Angus Robertson MP, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, loudly insists that a ‘Social Union’ will survive a formal split. Scotland will not move into a post-British future at all but through the crown, the armed forces, the BBC the National Health Service and now its seems a common currency, the pound sterling, there will be a durable social union.
To some sceptical minds, this ‘Britishness after Britain’ ploy is a softening up process designed to convince bashful and uncertain Scots to take that parachute leap towards independence. Suddenly with the crisis of existence confronting Glasgow Rangers football club the SNP has the opportunity to show that it in privileging the social union, it really means what it says. The wider identity of this iconic football club is bound up with a sense of Britishness, defensive even intransigent and to many eyes antediluvian, but Britishness nonetheless. Rangers has gone belly-up financially, menaced by a tax bill that may be as much as £75 million. It’s fate lies in the hands of a British state institution, HM Revenue and Customs. It could give it a chance of putting its house in order financially by instituting an extended period for repayments. If David Cameron backed such an initiative on his visit to Scotland this week, it would put every other sound bite about the union in the shade. A lifeline for Rangers could be justified not just because of its brand but on the basis of shoring up Glasgow’s fragile jobs base and the spending revenue which the club helps generate.
Perhaps the centre-right could be expected to seize the high-ground with a bold rescue operation If the leadership contest for the Scottish Tories had turned out differently or if a populist like Teddy Taylor (now aged 75 was still active in Scotland. Without having any spies in Whitehall or No 10, Alex Salmond probably doesn’t fear any such populist gambits from his main adversary. A far-seeing leader would instead see the chance of turning the table on the Tories and reaching out to a large section of Scottish society hitherto numb to the nationalist message. The SNP could be the force that eases Rangers’s pain by launching talks with business leaders to try to put together a fund that would keep it viable. Or the Scottish government could ask Cameron to work with it in a joint initiative towards this end.
This would be the social union in practice. The SNP’s appeal and ability to project a unifying brand of Scottishness would be far stronger if it simultaneously expropriated symbols of Britishness. It would be reaching out to a large segment of society hitherto numb to its attractions. Its appeal in Glasgow and the West of Scotland generally would be greatly augmented.
Jeff Breslin, the impressive lateral thinker behind the blog ‘Better Nation’ has offered a variant of this idea in a post arguing that Celtic FC should seize the chance to be the white knight who rides to the rescue of its erstwhile foe in its moment of danger. Others have argued in the press and the blogosphere that with the disappearance of Rangers, Scottish football will become a Lilliput in which Celtic will find it hard to shine because of the lack of serious competition, enabling the Hoops to raise their game. But Celtic’s Peter Lawell has said at the height of the crisis: ‘the way we look at it we don’t need Rangers’. With profits having tumbled from £7 million to a paltry £180,000 over the last year, this could well turn out to be a short-sighted and complacent view of Celtic’s overall strength in a very unstable environment for Scottish football.
It is likely that this caution about the plight of Rangers, and perhaps even a large dose of Schadenfreude, will be shared by the SNP also. The organized cultural Britishness which Rangers has stood for has been a source of huge frustration for the SNP which has been blocked electorally in the club’s West of Scotland heartland even as it has progressed elsewhere. Not a few SNP supporters might think they had won the jackpot if Celtic was also to be hit by a financial asteroid a few years hence. Sandra White, a veteran SNP MSP from Glasgow has publicly stated that ‘We cannot shy away from the fact that, for years and years, Scotland – Glasgow in particular – has suffered sectarianism, violence and abuse, all because of two football teams’. (Scottish Parliament Official Report, 24 May 2006, col 25959)
Probably far more grassroots Nationalists would endorse the perspective articulated by the self-styled rebel journalist’ Phil Mac Giolla Bhain who, writing in Scotzine on 6 February, described Rangers as the ‘grand central station of poison’ in Scottish football whose demise would be a welcome bit of ‘national housekeeping’. This journalist, responsible for breaking a string of stories that have placed Scottish football in the external spotlight, operates out of Co Donegal in the Irish Republic. It is impossible to tell if his jubilation about Rangers’s ordeal is shared across the fan base . But if it is, then it suggests that this set of footballing underdogs are not that much different from their former overlords when they find themselves in the ascendancy.
I am convinced that there are plenty of Celtic fans who if they get any pleasure from Rangers’s discomfiture will quickly realise that its disappearance is bad news for football and perhaps also for community relations in the West of Scotland.
Tensons will rise far away from Ibrox and Parkhead if distraught fans, deprived of a club to regularly support, find that they are being mocked and belittled by their old rivals. Celtic are likely to lose the moral high ground if the cold accountancy view of Peter Lawwell is reinforced by unbound glee among the Celtic faithful as shown at Inverness on 4 February when the hardcore yelled ecstatically that ‘the H*ns are going bust’.
The dire crisis Rangers finds itself opens up an opportunity for footballing rivals and also political rivals to display imagination and magnanimity. If Scotland and Britain’s political leaders agreed that saving Rangers was a win-win situation for themselves and for Scotland as a whole, then the trench warfare that passes for discourse in Scotland would be put aside. If a team with 140 years of history goes to the wall and those in football and politics who feared the potency of its brand, quietly celebrate, then it will show that Scotland is going nowhere fast. The
cards are simply being reshuffled as new players come to the table with the same mindset as their predecessors. A small-minded and internecine Scotland can face the future confident that not much will change whatever flags flutter over public buildings or stadia.
Written by Tom Gallagher
Tom Gallagher’s book the Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism. Was published by Hurst & co in 2009 and a new edition published by Columbia University Press in 2011.