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Quintessentially British? – Scottish Review of Books
by Private: Harry McGrath

Quintessentially British?

September 15, 2014 | by Private: Harry McGrath

Born Under a Union Flag is an interesting title. It may derive from the song ‘I was born under a Union Jack’ which was adapted by Rangers fans from Lee Marvin’s hit record ‘Wanderin’ Star’. The words of the adaptation, according to Rangers historian Graham Walker in one of thirteen essays contained here, promoted ‘a Britishness that was edgy, insecure, suspicious of betrayal and requiring, in the old Orange catch phrase “eternal vigilance”.’ However, there is also an echo of Albert King’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. ‘If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all’ may not echo around Ibrox as ‘Union Jack’ once did, but it is closer to the spirit of the times. 

The overall purpose of the book is also not entirely clear. In the foreword, Professor Adam Tompkins states that ‘the argument is not about ‘Scottish or British’, as if we can be only one of these things, but ‘how do we best realise our mixed and complex identities: together in Union or together simply as neighbours who share the same island?’ This promises some form of Linda Colley/Christopher Smout multiple identity approach to the relationship between Rangers, Britain and Scottish independence which sounds interesting if a bit old-fashioned.  The first paragraph of the editors’ introduction, however, asks ‘where does Scottishness end and Britishness begin?’ There is no place there for Tompkins’ ‘complex identities’.

The editors, Alan Bissett and Alasdair McKillop, go on to make a case for Rangers being stereotyped as ‘quintessentially British’ even though its fans disagree on a number of things including how to vote in the Scottish referendum.  They offer themselves as proof: one is a Unionist, the other a Yes activist. In addition, their contributors bring ‘a unique perspective on the independence issue – whether Scottish or British – on what Rangers F.C. represent.’  The repeated insistence on Scottish or British doesn’t inspire confidence nor does an ever-narrowing remit which is eventually reduced to: ‘In short we wanted to ask: what do Rangers mean to Scotland and what does Scotland mean to Rangers? What do Rangers mean to Britain and what does Britain mean to Rangers?’

Fortunately, whatever direction came from the editors it was ignored by the best essayists. Gail Richardson, a socialist and feminist blogger, shows little interest in what Rangers mean to Scotland or any of the other permutations. Instead she embarks on a fascinating exploration of what Rangers mean to her while picking up bonus points for best essay title with ‘A Hand-Wringers Tale’. Richardson is an atheist and a republican who believes ‘the best interests of Scotland will be served by self-determination’. She is particularly good on fan ownership which she links to a proposed amendment by the Green Party to the Community Power and Renewal Bill. Rangers’ fans, she says, are resistant to ownership either because they are used to ‘sugar daddies’ or see fan ownership ‘as a form of socialism’.

This attitude fits Graham Walker’s general thesis that Rangers are a club with a ‘thrawn refusal to conform to the mood or the times’ as indicated by parts of the Ibrox song repertoire and its failure to sign a Catholic until 1989. Former Herald editor Harry Reid, an Aberdeen fan who doesn’t like Rangers and ‘never will’, also believes that the club is out of step with history. Unionist identity, he argues, is ‘neither helpful nor relevant in the current political, cultural and sociological climate’. Instead ‘when Scotland is contending for its independence, Rangers FC can surely discover in its rich history and its deep roots a truly Scottish identity that is inclusive and progressive’.

In his own essay McKillop argues that Rangers needs a written constitution. This would enshrine ‘Rangers values’ and make it clear why they are ‘unique’. McKillop’s faith is immediately countered by ex-head teacher and iconoclast Alex Wood. Wood doesn’t believe in ‘unique values’ or, indeed, any positive spin around Rangers: ‘This former Rangers fan will be voting Yes. Although undermining traditional Rangers culture will not be the purpose of that vote it would…be a happy bi-product.’

Up to this point, the absence of a grand vision isn’t detrimental as contributors take the argument in interesting directions. However, the essay ‘Two Rangers Fans Debate National Identity’, which pits Alan Bissett against John DC Gow, signals the start of a prolonged slump. Their ‘debate’ generates more heat than light with Bissett taking a line on Union Jacks, militarism and imperialism and Gow finding innumerable ways to accuse him of stereotyping. Pamela Thornton’s argument in the following essay that Rangers ‘are a football team and nothing else’ would have put a stop to the whole thing, if only it were true.

The second half of the book is driven primarily by males with personal agendas. A particular low point is the juxtaposition of essays by Labour MP John Robertson and Will McLeish, former special adviser to Alex Salmond. Robertson’s is a tiresome paean to Labour which is ‘a much more inclusive party than some others’. McLeish regurgitates the familiar details of HMRC’s actions against Rangers in order to show how much better things would be under ‘a more transparent, efficient and fairer [tax] system’ in an independent Scotland.

By now the early promise of the book is a fading memory but fortunately (the editors may deserve credit here) the best has been kept for last. In ‘Jimmy Reid’s Govan’ his daughter Eileen eschews tribalism, celebrates mixed-marriage and has interesting things to say about growing up in Govan and her family’s relationship with the local team, Rangers.  She invokes Ernest Gellner in support of her claim that ‘Scots need to develop a better nose for distinguishing traditions worth preserving from those that should never have been allowed to take root in the first place.’ Reid has both halves of the Old Firm in mind and, uniquely among the essayists here, is prepared to defend the Offensive Behaviour and Offensive Communications (Scotland) Act. She is as brave as she is eloquent. Like football and the independence debate in general, Born Under a Union Flag would be better if it had more women in it.

Born Under a Union Flag: Rangers, Britain and Scottish Independence

Alan Bissett and Alasdair McKillop (eds)

Luath Press, £8.99, ISBN 978 191002115, PP160

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