openDemocracyUK: Opinion

By not taking the knee at the Euros, Scotland exposes its national myth

Many in Scotland believe racism is for the English and Americans. We, after all, are the underdogs. We’re the good guys. Right?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
12 June 2021, 12.00am
Scotland’s national team plans to stand during the national anthem when they play Czechia next weekJohanna Geron/Reuters/Alamy
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Johanna Geron/Reuters/Alamy

England is made up of 56 million people, most of whom have broadly progressive views. Most think the income gap between rich and poor is too high, hope for serious action to prevent climate breakdown and are broadly opposed to racism as they understand it.

And when a small group of them kneel on the turf of Wembley stadium this weekend to assert that Black lives matter, a majority of the 56 million will support them in doing so, whatever the right-wing media tells you.

But countries aren’t just the individuals who reside in them. They are the organisations and power structures that hold these people together and exclude ‘others’ at their borders. They have governments with social security programmes and military-industrial complexes, health services and armed police, taxation systems and prison systems.

Those things can operate only because we collectively grant them a social licence to do so, because they are expressions of communities we imagine into existence. And the acts of collective imagination which make these communities solid enough to build vast institutions on their backs don’t just happen by magic.

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When my daughter was born in January, she didn’t know she is Scottish. That is something she will come to learn – that she will be taught – by whom?

The theorist Benedict Anderson famously argued that it is the media – print capitalism, as he called it – which first convened modern nations.

TV nations – footy and the Royal Family

In December next year, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will try to ignore its hundredth birthday. While it likes to pretend it’s existed forever, the current version of the UK was created when Ireland became independent in 1922. Two months earlier, the main institution that convenes the UK, the BBC, will have celebrated its hundredth birthday: it was founded in October 1922, as the British Broadcasting Company.

The timing isn’t a coincidence. John Reith, the Scottish Unionist who founded the Beeb, once said that its purpose was to ensure that the chimes of Big Ben, “the clock which beats the time over the Houses of Parliament, in the centre of the Empire,” should be “heard echoing in the loneliest cottage in the land”.

And if modern national myths are stories told on our tellies and radios, then there are two shows that act as the primary pillars holding up the country; two series that consistently attract by far the biggest audiences: the royal soap opera and international sporting fixtures.

I probably really learned that I was Scottish from stories of Kings and Jacobite pretenders of old, from standing at Murrayfield rugby stadium, and from those three matches in the 1998 football world cup, the last time Scotland’s men performed on the world stage, before they came home too soon, and stayed here for a generation.

The challenge for myths, though, is always that they have to sew themselves in the firm turf of reality

Imbued in all of these televised stories are myths about national character and identity, who we mean by ‘we’ and what ‘we’ are. If you’re Scottish and follow any kind of sport, then you quickly learn that you’re an underdog, and, therefore, the good guys.

The challenge for myths, though, is always that they have to sew themselves in the firm turf of reality. And they have to constantly audition actors to perform them. And sometimes, those actors have ideas of their own, ideas shaped by their experiences of living in that reality. Meghan Markle is one such actor. And so are the English footballers who have made it clear that they will proudly take the knee when the Euros kick off this weekend.

It’s no surprise that so much resistance to the official narratives that make up our nationalisms has come from sport – football pitches are one of the few remaining stages to which working-class people have regular access. Neoliberalism has to give people in every class a belief that its children can one day access wealth and power, and for many of the most impoverished communities, the glamour of televised sport and the celebrity that comes with it is that fraying rope-ladder.

And those who have made it to the top have used the platform well.

When American football player Colin Kaepernick first took the knee during the US national anthem five years ago, he was refusing to participate in the lie that a collection of states that is torn apart by racial inequality and racist police violence is ‘United’. He was refusing to be an agent of US nationalism. With one crouch, he declared that the myth he was there to sell was a lie.

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When Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world last year after the murder of George Floyd, Black sports stars across the planet followed Kaepernick’s example, insisting that their own clubs and countries and nations address their own racisms, too. They would no longer perform the untruths that the countries whose shirts they wore and whose anthems they sang were united. All of our nations, they insisted, are torn apart by racist histories and racist presents.

Most people may believe that they oppose what they see as racism, but that doesn’t mean they see all the ways in which it runs through the core of our societies. We need to be told, and challenged, to listen and to learn.

And how those conversations play out in the Euros, which start next week, matters.

Scotland must take the knee

England has always had a much louder argument about racism than Scotland. If you were to crudely summarise the white English attitude to empire, it would be ‘it was great, and it was all us’. The equivalent attitude in Scotland has long been ‘it was terrible and it was all them’.

While England’s institutions spread moral panics about immigration, Scotland’s tended to look down on them. And when there are acts of state racism in Scotland – such as the recent attempted deportations in Glasgow, they tend to be blamed on the UK Home Office. The national myth in Scotland is that racism is for the English and Americans. It’s not something we need to do much about. We, after all, are the underdogs. We’re the good guys.

On the other hand, other English institutions have actively challenged the country’s racism. England manager Gareth Southgate has rightly been praised for kneeling alongside his players, and speaking out for them in response to the backlash against their protest.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s sporting bodies equivocate, speaking the inclusive language of officialdom but failing to support the kind of protest that actually challenges any of the racism written through Scotland’s national narrative, meaning they don’t generate any kind of backlash.

The players will, it has been announced, kneel next to England’s, in solidarity with England players against the racism of some of their own fans, but stand at their other matches. The problem, as they frame it, lies in England. We will once again fail to talk about many of Scotland’s domestic racisms, fail to confront the bigotry in our own stands, never mind root out the structural racism in our own institutions.

There is always fraught discussion about one kind of inter-community tension, particularly when it comes to football. The long running racist persecution of Irish migrants to Scotland’s main cities has long divided our national sport. But even as we argue about sectarianism, we try to pretend away our other racisms. After all, we’re the underdogs. We’re the good guys. We’re the friendly side who can be counted on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and have a great time doing it. Aren’t we?

We were imperial overlords across the planet for centuries. Our magnificent cities were built from the wealth of slavery

Lots of people have tried to puncture that nonsense. My own little campaign around Edinburgh’s statue of imperial crook Henry Dundas was about exactly that. We were imperial overlords across the planet for centuries. Our magnificent cities were built from the wealth of slavery.

Black Lives Matter protests here have highlighted the names of Black people killed by the police in Scotland, including the 31-year-old Sheku Bayoh, killed in Fife in 2015. But the mythology persists.

Next week, Scotland’s men’s football team will take the stage in the finals of an international tournament for the first time since 1998, when they face Czechia. And if, as planned, they stand and mumble their way through the national anthem, they will have missed an opportunity to highlight this conversation about Scotland’s own racism, our own imperial history, and our own need to challenge bigotry. We will have pretended again that it’s all England’s fault.

England’s team, on the other hand, can be proud. My colleague Anthony Barnett has long argued that England is a progressive country trapped in the institutions and mythology of the British state, and that the progressive, multiracial nature of its football team gives the best clue about what it might be like were it liberated from the dungeon of the Palace of Westminster.

There is nothing inherent about Scotland that makes us the good guys. And the Scotland team announcing they won’t take the knee next week, to widespread cheers of racists across the continent, is hardly a good start.

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