18 January 2010

Blame It On The Scots

Commentators have long suggested that Scots are 90-minute nationalists, avid supporters of all that is Scottish for the duration of any sporting match against England, then placid Brits again when it is over, at least until the next round. To my knowledge, nobody ever took the 90-minute claim quite as far as former England rugby hooker Brian Moore, though.

According to the Scotsmen, Moore’s new autobiography makes the claim that Scotland’s 1990 Grand Slam victory was the result, not of skill on the pitch, but of “hatred over the imposition of the poll tax by Margaret Thatcher’s government, as well as anti-English fervour.” Evidently bigotry was more powerful that the tackle. The great Scottish tactic, he claims, was to “use the home crowd to pressure us throughout the game.” [Quick Disclaimer: As an outsider to rugby, I find myself wondering whether there is anything out of the ordinary about using the crowd in this way—it is certainly commonplace in American football and in baseball.]

This claim raises at least three interesting nationalism-related issues that deserve our awareness.

First off, it is abundantly clear that sport often spawns a nationalist reaction. One of my students recently wrote a paper about the “miracle” on ice in 1980, for example, in which the American ice hockey team managed to beat the Russians for the first time in many years. Although I was fairly young in 1980, I certainly remember the excitement—not only about the hockey team, but also surrounding Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in speed skating. I myself was so thrilled by the strong showing of American cyclists in 1984 that I took up bicycle racing—a love affair that continues to this day.

According to social psychologist Michael Billig, the strongest nationalisms are usually “banal.” He writes “nationalism only strikes the established nation-states on special occasions. Crises, such as the Falklands or Gulf Wars, infect a sore spot, causing bodily fevers: the symptoms are an inflamed rhetoric and an outbreak of ensigns. But the irruption soon dies down; the temperature passes; the flags are rolled up; and, then, it is business as usual” (Billig, 5). Sport frequently provides just such a “special occasion.” The excitement on the pitch, the notion that it is “us” against “them,” rises to the surface. When two football clubs meet, regional, class, and sometimes even religious identities (note the Old Firm teams in Glasgow, Scotland) are spawned by the excitement. When two national teams confront one another, the same thing happens, but it is national identity that unfurls the flag.

Next, Moore raises the question of anti-Thatcher sentiment and anti-English bigotry. Let’s take these separately. It is doubtless true that Scottish fans were especially excited about the 1990 rugby Grand Slam. According to sociologist David McCrone, “the Thatcherite project was largely perceived north of the border as an alien, an English, political creed” (McCrone, 32). The poll tax was one of the great symbols of this alien invasion. Many Scots felt that Thatcher was testing it out on them—another attack on the Scots by a tyrannical English person. Thatcher was just another Edward (“Longshanks”) I. Some Scots probably even imagined that, should Thatcher die before leaving office, the “Abominable hairdo” would demand that her bones be stripped of flesh and carried before an invading army of poll tax collectors—not unlike Edward reportedly did in the early fourteenth century.

The claim that anti-English bigotry was to blame is a little bit more difficult to accept. Yes, it is true that the Anglo-Scottish rivalry goes back a very long way. After all, Scottish churchmen and nobles did produce one of the more poetic medieval letters to the papacy, the Declaration of Arbroath, which rather beautifully calls for Scottish self-determination. While not the example of modern nationalism claimed by many Scottish nationalists and a few scholars, the declaration certainly shows a strong sense of grievance among many Scots toward England. Similar anti-England moments arise quite often thereafter, even after Scotland joined Great Britain in 1707. After all, while the Irish Home Rule movement gets most of the press, the Scots, evidently inspired by Irish Party leader Charles Stewart Parnell, had one too.

But Moore is ahistorical if he is suggesting that anti-England sentiment was the same as anti-English sentiment. Sifting through piles of newspapers and other sources, one is hard-pressed to find much in the way of widespread anti-Englishness in Scotland before 1992/1993. Prior to that slightly later period, there were certainly localized concerns about incoming English “white settlers,” but it pushes things to suggest that most Scots had anything seriously against the English themselves.

Then something happened. Opinion polls suggested that the 1992 General Election would be a watershed. For the first time, Scots angered by far too many years of Thatcherite rule, were finally going to vote overwhelmingly for the Scottish National Party and for independence. Excitement rose to a fever pitch. Then Scots voted pretty much as they always had. A few districts voted for Tories, most voted for Labour, and the usual suspects voted for the SNP or for other parties. More extreme nationalists were outraged and, all at once, a new argument surfaced. The “white settler” argument was retooled, nineteenth century racial ideas about a hierarchy of white races were dusted off, and anti-English racism poured onto the pages of Scottish and English newspapers. Even the Scottish National Liberation Army, never before “racist” in orientation, launched a campaign against English “settlers.” Although anti-English racism was the purview of a tiny minority, the change in tone was notable. Yet, as I say, however, the 1990 Rugby Grand Slam was a couple of years before all of this took place.

In the end, Moore’s autobiography sounds more than a little like sour grapes—an aging sportsman anxious to cast his career in a brighter light, erasing the disappointment of 1990. Yet that having been said, his claims nevertheless raise issues that are very worthy of study by students of nationalism. The place of sport in national consciousness, the response to the political policies of dominant national groups by members of stateless-nations, and the issue of “ethnic nationalism” all deserve considerable attention.

Works Cited

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).

McCrone, David. Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Stateless Nation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

1 comment:

  1. see
    Kelly, J. (2008) Flowers of Scotland? Rugby Union, National Identities and Class Distinction. Stadion: International Journal of the History of Sport, 34 (1) 83-99.