, the descendents of Keir Hardie, John Maclean (conveniently forgetting his championing of home rule) and Manny Shinwell. We were internationalists, supporters of the working classes all over the world. The idea of sealing the border, issuing passports and settling back to count oil revenues went completely against the grain.
And just as dangerous, political nationalism was abhorrent, so the other sort was risible. We lost no opportunity to ridicule the worst excesses of cutesy and kitsch nationalism from Nessie hats to The White Heather Club. And plenty of other sources of national pride for the strange people who didn’t live in Glasgow could be easily pooh-poohed; Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone, Baird the television or Watt the steam engine – no matter how many tea towels said differently. And as for the rest of Scottish history, we got precious little of it at school (none in secondary) but that was no great loss – we knew what it would be full of anyway; ‘Oh no, here come the English again. Time for another doing.’
And yet …
If Scotland and all things Scottish could so easily be dismissed, why did we not do that? I mean, why did we not just wave a breezy hand, smile indulgently and move onto more important matters any time Scotland was mentioned? Because, as I’ve shown, we didn’t.
My theory is that Scotland … no, more than that – an affection for Scotland, was our guilty secret. While so much of late 20th century Scottishness offended those carefully nurtured Irish, socialist, republican sensitivities mentioned above, it was never enough to completely poison our view of the place. And that was at least in part because, well, we had to belong to somewhere. Didn’t we?
I’ve met plenty of people who can’t understand that question. But, like the rich wondering what all the fuss is about money, they tend to be people for whom the whole business of national identity is a settled, non-issue. Whether or not they actually like being French, Venezuelan or American (and they always like being American) was irrelevant; that’s what they were. Even the English, of course, have always – until recently, at least – been far more content with their dual national ID.
We Glaswegian Taigs had much that defined our community. There was certainly a football team to rally round. But did we have a country, that national identity? Despite the slightly desperate posturings of Big Charlie and many thousands of other Celtic supporters, we were and are not Irish. My dad wasn’t Irish, nor was his dad, nor his dad. I have to go back to my great, great grandfather before I come across any pure-bred Irish stock. (By the way, his name was originally Kindelon and we suspect he changed it to throw the police off his scent before he got on the boat, so that stock might not be so pure after all.)
Many of us holidayed in The Republic, as we called it, but we obviously didn’t live there and long before it gained EU membership and the Celtic Tiger economy took off, we probably didn’t want to either. It was a rural, Gaelic-speaking place full of poor people with horses. So, if not Irish, then what?
Well, some of my contemporaries opted for what it said on their passports – British. After all, it fitted in nicely with the whole grown up ‘nationalism is parochial nonsense’ position. They could be British because the British never made much of a fuss about it. Breast beating and flag-waving patriotism was not their style. They asserted their identity in quiet, civilised ways involving minority sports and drinking tea at designated times of the day. In fact, opting for Britain was almost like opting out of the whole national identity argument all together. Not only was it safe, it was a de facto reality anyway so let’s all just shut up and get on with our lives.
But, if these self-professed Tim Brits were honest, they embraced Britannia with little enthusiasm. Quite apart from the obvious penchant Rangers fans have for wearing Queen and country on their sleeves, there was also the issue of a growing assertiveness to at least some aspects of English Britishness. Between rioting football fans being banned from Europe, everything Thatcher said from the moment she got up in the morning, and the worrying conflation of the Union Jack with the British National Party and thuggish xenophobia, it was clearly no longer all Betjeman and bicycling south of the Border. And that was long before Blair, Brown and Cameron discovered the suspect merits of wrapping themselves in the flag.
And so, for some of us at least, we were left with Scotland. We still had little in common with Aberdonians (whom we couldn’t understand anyway), or rugby-playing vets from the Borders, but, increasingly, we seemed to have damn all in common with the English. It was Scotland, we knew, or nothing.
In other words, we might have pretended otherwise but we did care. That was why we writhed in embarrassment at Take the High Road or Isla St Clair on The Generation Game. But also why went into the video box on Points of View to complain about Blue Peter presenters talking about ‘up there in Scotland’ or lazy English bias in sports commentary. We had no truck with the Nats but it was a Tory government so our socialist loyalties meant we could march against the Poll Tax and even, as I did, subscribe to Radical Scotland magazine and join the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly alongside many Labour Party stalwarts.
