Daily Archives: May 17, 2008

Rangers Fans And the Break-Up Of Britain – Column 17.5.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 17.5.08

BACK IN THE mid-1990’s, when the Northern Ireland peace deal that eventually became the agreement of 1998 was just beginning to take shape, I had the memorable experience – it felt like a privilege, at the time – of sitting in on a couple of sessions of a body called the Opsahl Commission.  Chaired by a distinguished Norwegian jurist, it went into the conflict-torn working-class communities of Northern Ireland to ask the people what they needed for a peaceful future.  I saw the commissioners take evidence in the nationalist Falls Road and the loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast; and I will never forget the contrasting moods of the two communities.  They lived cheek by jowl in the intimate space of inner-city Belfast, and they had both suffered horribly during the years of violence.

Yet the people on the nationalist side – perhaps partly inspired by the rapidly-growing confidence of Ireland itself in those years – seemed energised, positive, convinced that they had been campaigning in a just cause, and that they were about to achieve some measure of moral victory.  Whereas the people from the inner-city Protestant areas seemed utterly defeated; neither understood nor liked by the British state they loved, they felt betrayed and out of time, as if the once-powerful Unionist identity they had embraced so fiercely had evaporated in their arms, leaving them with nothing but despair.  Identity politics, after all, is the politics of belonging defined by anything other than wealth or class.  And the one reliable rule about it is that in any given situation, the group that will hate most bitterly, and lash out most unpredictably, is the one that feels itself losing power, and slipping from a position of dominance into one of decline.

And I think it’s against that background that we have to consider the events in Manchester on Wednesday night, when  a small minority of the Rangers fans gathered in the city for the UEFA Cup Final – a few hundred men out of a crowd estimated at almost 200,000 people – were seen attacking police and parked cars, looting a branch of Boots, and generally smashing up the city centre.   Some commentators, of course, have not been slow to deploy the usual explanations and excuses, from lax application of drinking laws to over-reaction by the police.

The brute fact is, though, that this group of Rangers fans has  generated images of serious misconduct outside Scotland not seen among Scottish football supporters for many years – years in which we have often preened ourselves on the post-modern irony and cultural urbanity of our Tartan Army abroad, as contrasted with the supposedly street-fighting English support.  And if we want to understand why other groups of Scottish fans have managed to avoid this kind of incident outside Scotland, while Rangers in Manchester did not, then we should grasp the basic truth that Scotland fans generally feel good about themselves because they are representing a nascent identity, one rediscovering its modern, forward-looking self after centuries of relative subordination.

Whereas Rangers fans – not unlike post-imperial England fans abroad – struggle with the constant feel-bad factor of representing an old, once-dominant identity (in this case working-class, Protestant and Unionist) that is now more obviously in decline with every passing day.  On one hand, they go into battle embracing the Union and all its insignia.  Yet on the other hand, in a low-level replay of what happened to the Loyalists of Northern Ireland, their aggression, their tribalism, and their residual passion for a cause long forgotten by most modern Britons, drives a fatal wedge between them and the people of England, and helps to weaken the Union they love.  So far as Manchester is concerned, a baying mob of drunken Scots – ungrateful, over-subsidised, and currently making a hash of running the UK government – had a go at its police force on Wednesday night; and they do not care what kind of Scots they were, or whether the shorts they wore featured Union Jacks, Celtic hoops, or St. Andrew’s flags.

Here in Scotland, if we were seriously interested in healing our sectarian divide, we might be wise to respond to events in Manchester not by condemning Rangers as a mere blot on the cultural landscape – tempting though that sometimes is – but by trying to recapture a fuller sense of what the Protestant tradition, now reduced to an ugly football chant, has really meant in our history.  This week of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and of Gordon Brown’s first address to it, is as good a time as any to recall what that tradition has contributed to our history, and to drop the habit of talking – as many lazy UK commentators now do – as if Catholicism were the only substantial form of Christianity left standing.

In the field of immediate Anglo-Scottish politics, though, such cultural subtleties are unlikely to play much of a part.  By chance, I spent Wednesday evening at the launch in Edinburgh of a new collection of essays on the Union of 1707, a splendid event at which some of the finest academic minds ever to engage with the story of the British state could be seen moving towards the conclusion that its days may be numbered.  During the evening – before any word came of trouble in Manchester – there was much ribaldry about the residual Union Jack patriotism of the Rangers fans, given the subject under debate.  But it would be a colossal final irony for those fans if they were to realise, a decade on, that they set off for Manchester last Wednesday in their John Bull underpants; only to find themselves playing a small but significant symbolic role in the gathering psychodrama of Anglo-Scottish tension, and in the eventual break-up of Britain.