Hampden Park, Glasgow, Monday 4th September 2017.
The hope may yet kill us, but the dream is still alive.
What on earth is happening to my beloved national football team? A routine and stress free victory over a tricky Lithuania in Vilnius on Friday night was followed on Monday by a thoroughly professional win over Malta by a visibly happy and increasingly confident Scotland side that has suddenly realised, after taking ten points from a possible twelve (and coming within a late England equaliser of winning four games on the bounce) that it is actually quite good at football after all.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Malta at home is the sort of challenge that normally brings battle-weary tartan army foot soldiers like me out in a cold sweat as we recall ancient humiliations against Iran, Costa Rica and the Faeroe Islands, but when Cristophe Berra put us ahead after nine minutes I could just enjoy the spectacle on a balmy Glasgow night. After the outstanding Leigh Griffiths added a second just after the break, I couldn’t have been more relaxed had I been sitting on my couch at home enjoying a dram. There’s work to do, but we’ve now got what American political commentators call “The Big Mo” – momentum. Maybe I should look out that Russian phrase book after all, just in case.
During the pre-match curry and bevvy, the discussion, as ever, moved onto the wider world. After all, Scottish football fans have always brought their politics to the match, and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of the subject of Gordon Strachan’s baffling omission of Callum MacGregor from his starting eleven – although we gave it a good go.
One of our small group asked: in terms of Scotland, where are we up to? It’s a great question. Project Fear keeps on rolling. The successful completion of the Queensferry Crossing, on time and £250m under budget, presents a difficulty for the Establishment, the incorporationist parties and the media as it doesn’t fit with the narrative that Scotland is too wee, too poor and too stupid to be trusted with big projects. It puts Scotland on a world stage and demonstrates us as competent and trustworthy, and that would never do. It’s difficult to call a country an economic basket case when you’re standing in front of a muckle big bridge that you didn’t help to fund. Not that it stops them trying, mind you.
Look, I get that it’s not remotely sensible to have an overwhelming belief that nothing your country does can ever be wrong. But is that really worse than an overwhelming belief that nothing your country does can ever be right? And do those who hold to the latter belief still consider themselves Scottish?
This fear that people might discover that Scotland might actually be more than capable of doing this and more without the help of the “broad shoulders” of the senior partner in this “precious family of nations” might explain much of what we’ve seen this week. It explains why Gordon Brown went unchallenged on his claim that he won the Forth Rail Bridge UNESCO status and scrapped the tolls (he did neither). It explains the flyover at the Queensferry Crossing opening of the Red Arrows. The red, white and blue plumes in their jet stream were sending out a not-too-subtle message: “you might have built this but we are in charge here. Know your place”. And why must buildings and bridges always be named after monarchs? Why can’t the new bridge be named after one of Scotland’s long and distinguished roll of engineers – like Sir William Arrol, who designed the original and best crossing? Why, come to that, is the new Glasgow hospital named after the Queen, and not after one of the extraordinary people – and Scotland is replete with them – who devoted their lives to medical advancement and the health of the nation? Giants whose shoulders today’s pioneers stand proudly upon, the further to see?
The week also saw the return of Tony Blair, who admitted that one of his regrets was not doing more to promote the UK as a nation, but that he didn’t regret supporting devolution as not doing so would have led to stronger calls for independence, as had happened in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now, I’m not Tony Blair but I suspect I would have lost a lot more sleep over invading Iraq and de-stabilising the middle-east than I would have done over the devolution settlement that I reluctantly brought about. I would be more vexed at causing the deaths of 100,000 people and transforming Al’ Qaeda from an essentially small time organisation to a global terror franchise, on the false premise of a thesis written and then altered by my own staff by an undergraduate student, and unleashing hell and misery across the globe. But maybe that’s just me.
That is perhaps for a future article. For now, it’s revealing that his priorities lay in promoting the UK as a “nation”. Effectively, devolution was a sop to the other nations of the UK – not that he brought it about. But he was effectively articulating what Enoch Powell said decades before: “Power devolved is power retained”. For unionists, Scotland is not a country. Britain is their country. The right to exercise even limited power in Scotland is lent, not given. The big house – Westminster – always wins.
Refreshed, intellectually (and otherwise), we headed for Hampden.
Here’s some interesting things about Monday’s opponents.
Geographically, Malta is about the size of Arran. It’s population is similar to that of Edinburgh. It stands thirteen points above the UK in healthcare ratings. Its unemployment levels are below those of the UK. Its primary industry is tourism, so it must be astonishing to outsiders that a tourist hub like Scotland can’t make it work, given that it benefits from the oil, whisky, fresh water, financial services and renewables that are denied to small countries like Malta, yet who still, counter-intuitively to some people, do absolutely fine – despite being independent since 1959.
