Our Own Goals

Perhaps the most widely held – or at least proclaimed – view of Scotland in the period since the referendum is that we’ve been left with a divided society.[1]

It’s not always clear what exactly is meant by that.  It’s up for debate also as to how much of any division was always there anyway, but was simply exposed by the national debate on independence, rather than being created by it.  In any event, I’d want to finesse the point, by arguing that we’re in danger of becoming a polarised society.

And it’s on that note and in that context that I want to make some comments on the events at the Scottish Cup Final of 21 May 2016 between Hibernian and Rangers.  This will not be a football article as such, however; I want to raise issues of wider concern.[2]

Background (the footie bit)

To those of us watching live on TV, the pitch invasion by Hibs fans was instant bad news, not least because some of us remember well the events at the 1980 Cup Final. Some of what transpired was all too predictable, therefore.[3]

What was completely unexpected, however – to me at least, but I doubt if there were many in a different place – was the speed of the reaction by Rangers.  A statement was published at 5:51 pm, which was only a few minutes after the final whistle, i.e. it came out while the events were still unfolding on the park.[4]

Indeed, by virtue of being so swiftly issued, it was this communication that first alerted viewers to the accusation that the invading Hibs fans had not simply been “exuberant”, but that instead there had been assaults on players and staff of the defeated team.  The BBC commentators seemed a bit surprised, if not sceptical of the claim.  Many of us were inclined at the time to dismiss it as overreaction motivated by sour grapes.

Over course of the evening, photographic and video evidence circulated.  I’m not going to comment directly on any of that, not least because any analysis of mine is redundant as time now is being spent on this by police experts.[5]

What soon become incontrovertible was that there had indeed been assaults on Rangers personnel.  Even if none of it proves to have caused serious physical injury – as does seem likely – it must have been a frightening experience for some of them.

Much of the subsequent commentary on social media (at least as it appeared on my timeline) exemplified what has become known as “whataboutery”, i.e. the attempt to minimise criticism of wrongdoing by deflecting attention to a different wrong perpetrated by the other side.  So, we got mention of Barcelona 1972 and Manchester 2008, neither of which had any direct relevance at all to the matter in hand.  The Rangers “community” had a genuine grievance here.  The egregious failure of the commentariat was in seeking at first to deny or obscure that plain fact.

Following the pitch invasion by Hibs supporters, some Rangers fans came onto the park with the intention of engaging with the enemy, which many of them duly did.  This also was inexcusable behaviour.

Two wrongs do not make a right. The first transgression here is not cancelled out by the second and in turn the latter is not excused by the former.  Hibs fans and Rangers fans are both at fault in that respect.

Rangers issued a second statement the following day.  Although the tone employed is somewhat different to mine, the first few paragraphs cover much the same ground as I do above.  It had become embarrassing (at best) that the whataboutery was still in full flow and Rangers FC was perfectly entitled to complain about this.

The statement doesn’t stop there, however.  You should read it in full for yourself, as any summary by me won’t begin to do it justice.  Lambasting everyone in sight, it can be read as suggesting that Rangers fans are justified in coming onto the field of play if they are “faced with prolonged and severe provocation”.   Vigilantism, no less, being advocated by a major Scottish institution. Truly, an outrage in its own right and a spectacular own goal in terms of public relations.

It’s worth highlighting that this second communication was made the day after the events concerned.  If the first statement had included intemperate language, it might have been understandable given the circumstances and the haste with which it had to have been composed and issued.  No such excuse can be made for the second one, however.  Once the dust has settled, and tempers cooled, Rangers should come to its senses and distance itself from this wholly objectionable call to arms.

The main bit

Being Glasgow Irish of a certain vintage, I’m struck by the change in, and perception of, our community over the recent past, covering a relatively short period of time.  Whilst it’s inaccurate to say that everyone always voted Labour, there was nonetheless truth behind that particular stereotyping.[6]

If I say that the idea that a significant proportion of Scotland’s RCs would vote SNP is astonishing, I don’t mean just that my parents would have found it difficult to believe.  No; I’m talking of my own generation as well – that’s how swift this transformation has been.  Glasgow – along with Dundee – as the new heartland of Scottish nationalism?  I’m still reeling at the notion.