But was that it? A closet Scottishness permitted only in so far as it allowed us to bash the usual suspects – Huns, Tories, monarchists and toffs? No, I think it was more than that.
Many of us, I firmly believe, actually liked a great deal about Scotland the country – not just the idea. For all the tartanalia and unattractive Presbyterianism, there is no denying a certain liberal/democratic tradition in public affairs in Scotland that easily chimes with all that right-on, lefty socialism we Glaswegians like to affect. Equally, for those few of us who knew anything about Scottish history beyond a long list of heroic failures, there was the Scottish Enlightenment, the ideas behind all that impenetrable Scots in Burns’s poetry, and a general egalitarian, ‘wee man takes no shit from nobody’ theme to Scotland’s story down through the centuries.
Meanwhile, the country itself was not such a bad place to live in. Glasgow was being cleaned up and gorgeous Victorian buildings were emerging from under the grime of 100 years of heavy industry. International festivals and swanky waterfront developments slowly had us thinking less of ‘No Mean City’ and more of some kind of genuine European-class destination. Moreover, aside from Hearts and Hibs fans singing about our tenements and unfamiliarity with soap, the rest of Scotland seemed to take pride in that transformation too.
Then there is Scotland’s scenery. Yes, I know, a deeply unfashionable topic among Scotland’s modern generation of social democratic nationalists – ‘For God’s sake don’t get all blood and soil on us!’ And I won’t. But while I am more than happy to argue for independence because Scotland is no worse than any other country and deserves the same chance to make its own way in the world, I cannot see that this must proscribe any appreciation of those assets we have that are genuinely world beating.
There are a shockingly high number of Glaswegians (and, I will allow, probably Edinburgh folk too) who have little or no first hand experience of Scotland’s landscapes. Perhaps they didn’t own a car and the train or bus just seemed like too much trouble to go somewhere they’d been told was cold, wet and infested with midges. Perhaps they spent all their money on package holidays to the Spanish sun. Or perhaps they were just put off with all that romantic poetry rammed down their throats in school and TV footage of Kenneth McKellar singing ‘These Are My Mountains’ on some moor where it looks like he’s lost the rest of the wedding party.
But to deny the pride many of us take in views the aesthetic equal of anywhere in the world is to unnecessarily limit our sense of Scottishness.
And Scottishness, that identification with the country, I would argue is an aspect of the national debate we supporters of independence ignore or worse, disown, at our peril.
My own nascent sense of Scottishness was planted in childhood by such things as school hill walking trips in the Highlands (with plastic Gola football boots and a haversack weighed down with tomato soup and Dairylea ‘pieces’ enough for a month) and being introduced to the wonderfully naff historical novels of Nigel Tranter by my old man.
And I have to wonder, had that not been there, whether my later political choices would have been the same.
Indeed, it is testimony to the power of this nationalism – the power many fear – that even in such a hostile environment as the east end of Glasgow in the 1970s and 80s, even in the face of overwhelming peer pressure felt in family, school, university and casual employment, my sense of Scottishness not only took root, but grew. So much so that by my late teens I had the courage to ‘come out’ as a nationalist, albeit one festooned with as many radical socialist badges as I could find.
At one level, to celebrate, or at least acknowledge, one’s Scottishness is to do no more than mark your starting point. The argument often used against those utilitarian or stripped back political supporters of independence is that a more equal society, a healthier economy or a fairer political system are indeed desirable – but why just desire them for Scotland? There are practical as well as moral answers to those questions. But there is also the simple one of: ‘Because I recognise this place, this Scotland, as my country.’
It goes without saying that this sense of Scottishness is not an exclusive one – it depends on no creed or culture, nor genetic mix, to exist and thrive. If you come from here and even if you didn’t, if you pay your taxes or take your benefits, if you make your friends and choose to live your life in this particular corner of the planet then Scotland – the land and its story – can seep into your bones. You will have that sense of belonging that billions in other countries around the world have: a national identity.
Then, I believe, you will be all the more inclined to wonder just why the hell you shouldn’t have what they also have – the right to run the place as you see fit.