By Alec Ross
Regular readers of this column will be aware of my love and fascination with the great Scottish manager Bill Shankly, whose success at building a footballing empire at Liverpool Football Club was only matched by his ability to coin many poetic aphorisms that often approached (and even surpassed) Wildean levels of insight, humour and genius. He famously unveiled his signing of the Dundee United defender Ron Yeats thus:
“Gentlemen of the press, this is Liverpool Football Club’s new centre back. He’s magnificent. I’d ask you gentlemen – don’t talk to him, just walk around him. He’s a colossus!”
He came from the same west of Scotland working class background that also produced managers like Jock Stein and Matt Busby, as well as the great sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney and his brother Willie. They were people for whom political discussion was as natural as breathing. For men like Bill Shankly, there was no dividing line between sport and politics. Always connect, wrote EM Forster, and the type of football that Shankly brought to Liverpool – everyone working hard for each other, covering for your colleague when he was having a bad game, side over self – was born in the Glenbuck mines when a failure to put in a shift put your pals in danger of injury – or worse. The total emphasis on teamwork that was the trademark of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool can be traced directly to the working practices of the people he was brought up with. I often think of Shankly when travelling through Ayrshire. To have worked in dark, dangerous conditions for ten hours a day and then get to play football in the fresh air of a Saturday? It must have been an almost spiritual experience.
“The socialism I believe in” he said, “isn’t really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life”.
Shankly is so inextricably linked with socialism that writer, Stephen Kelly said;
‘The football of Shankly was the football of socialism, it was the post-war government of Attlee, it was the miners, it was about the dignity of the working man”.
Shankly was entwined with politics and was friends with former Prime minister, Harold Wilson.
The sportswriter AJ Liebling once called sport “glorious triviality”, and as a description of something that excites, deflates, inspires but ultimately doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, it takes some beating. And yet. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Olympics to promote the Third Reich to the world. Joe Louis’ rematch boxing win against the German Max Schmeling in 1938 – a black man beating a Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy – resonated far beyond the sporting arena. In the modern era, the Great Britain union jackery that sees tatties from Fife bedecked in a union flag on the shelves of Morrisons comes directly from the promotion started by David Cameron for the 2012 olympics. Politicians have always understood the importance of sport as a campaigning tool
Bill Shankly understood that to build great teams you had to keep things simple. One of my favourite Shanklyisms concerns an instruction he was delivering to a young defender ahead of an important game.
“You’re a defender, son. You’re job is to defend. I dinnae want to see you in the opposition box. Understood, aye?”
Sure boss, replied the player. But what if I inadvertently find myself in the opposition box? What do I do then?
“Son, in that situation”, replied Shankly, “put it in the back of the net. We can discuss your options later”.
It’s easy to overcomplicate things.
Five years ago, in an act of cowardice, selfishness and epic self-harm, Scotland became the first country in the history of the world to vote against itself. We allowed ourselves to be tied up in knots over issues like currency and pensions and the price of a dog license. And although these things are important, it’s an academic exercise unless you have the power to decide for yourself what currency you wish to use and what your pension is worth and how much you pay to license your dog. We need to change the burden of proof. Rather than having to make the case for independence we must demand that British nationalists in Scotland make the case for our continuing membership of a union that doesn’t work for us and whose parliament clearly despises us. Indeed, it falls on us to ask, when MSPs of a unionist persuasion vote against both the Holyrood withdrawal Bill (Scotland voted to remain within the EU) and the Agricultural Bill (farming is devolved) – what are those MSPs actually for? What kind of person votes against her own parliament? And when they do, what is the point of them? And why are they still here?
Put it in the back of the net, son, and we can discuss your options later.
In 2014 we shanked it over the bar. And yet we are where we are.
If only we’d taken that advice in 2014. We didn’t, and the truth is that the British Establishment got such a scare that their post-indyref policy has been to make sure that Scotland can never go for independence again. They know fine that, in the event of a second (and final) independence referendum, they’d lose. So the tactic is to deny us the franchise. It’s all they have. It’s parking the bus, it’s anti-football.
I understand the view that the best way to independence is to secure a section 30 order from Westminster. But that isn’t going to happen.
The SNP conference convenes this week. There will rightly be discussion about currency, climate change, our relationship with the EU. The First Minister wrote a wonderful letter recently about Scotland being a welcoming place for people firth of here. But the truth is that a system that cedes power to a foreign government driven by xenophobia will only harm Scotland. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who considers the outsourcing of this policy to a foreign government as acceptable. Without power, the letter is simply warm words. Independence is about having the courage to be the type of people we claim to be. To walk the walk, rather than talk the talk. To boast but never cower.
It’s complicated but at the same time wonderfully simple.
“Should Scotland be an independent country?”
Let’s put it in the net. We’ve the rest of eternity to discuss our options.