“Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that.”: Of Football and Diverging Flags (The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream Pt.2)

In the previous post in this series (intended to pretentiously mirror the ‘Thrie/Four Estaits’ – my apologies), I noted the role of some of the 1950s movements towards self-determination and devolution, in which it could be argued that the Church of Scotland had played an occasional hand (e.g. the Scottish Covenant). However, with the decline of the significance of the Churches over the post-war years, it would be hard to portray any church as a serious ‘Second Estait’ in modern Scottish culture.

But if one were simply looking for a much broader definition of ‘religion’…well, then, one might not have far to look for an alternative candidate for an opium of the masses…than football.

So what does the most globally popular game invented by Scots have to do with Scottish politics relating to the Referendum? As someone once put it: “Its not the losing that’s the worst part of being a Scotland football fan, it’s the hope.” Familiar sentiments, perhaps, to some of us on the morning of the 19th September last year…coming so close to winning with that series of polls but a few days earlier had given us that last minute hope (probably as surely as it rallied the enemies of Yes at the last minute), only to see the apocalyptic bleakness of the final result rise like a mushroom cloud over that grey morning. But – beyond clumsy metaphors – is there some more substantive significance in this sport?

It was once noted by a son of East Ayrshire, the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, that whereas some people talked about football as though it was a matter of life and death, it was actually “much more important than that”. Football has often been discussed in terms of being some expression or venting of social tension through proxies warring on the pitch – although it arguably has a history for doing quite the reverse of dissipating social conflicts when sectarian agendas have lain between the teams. But beyond local fixtures and derbies, the national game has often been presented as the most simple or obvious metaphor for vicarious warfare, with the symbolic sporting of national flags at either end of the stadium.

And when one turns one’s attention explicitly to the national teams of Scotland and England – apparently the two oldest national football teams in the world – and their senses of identity as expressed by the ‘heraldry’ borne by their supporters, the picture becomes quite interesting.

In the home where I grew up, much was made of the presentation of Scottish sportsmen and women within a British context: Scots always claimed as British, but English only ever referred to as English. A modern manifestation has been commonly remarked on with Andy Murray – British until he loses a match, at which point he spontaneously becomes a Scot. But this second aspect is of less interest to me – it is a projection (primarily) of the state broadcaster, and less to do with how Scots perceive themselves within the Union, as much as how they are being told to see themselves by the media (with an unavoidably implicit inferiority attached). Within football, my father would observe that it rarely took long in any international match by the England team – especially relating to a world cup campaign – before the commentators would mention winning the 1966 world cup, and maybe that this was the team that was going to do it again. As the celebrated soft drink advertisement succinctly put it “I had an Irn Bru in 1966 – but I don’t go on about it.” But that 1966 tournament probably marked a rather fascinating watershed in identity as far as England and Scotland were concerned.

Archival photographs of the time record a rather different looking set of crowds for both Scotland and England (although Scotland beat England the year after their world cup victory, they did not qualify for the world cup during that decade) compared to today. The union flags are very much in evidence in both crowds – something largely unthinkable in a Scotland football crowd today – and the St George’s Cross virtually absent from the England crowd. Fast forward a few years, and the picture is radically changed – the St George’s are out in force with nary a union flag visible, and the Saltires are rampant in the Scotland crowds. Was this event really a turning point in the British identity, with a UKIP-like rise in a sense of Englishness, displacing the Scottish component out of ‘Britishness’? I am not suggesting that winning one sports tournament caused a reassessment of their own identity by those who called themselves English – but rather that it gave a vehicle to express their inner sense that English success was British success…because the two terms were – to many of them – entirely synonymous, and the words so interchangeable that they were frequently used in that way during news and sports coverage. Such a repackaging of Britain, wherein Scots had grown up believing that they were in an equal partnership, then were suddenly finding themselves on the outskirts of something approaching a Greater England mentality, inevitably provoked a backlash: the rise of the Saltires in the Scotland supporters’ ranks, and the other highlight of the 1978 world cup campaign that was not Archie Gemmill, namely Andy Cameron’s chart-topping (well, it got to number 6) ditty ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’: “We’re representing Britain, And we’re gaunny do or die, England cannae dae it, ‘Cos they didnae qualify!”. This was more than poking fun, this was bursting a vainglorious bubble, puncturing an arrogant conceit trumpeted for years from the media – that for once there would be a world cup that was not wall-to-wall England coverage, regardless of how many of the ‘home nations’ were playing. [Of course, the media got their revenge in Argentina, with the harrying of the team at every turn in what at the time was a novel tabloid media attack dog style by broadcasters in particular – Trevor MacDonald, please do take a bow -…but that is quite another story.]

Similarly ‘that’ epic piece of monologue by the Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien at the end of their triumphant game against England in 1981 (“Maggie Thatcher – can you hear me Maggie Thatcher? – we gave your boys a HELL of a beating tonight…”) was played to death on Radio Scotland News the next morning, with noone in the studio concealing their amusement. Another small nation had struck a blow against that pomposity. The increasingly popular ‘Anyone But England’ jerseys are a recent iteration of that same expression.

During the Referendum campaign, some unionist voices complained with much annoyance at the way that the Saltire had been ‘appropriated’ by the nationalist side – as though it could be appropriated by the unionist one? – but this somewhat pales in comparison to what I would argue is the more stealthy appropriation of the union flag as solely for England in those post-war years. Another comment from during the Referendum campaign comes to mind: “We’re not leaving Britain – Britain left us long ago.” One could make the case that it was this dispossession that rendered the union flag suddenly redundant, obsolete, as a symbol for Scotland football fans. Whether it was solely a response to poor media handling after the 1966 tournament, or a symptom of a broader reaction within Scotland to some other repackaging of their identity…well, in that debate, there’s still all to play for.

Jim Sillars may well have rebuked Scots in the past for being “90 minute patriots”, but the evidence of a changing perception of Scotland as being part of Britain or not can be viewed on the stands: the historical images of the flags carried by those football crowds record the undeniable changes over time, all the way to the present day. And as you look at them, it is worth reflecting on just how unimaginable it would now be for those union flags to be anywhere near as prevalent in a crowd of Scotland supporters again.


“Are we still the 90-minute patriots of the 1970s-80s, who, when put on the spot, faced with full responsibility for ourselves, ran for cover as a province of England? Are we, like the team that Craig Levein fielded against the Czech Republic, desperate for a draw, which is what devolution is in the political arena?” (Jim Sillars, March 11th 2014)

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