by Douglas Gregory
Andy Murray can make sporting history if he beats Novac Djokovic in the men’s Australian Open tennis final on Sunday evening here in Australia – he will be the first ever Scot to win a tennis major. As a sports fan it can seem a blighted existence being Scottish – it is often a long time between drinks from the cup of sporting success. Given this it would be reasonable to assume that all sporting Scots will be cheering for Andy tomorrow, his success is success for Scotland and that’s good isn’t it? … Isn’t it?
Scottish not British
Andy has now, for years, downplayed his Scottishness – anyone who wishes to discuss Andy Murray and Scottish sporting success must first understand this strange state of affairs and the ‘ABE’ (anyone but England) issue. We all remember the spat that was created in 2006 by an angry London news coverage misinterpreting Andy’s off-hand comment to his friend English tennis player Tim Henman. When a reporter asked Andy (after being ribbed by Tim about Scotland not being at the football World Cup that year) who he would be supporting he jokingly answered ‘anyone but England’. Tim understood the context of Andy’s needling describing it as ‘banter’ and was unoffended but many commentators south of the border jumped upon the fact that 19 year old Scot would not be cajoled into supporting England. It was portrayed as an expression of gross anti-Englishness, it was all the more distasteful for them as they had all, seemingly, hitherto been such champions of Scottish sport. The London media spinned that the entire English nation had been slapped in the face by an uppity and ungrateful young Scot – the context of Andy’s comment was ignored as was the fact that Andy (who had departed his teenage years only weeks earlier) was not a spokesman for the entire Scottish nation. The commotion created low level cross border tensions and ironically entered the jest ‘ABE’ firmly into the Scottish lexicon of sporting terms.
Andy, naturally, remains cautious of the English media and tempers his comments about English sporting achievement or failure. He seems to accept that being portrayed as British (in England) makes personal, commercial sense. The London media and therefore sponsors are sensitive to strong Scottish expression, especially it seems, when it takes the form of ribbing a friend about the oldest rivalry in sport. Murray recognises that being an elite sportsman can, financially, set him up for life – but that he must make hay whilst the sun shines – best to go along with being British for the time being as it will offer juicier sponsorship contracts. This is a sad feature of our Union, we hear, ad nauseam, about English sporting triumphs (and more frequently about repeated footballing disasters) but it’s best for Andy Murray to be a good little Brit – so long as he is winning of course.
All this talk of Britishness cannot hide what we all know however – Andy Murray is Scottish – commentators know it, Saltire draped tennis fans know it, Joe Public knows it, he knows it.
Sport – a cultural phenomenon
So what, many might say – is sport that important? Does it make any difference if he wins or not? Perhaps sport has been perched on too high a pedestal. Perhaps we have bigger worries in the world. It would be reasonable to argue that such a focus on sport would be more acceptable in a world free of inequities, where the human experience was universally fairer. We can but dream. The reality is that we live in a society and time where sport is an increasingly powerful form of cultural expression and identity. Around the world, societies are becoming increasingly affluent, people have more leisure time – to both participate in and observe sport. Personal sporting participation, sporting club success (Rangers vs Celtic anyone?) and national sporting success are powerful cultural elements. There are of course those who would suggest that apart from sport being an unbalanced obsession it is merely another control mechanism the establishment put upon us masses. Putting aside such prickly ideological discussions I for one believe that national sporting success in our cultural paradigm is a positive force which is largely beneficial.
Sport – a positive force
Millennia ago the Romans understood that personal fitness and conditioning could help increase individual wellbeing, these benefits to the individual are now proven by science. Spectating and feeling included in national sporting success has many good features also: rates of sporting participation increase with a resultant health dividend, the young are given positive role models and the populace, generally, feel buoyed by such success. Success drives up Gross National Happiness (GNH) and increases national confidence.
This confidence can have clear economic benefits as shown in Spain after their world cup victory last year. Spanish Finance and Economy Minister Elena Salgado told reporters last July, “It generates confidence in our country, here and abroad, and that will also be good for GDP.” A Murray victory would not only be a personal triumph but would promote Scotland, make Scots feel proud to be Scottish and would be good for national confidence and expression. We are talking about strong forces here, forces well understood in Soviet era Eastern Europe and here in Australia.
As far back as the 1950s the Australian government, with less than half a century of national history, identity and achievement, decided that sporting success, particularly on the world stage could enable the creation of a distinct national identity. This understanding was crystalised in 1981 with the formation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), a ground breaking centre of excellence that laid the foundations of Australian dominance in many sports. Australia remains, on a per capita basis, the most successful sporting nation in the world and is a leader in sports science and enjoys regular GNH gains and confidence boosts from national sporting success. The AIS, now the blueprint for many similar institutes around the world, was not created because Australians are simply ‘sports mad’ it was a calculated government policy that would not only promote individual health and wellbeing but would provide a central plank of Australian culture and identity.
Rooting for Andy
As a tennis playing Scot who lives in Australia I will be right behind Andy, willing him on shot by shot, game by game. His victory can give me a powerful clubhouse riposte to the relentless sporting taunts of the locals.
Murray winning will be a Scottish success and while I am not suggesting that Scottish Unionists will not be rooting for Andy, I cannot help but feel that a Murray win does not line up with their political goals and vision of and for Scotland.
It is basic feature of Unionism to downplay Scottishness, its expression, success and confidence. It was only last week that Alex Salmond broke the news of several hundred new jobs to the Scottish Parliament, the response from the Unionists was, to say the least, muted. Conversely, perceived Scottish failures like the problems experienced by HBOS and RBS during the GFC were met by Scottish Labour supporters at their annual conference in 2008 with double fist pumps and whoops of delight.
It is an inescapable fact that the Unionists’ focus is Britain first and Scotland second (at best). A Scottish nationalist has a different world view where the interests of Scotland are paramount, not an afterthought. Unionists may indignantly say that nationalists in Scotland have no monopoly on national identity but the basic difference of focus between unionists and nationalists is immovable.
It has been said before that politics and sport do not mix, a sentiment that I would generally agree with. However, sport has been elevated to a lofty position in our society – the success of our sportsmen and women can profoundly affect our national confidence. There are clear political implications if Scots succeed in the sporting arena with those that put forward a full and normal view of Scottish life and society being the main beneficiaries, equally there negative implications when we are met with failure.
We will all be rooting for Andy, but maybe some of us a little more than others…