So the game kicks off and the result is never in doubt. Scotland wins 2-0. We won with something to spare, but it occurred to me that if we’d competed on the basis on modernity, confidence and being a bona-fide nation, they’d have played us off the park. We’d have been the Brechin City to their Barcelona. We’d have been horsed. In the words of the legendary Scottish manager Tommy Docherty, we’d have been lucky to get nil.
All of this and more goes through my mind during the anthems. Flower of Scotland: A nation again? The tiny number of Malta fans in the ground belong to a nation state. I do not. This is the elephant in the room. The cultural cringe runs deeper than we’d care to admit. To paraphrase Ewan MacGregor in Trainspotting, we can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonised by. It’s a shite state of affairs, and all the Leigh Griffiths goals in the world isn’t going to change that.
Last night got me thinking. How is it that a person can represent Scotland passionately at international sport with the anthem ringing in their ears, but when it comes to having a vote at the United Nations or membership of the European Union, or even the most basic declaration of their nationality on the drop down box of any online application from passports and visas to bank accounts, Scotland is all of a sudden AWOL? What’s that about? We can be gallus yet feart. We boast, then we cower. We beg for a piece of what’s already ours.
For the half dozen or so Malta fans in the ground, it must have been baffling. “We can still rise now and be a nation again”, we sing. To which our Maltese friends must think: well, you could do it now. What’s stopping you? They must surely be baffled as to why we display a sort of bipolar, ambivalent, paradoxical national psyche and remain complicit in our country’s inferiority. On the one hand, they see the raucous patriotism and on the other, meek subservience.
But to return to my friend’s question, where are we at?
We are where we are. We are trapped in a political anachronism at odds with the needs of its people. So, with parliament returning today, and with apologies to first time readers (welcome, people, I’ll try to make it worth your while) this is how I see it.
The Supreme Court ruling, brought about by the brave and heroic Gina Millar, ruled that the triggering of Article 50, the leaving of the EU, required an act of Parliament. It also ruled that, legally, the devolved administrations need not be consulted over leaving Europe. Which rips up the Sewell Convention, whilst the £1bn bung by the Tories to the DUP ends the Barnett formula. There are thirteen new Tory MPs who could, and should, but failed, to demand the £2.9m of Barnett Consequentials for Scotland. Who could have used their leverage, as the most influential group of MPs in Scottish history, to secure monies for our most disadvantaged areas. But they didn’t, and they won’t. And they never will. Because it’s always party over country. It’s always self over side. And it’s always, always, profit over people. Brexit, if nothing else (and there is nothing else), tells us where we stand.
When the UK’s caretaker manager Teresa May returns to Downing Street this week, she will find that she is still in a job. Not because she is any good, but because no-one wants to be in the dug-out when the time comes to tell the fans that we’re exiting the European League without a deal. She is in office, but not in power.
At the top of her in-tray will be the Great Repeal Bill, which means that existing EU legislation will be copied across into domestic UK.
This matters. At the very least, the Scottish Government must be intimately involved in the generating of new agricultural policies. It must also insist on being a co-decision maker over the formation of new regimes. We’d be abdicating our responsibilities if we failed to get stuck in at every opportunity.
But there two difficulties. “Get on with the day job” has been the tiresome unionist / incorporationist mantra, but the irony is that the Tory sponsored permashambles that is Brexit means that we could well be spending the next eighteen months or so doing anything but, so consumed will we be with constitutional minutiae.
The second one is more troubling still. I have long seen Brexit as a coup, an opportunity for Westminster to roll back a devolution settlement that they always hated, and to chase the end-game of a return to direct rule from London and the abolition of a Scottish parliament that they openly detest.
The wording of the bill makes it clear. The constitution is a reserved matter. Powers are given, and powers are taken away. We can do nothing about the proposed bill because, as with everything else, we simply don’t have the numbers. It states, plainly and transparently, that it proposes to “re-reserve” Scottish farming to London. This means many things, but chief among them is that financial support is a UK treasury matter and farming is simply another fist banging at the door of an increasingly unsympathetic chancellor. You’ll have had your convergence uplift.
This, good people, is your Brave New World. Fancy it much, aye? No, me neither.
With the game over, I headed into the Glasgow night in need of something more stimulating than tea. Like the words of the song, I went homewards tae think again. And it’s time we all did the same.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News search our archives for more of his posts