So it was the Calcutta Cup today. This is an occasion that elicits mixed emotions in me. Generally I support the English rugby team just as I support the English cricket and football teams. I was born and grew up in England and my Mum’s English and most of my friends are English. But both my grandparents on my Dad’s side were born in Scotland and he was born and grew up in Ireland. So I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Scotland by family association and, beyond that, a lot of respect for Scottishness as manifested in its intelligent straightforwardness, low tolerance for bullshit and impressive literary and intellectual history. Edinburgh is a favourite city; my parents met in Glasgow. This makes Scotland a sort of second team for me, so it’s difficult to wholeheartedly support England when they play them at anything. Plus when it comes to rugby, England are for some reason the most hated side in the world so it can be kind of uncomfortable supporting them.
Then there’s this:
It was 1990, and it was the final round of the Five Nations. Both England and Scotland were undefeated in the competition to that point so the winner would be champions and Grand Slam winners. The match was at Murrayfield. Here’s a lovely description of what happened; the short version is that despite being overwhelming favourites to win, England were crushed by a Scotland side full of determination and courage and grit and all those other powerful Scottish things (insert your own Irn Bru/cheap lager/deep-fried Mars bar joke here).
So the point is, I listen to that crowd singing Flower of Scotland and get chills. It’s one of the most magnificent examples of a spontaneous mega-choir you can come across. My English friend Pete says that he loves the sound of Flower of Scotland ringing around a stadium as much as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot or You’ll Never Walk Alone (frickin’ Liverpool fan, see), and you can see why. But Flower of Scotland also neatly embodies the thing that turns me off about Scotland. Can you be that impressed by a nation whose national anthem (OK, it’s not their official anthem but they do bloody love it) commemorates a victory in battle against their nearest neighbour, who they are now in a political union with? It’s not that English people need feel threatened by Scots lustily recalling the time 700 years ago when their guys killed our guys: it’s just sad that remembering that occasion makes Scottish people feel good. And it’s more than just a long-held grudge: it’s a grudge held in the face of centuries of actual friendship and cooperation. After all, 300 years after that particular battle, the king of Scotland inherited the English throne, and a hundred years later the countries entered their formal political union. There have been any number of Scottish prime ministers of the UK, tons of other major national political figures, popular people in film, TV, music, etc; Scotland participated enthusiastically in creating and running the British Empire and contributes a lot to the national armed forces. Yet they still get all fired up about the idea of killing us.
I think it’s because Scotland feels undervalued and overlooked by England. The notion that the English are a bunch of arrogant wankers thoroughly pervades Scottish society: indeed, even when at their most self-deprecating, it’s an article of faith in Scotland that the English are wankers – see Renton’s famous rant in Trainspotting. So no matter how much success Scotland achieves within the union, any hint that the English disregard them or see themselves as superior feeds the grudge. Perfect example is Jimmy Hill, the rather innocuous English football analyst. Before I moved to Scotland I had no idea that there was anything controversial about him apart from his large chin. But he’s this national hate figure up there, apparently because he’s a bit too nostalgic about England’s World Cup win in 1966. At least a decade after he stopped regularly appearing on the BBC’s football shows, Scottish advertising was still using him as an example of English arrogance.
I just wish Scotland could be proud of itself in a way that was not defined by opposition to England or any other country. I find it embarrassing when England tries to define itself as un-French or un-German or un-American: taking the inverse of someone else’s identity is a poor substitute for having your own. Especially when that someone is meant to be one of your best friends.