As regular readers of this column know, when it comes to sporting matters the ball is round. I’d always take an interest in the six nations, for sure, and Andy Irvine was a bit of a boyhood hero of mine, but if a Scotland rugby match clashed with a mid-table tussle between Stranraer and Forfar, then Stair Park it was. And as I grew more politically aware, the songs started to grate. I still find the spectacle of off-duty accountants and lawyers belting out a song about independence faintly ridiculous. “Rise and be a nation again”, sings the crowd. Well, you kind of didnae, I’d always think.
Mind you, I used watch it just to hear Bill McLaren’s commentary. I’d always smile when the English fly half was preparing to kick a penalty and a slightly inebriated fan in the bleachers started giving him the bird. “There’s a bit of ill-natured booing”, chided Bill, gently. And I’d think: good God Bill, Hawick must be a gey genteel place. You should try Stair Park of a Saturday when Ayr come to town for the derby.
So I quite enjoyed the tweeter who commented after Saturday’s epic 25-13 Calcutta Cup win on Saturday: “Scotland rugby fans enjoy their finest result since their famous 55-45 win in 2014”. It is of course a bit of a crude stereotype which probably falls apart at the slightest scrutiny – my fellow Farmers for Yes fair love their rugby. I play football with some pretty ardent unionists. And most folk I spoke to at the France game were actually just there for the game, the craic and the beer. But I was pretty scunnered in 2014 when Better Together wheeled out Scott Hastings, Andy Nicol et al to tell us to vote No because “The Lions is the epitome of Better Together”. Nonsense, obviously. Firstly, the Lions includes citizens of a proudly independent Ireland. And, secondly, the most recent Lions squad was notable for its almost complete absence of Scottish players. Some are more Better Together than others. As a metaphor for a political class that gave us the vow, that promised near-federalism, home rule, faster, safer change – but instead delivered EVEL and Brexit – it takes some beating.
This year I’ve put all of that aside, probably for good, not least because 2018 marks the centenary of the Great War which took the life of my great great uncle Eric Milroy, Scotland captain and war hero. He was one of thirty one Scotland rugby internationalists to be killed in the war. I’ve just been revisiting his letters. “We are in for some slight trouble tomorrow”, he writes. He was referring, of course, to the battle of the Somme.
My son, Lachlan, is one of the youngest descendants of Eric Milroy. On the afternoon of Sunday, 11th February 2018, he and a wee boy called Romain Burgun (a descendant of the French captain who played against Milroy, Marcel Burgun) walked onto the pitch at Murrayfield and delivered a trophy dedicated to their new ancestors, their descendants and, by extension, everyone.
So, suddenly, rugby has my attention. I’m watching Scotland, against all the odds and all the predictions, batter England for eighty minutes. The standout moment was the sublime, ridiculous, outrageous Finn Russell pass that led to the crucial Sean Maitland try. For anyone who watches their sport and understands these things, it rightly achieved, instantly, legendary status.
Where do you start? A rugby playing fan friend of mind afforded some perspective. Firstly, he said, Finn Russell is right handed and threw an inch-perfect pass with what was essentially his left hand. And put this in context. He’d been slaughtered by all and sundry for his performances against France and, particularly, Wales. His selection has been called into question and yet he gamely chose the high risk option. That’s unusually brave. That’s bottle. That takes cojones. Big cojones.
The reaction to Saturday’s victory is, I think, revealing. A lot of people fixated so much on the risky nature on the pass that they omitted the most significant detail. Finn Russell’s pass was so good, so brilliant, so perfect – that no white jersey would have got within a million miles of intercepting it. There’s something quintessentially Scottish about that. Praise comes with a disclaimer. I kent his faither. Know your place.
There was general astonishment that we’d actually won, as if, despite being fifth ranked highest team in the world, we are somehow less capable of success than our larger neighbours, both in sport and in the wider arena.
Yesterday, the Scotland Brexit Minister, Mike Russell, delivered an intelligent, honest and statesmanlike speech which outlined the need for a Scotland specific withdrawal bill. Such was the clarity and logic of his argument that you wanted to applaud. It was one of those moments when you realised that the Scottish Parliament, at its best, does some great things and is worth protecting.
The genius of Mike Russell’s proposition is that it isn’t about independence, which is why nobody is listening to the predictable unionist whining about a second and final independence referendum. He has, deftly, shifted the burden of proof. This is essentially a devolution argument.
The genius of the bill lies in its simplicity.
I’m watching this Holyrood Brexit Withdrawal Bill with great interest. It’s essentially a belt-and-braces approach that will ensure that the powers granted to Scotland in the devolution settlement that brought the Scottish Parliament about are retained in the event of Brexit. There might be more to it, but that seems to be, essentially, it.
It’s being angrily opposed already by opposition MSPs. Which leads me to ask: if you don’t support a piece of legislation that is designed to protect the devolution settlement that brought about the parliament you now sit in, then what exactly is the point of you? And why are you still here?
On September 18th 2014 we were asked a very few fundamental question: should Scotland be an independent country?
Today we ask some equally important questions. Who shall speak for Scotland? Stands Scotland where it did? And what kind of MSP votes against their own country?
The good news is that we will very soon be independent. And we won’t need the genius of Finn Russell – or Mike Russell – to make it happen.
We just have to believe. And to hold our nerve. If we do that, we’ll win. And it won’t be close.