A square go?

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by Robert Cassells

Scottish football and violence. Not a new story. The pugnacious Scot in a football top, teeth gritted, fists clenched, challenging the world to a square go. Pretty much the picture presented to the world for as long as anyone can remember.

Recently, and very depressingly, issues about the unacceptable level of aggression and physical violence in our national game have been more about what happens off-field than on the pitch itself. It’s indefensible and unsupportable and is, I’m sure, likely to change in the coming years as Scottish society rids itself of some of its more neanderthal behaviours.

Aggression is a bad thing: accepted, and yet there are occasions when we all experience it. Certainly football is not the only arena where rage can raise its ugly head. I’ve even experienced some of it recently myself. “All the talented people want to come to Westminster.” An unnamed Scottish Labour MP made this statement in response to The Scotsman enquiries about the flagging Labour campaign in the recent Scottish elections. It made my blood boil.

Actually, the cliché doesn’t do justice to my reaction. I did the whole fist-clenching, jaw-jutting, expletive-muttering thing, complete with the bit where you look around for someone to grab by the throat. Pretty much the archetypal, in-your-face kind of Scottish aggression we all deplore.

Embarrassing, really. The last time I was involved in any kind of physical scrap was about 40-odd years ago and I don’t remember it as one of my most glorious moments. But on reading that comment, I’d have been quite happy to have got the jacket off and given it a go.

I can only justify my rather childish reaction by saying that the view expressed encapsulates for me all that I hate about a particular aspect of the Scottish cringe: that desire to get away from Scotland and the Scots and drown yourself in that other, better, world which exists beyond these borders, particularly Westminster, where the ‘real’ power exists and where ‘real’ things matter.

Often expressed also is the view that Scots are ‘parochial’, that an interest in renewable energy in Scotland or the importance of the arts in Scottish society is small-minded and limited in comparison to concerns about the London transport system or how higher education is managed in England.

If you deconstruct the sentence you can see the patronising arrogance at the heart of it – “come to Westminster” indicating that the speaker is already there and has achieved the nirvana that is a place on the green benches; “talented people” must want to join that club and anyone with a contrary view must be, by definition, not talented.

Thankfully, it’s a view that’s been pretty much completely rejected by Scottish voters, although let’s not get too complacent on that one – a large proportion of those who voted still supported parties who see Holyrood as lower division, and that’s not taking into account half of the population who weren’t even motivated enough to vote at all.

Most Scots, however, believe that it’s better to have folk running things who see serving Scotland as their highest calling, rather than having people who are either on their way somewhere else or who have been passed over for a position in the Big Place. So maybe there’s nothing worth getting worked up about here. After all, the times they are a’changing and the Scottish cringe will soon be a thing of the past. And yet, and yet…

I’ve lived with the attitude for too long to believe that it will disappear in a burst of optimism following one remarkable election result. It’s been part of our national consciousness for so many generations that a lot of people aren’t even aware of their pre-programmed reaction to issues relating to Scotland and the Scots.

“Oh, the weather here’s awful! The school’s aren’t teaching the kids anything these days… See that litter? – you don’t get that abroad… Ach, we don’t make anything anymore… There’s nae work… The football’s rubbish, just rubbish… They politicians are all just the same – all in it for themselves – nothing’ll ever change…”

And on, and on. Who among us hasn’t uttered one of the above complaints, or something similar? And it’s not as if they’re all without foundation, just the usual complaints that you’ll find in any country in any part of the world.

And yet when it comes to Scotland there’s something else going on. A feeling that somehow we’re lacking in some way – in climate, economy, resources and culture – that we need to apologise for ourselves, explain to the others that, yes, we know we’re not up to much so we point it out so that no-one will think we haven’t noticed this for ourselves. A bit like admitting to your failings before the big boys can take the mickey, self-flagellation as a form of protection.

For example, the ‘too wee’ syndrome. How can any of my fellow Scots say that “we’re too wee”? How? Every vox pop carried out in Scotland over the past several months – and, my God, there have been enough – comes up with this little gem.

Anyone said this to the Danes? Or the Armenians, the Bosnians, Croatians, Cypriots, Estonians, Faroese, Finns, Georgians, Icelanders, Irish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Macedonians, Maltese, Moldovans, Norwegians or Slovakians? All of whom live in countries with the same population or less than Scotland. (And that’s not even taking into account the Bulgarians, the Austrians and the Swedes whose populations are also below the 10 million mark.)

Too wee? What ARE they talking about? It’s not as if Europe is filled with countries where the people are stumbling about unable to feed themselves and crying out for a larger neighbour to come along and take over the running of their country before they all starve to death or injure themselves by bumping into things.

And yet it’s clearly a deep-seated belief among many of my fellow Scots that this is exactly the situation that pertains to Scotland. Why? What makes us believe that we are almost unique in Europe – no, make that the world – in that we are incapable of managing our own affairs? I can feel the teeth clenching and the jaw protruding again, there’s that aggression coming on. But really! How did it come to this, where a nation has taken the ‘can-do’ attitude and inverted it into a ‘naw-we-canny’ attitude! Tempting to dismiss a fair number of our fellow Scots as numpties and move on.

But it isn’t entirely fair, is it, to blame folk who believe these things? Why wouldn’t they? – it’s what they’ve been told all their lives, and their parents and grandparents before them. We’re in this union because we need to be, because we wouldn’t survive outside it, because our children need us to commit to this thing otherwise their future will be narrow and poor and empty. And for all the recent talk of ‘stronger together’, let’s be clear that it has been this denigrating, fear-inducing mind-set that’s been used as a bulwark for the union for as long as I can remember.

Aggression is a bad thing, yes: but maybe there are some situations when a robust response is required, when getting angry about something is better than shrugging your shoulders and accepting things the way they are.

I have been guilty in the past of remarking glibly when some outbreak of violence is reported connected to football that “at least they care”. I fully accept that such a response is no justification for violent, anti-social behaviour. But then again, caring about something enough to get angry about it is no bad thing either.

It has long been felt, in the trivial wonder world of Scottish football and beyond, that if you are going to the express your feelings physically, it should be done fairly – hence the idea of ‘the square go’. Maybe we could keep the idea of fair, righteous anger and lose the urge to inflict hurt?

It’s what you do with that anger that counts, I suppose. Recently, the people of Scotland have expressed their feelings about the state of the nation through the use of their votes at the ballot box. I suspect that anger may have fuelled many in their choice of where to put their cross. That anger is still burning though. I believe that it’s fuelling a desire to create a nation anew. The people have started something. And I don’t think they’re finished yet.