In many people’s eyes, the standard bearer for Scotland’s Catholic population is Celtic Football Club.  Given that perception (and leaving aside its many deficiencies), where things might start to get confusing is that supporters of the club celebrate their Irish roots and indeed festoon themselves in scarves and banners that are based on the colours of the flag of that different country, not that of Scotland.  Yet, this same support now includes within it a significant proportion which votes SNP.  Go figure.[7]

That’s only one lens through which to view things, of course, important enough as it is.  The obvious contrast is with the support of Rangers FC, which has likewise always seemed to downplay any specifically Scottish aspects of the club’s heritage, concentrating instead on a triumphalist Britishness and kinship with the Loyalist community of Northern Ireland, and which remains steadfast in this respect.

Let’s not overlook, though, another very important component of the modern population of Scotland, namely the English.  There are something like 400,000 people resident in the country who were born in England.  For many of those, their place of birth is an incidental detail (e.g. as is the case for Alistair Darling), because their heritage is otherwise Scottish, because their formative years were spent mainly in Scotland or because of any number of other considerations.  Nonetheless, for most of these people it may well be the case that being English is their primary identity and that’s possibly true for some of their children as well.  By all accounts, most of this section of the population voted No to independence.

Where we end up with a hopelessly polarised society is if we let our politics align itself along lines of ethnic (including religious) identity.  For that reason, the existence of the group styling itself as “English Scots for Yes” is something to be celebrated, no matter your own view on the independence question.  The playwright Alan Bissett is a prominent Yes supporter and also an unapologetic Rangers fan – would that there were more like him. I’m completely serious in saying that I’d welcome the creation of a “Celts for the Union” campaign group, for the same reason.

Celtic supporters have long endured being dismissed as paranoid, as seeing only prejudice at every turn. I’m not going to dwell on this here, except (a) on the one hand, to acknowledge that not every poor decision necessarily has its origin in bias and (b) on the other hand, to say that it often did seem that any complaint was dismissed automatically as being driven by the “chip on the shoulder“ rather than there being any allowance for the possibility of a genuine grievance,  which reaction did nothing other than to stoke the embers of resentment.  What we don’t need is, in this respect, for Rangers to be the new Celtic.

If Rangers supporters feel assailed from all sides then a group mentality will prevail.  Standing together against the world will become the dominant mindset.  That will do nothing other than reinforce the equating of loyalty to Rangers with support for Unionism (in both senses).  It  will create the opportunity for exploitation by darkly cynical moves, such as the recent one by the Tory MSP Murdo Fraser (see his tweet at this link, courtesy of Wings Over Scotland).

Let’s acknowledge genuine grievance when it arises, without qualification or distraction. Anything else is an own goal, which will backfire on us.

Building a just, prosperous and inclusive Scottish society should be our collective aim, our own goal in a different sense.  Independence may or may not be the best way of achieving that.  (I’m still inclined to judge that it is, but it’s not an article of faith for me.)

What ought to outrank anything else, though, is that we cannot make progress if we let ourselves become a polarised society.





1.  I’m referring here of course to the referendum on independence, but my guess is that this will apply equally to the aftermath of the one on Europe.

2.  I’m going to ignore as a distraction the debate over old club / new club as it applies to Rangers.  Please don’t bother trying to correct me on some finer point of usage.

3.   I commented immediately on Twitter myself.

4.  I still don’t know what to make of this aspect, which gets more remarkable by the day.  I await the conspiracy theories with interest.

5.  All I will say is that on its own a still photograph is often misleading: what looks like an offensive move may in fact have been a defensive one, for example.  You need more than a single snapshot in time to be able to tell.  The foreshortening effect of a telephoto lens can make people appear much closer together than they really were.  And so on.

6.  The rise since the Second World War of the Catholic component of the middle class is something worthy of its own study.  Part of that story is the degree of continued loyalty to the Labour Party despite the rise in social status – though that may be more of a Scottish trait in general rather than a specifically Catholic one – but it’s equally true that there are many Tory RCs now as well.  For some, the achievement was not so much the breaching of the walls of the bastions of privilege, but rather the settling in comfort within them.  Not every lawyer remains radical, it should be observed.

7.  Some will argue that it’s just a manifestation of an anti-Britishness that’s always been there, but I think that misses the point.  To my parents’ generation, the central institutions of the UK promised a measure of protection against the day-to-day prejudices of Scottish society.  The downsides of the British regime – such as being excluded from marrying into the Royal Family and from becoming Lord Chancellor – were things we could easily live with.  The SNP in particular was viewed as being as anti-Catholic as anyone, which fact throws into relief the scale of the transformation in attitude that seems to have occurred.

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