Reader Comment by Robert Cassells
Some years ago, when the Great Lambini – or manager John Lambie to the more prosaic-minded –was a leader of men and the mighty Partick Thistle swayed proudly above their foes, a story was told of the wonderful magician’s cleverness and how he changed base metal to gold. And the story has been passed down through the years providing wonder to the admiring, inspiration to many and, occasionally, the opportunity for a writer to use it as an example of, well, something or other.
Anyway, it goes like this – there was a game on at Firhill and Thistle were struggling to find a way to impose their rightful superiority over whoever the major opposition were that day – Albion Rovers or someone – and the Jags centre forward was knocked unconscious by the brute centre-half of said major opposition. The centre-forward – Colin McGlashan was the man, a competent enough player, but not one to bother the consciousness of the Scotland manager, if you know what I mean – was carried to the side of the pitch and revived by the tried-and-tested approach of all Scottish football trainers down through the generations of pouring cold water over his head. The Great Lambini enquired as to the chances of his top scorer returning to the fray. The trainer shook his head mournfully, “Ah, don‟t know, Boss. He‟s conscious but he disnae know who he is”, to which Mr. Lambie replied, “Great! Tell him he‟s Pele and get him back on…”
Not quite water into wine, although even Colin McGlashan would accept he wasn‟t entirely up to the standards of the Greatest Footballer Ever to Draw Breath, but a fair attempt perhaps at the application of the theory that perception is everything.
So what‟s your point, caller? Well, with perception being as important as it is, it behoves us to consider the position of our national reputation and consider, perhaps, how ithers see us. And given that most of the world seems to be blithely ignorant of “that great wee country‟ called Scotland, and with a mind to the recent election results and the response to these from our nearest (and dearest) neighbour, England, we should perhaps contemplate the question occasionally forming on the lips of our southern neighbours: who do you think you are?
Or, to put it more in terms which captures some of the feelings coming our way from those south of the border: who the hell do you think you are?
There is no doubt that a lot of our English cousins view with equanimity the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, feeling that it‟s up to us to decide how we want our future to be formed and even, whisper it, feeling a bit envious that we might just get to run things differently from the kind of ministrations they are ‘enjoying’. Some might even consider a re-location to more northerly climes and a more compassionate and forward thinking society.
And then there‟s the others. Many, it has to be said, with access to word processors and contracts with English mainstream media outlets, who feel that we Scots are just getting a bit above ourselves and are displaying a shocking lack of gratitude towards our generous open-handed big cousins who have gone out of their way to support their impecunious relatives and aren‟t at all chuffed that their generosity is being responded to in such a manner. Biting the hand that feeds, and all that.
It‟s a mindset difficult to alter, this view that the Scots are just a load of whinging freeloaders out to get revenge for Culloden and Gascoigne‟s goal at Wembley. (Which was, I have to say, a thing of beauty. Although I still wouldn‟t describe it as my all-time favourite, unlike some former Scots-born Prime Minister I could mention.)
Now I know all the economic arguments that can turn this jaundiced view of Scotland‟s relationship with England on its head, but it‟s not about rational arguments and an objective totting up of financial accounts, is it? It‟s perception.
And the perception is clearly that they‟re bigger than us and have been looking after us for centuries and we should be duly grateful for that and continue as part of the happy band of brothers that is team GB.
I suspect few people reading this will need me to explain why this view of things doesn‟t sit comfortably with most Scots (outside of a few self-loathing specimens who still view ‘Scottishness’ as a burden and a shame), but it possibly does invite some consideration as to why this view holds such weight with so many English people and why they so resent the notion of an independent Scotland.
Whatever happens in the future, we‟re all still going to be part of the same island group, all sharing a broadly common language and culture, however much we celebrate the differences. We need to acknowledge now that the group which has to make the greatest accommodations to deal with these new national arrangements are the English. We, after all, have a fair idea of who we are. Do they?
The problem, I believe, goes beyond just the conflation of ‘Britain’ with ‘England’, although clearly that is an issue in itself which requires to be acknowledged. No, the problem stems, I think, from the difficulty our English cousins have with how they perceive themselves.
England has too often morphed into ‘Enger-lund’ in the consciousness of many for decent English folk to be comfortable with that particular identity any more: Union Jacks and bulldogs and the Dunkirk Spirit seem more the preserve of the nasty, brutish extreme right than anything else. So possibly that alternative story of being ‘British’, of sharing national values of decency and fairness, has an emotional resonance for them that it no longer necessarily has in Scotland.
The very existence of Scottish nationalism questions the English perception of themselves as being fair-minded supporters of the weak and the needy; the global defender of the principles of common decency and freedom: they think we want to tell the world a story where they‟re rapacious bullies out to plunder their closest neighbours. (Thanks, Mel.)
It‟s certainly not how I see them. I love the place. I holiday in England regularly. I have relatives there. English literature is my bread and butter – I could make a strong claim for Shakespeare as the most wonderful human being ever to walk the earth, for example.
It‟s the idea of ‘Britain’ I have a problem with. Many and often have been the attempts to define what it is to be ‘British’. John Major famously suggested it as “cycling home from evensong, sipping warm beer on the village green while watching cricket”; a patently nonsensical notion which clearly holds little meaning for anyone living on a Manchester housing estate, never mind the inhabitants of the Celtic nations.
So what does it mean? What story do we tell when we use this term?
My parents lived through an appalling world war; my grandparents experienced even worse in the first variety, so I understand what being British meant for them. It meant standing up for the underdog, for freedom and decency, for beliefs that are hard to mock and even for a Union Jack which was a symbol of something positive and worthwhile. And, yes, I do realise that the perception of Britain as a freedom-loving defender of the weak is one which would be laughed out of court in many parts of the globe where British imperial ambitions have caused pain, suffering and loss, but, again, that‟s not how it‟s perceived by some here.
However, to quote the great Bob Dylan, things have changed (or, to give the full, and perhaps more appropriate, version, “I used to care, but things have changed”). ‘Britain’ certainly holds no emotional resonance for me nor many other Scots: well, nothing positive anyway. So the notion of ‘tearing Britain apart’ or ‘breaking up the UK’ bothers us not a whit.
For many English people, though, it is a profoundly disturbing prospect. What story would they have to tell the world about themselves in the future? How do they define themselves if ‘British’ isn’t available?
Even on a simplistic level, what would they call what‟s left after Scotland goes? Greater England? EWNI? Not-so-Great Britain?
We all know our identity matters. It‟s why adopted children in a loving family seek out their birth parents. We want to know where we came from because it helps us get a sense of who we are.
The great John Lambie knew this and hoped to trade on it to inspire a journeyman footballer into something more; an approach which Thistle fans can testify he was extremely good at. Okay, there may have been few Pele moments at Firhill in those days, but many a player performed well above themselves because the Gaffer made them believe they could.
It‟s time for the peoples of these islands to do the same. We need to tell stories about ourselves, as Scots, English, Welsh and Irish, which will lift us to a level beyond where we are.
Perception matters. How we see ourselves defines how we respond to others. So for Scotland to thrive as an independent nation, we need a confident England as a neighbour.
Independence for England. Now there’s a thought.