An unsporting politics? Elephant polo, bloodsports and tax haven Scotland

Many Scots see their nation as standing above the celebrations of the 'Great British Summer', both the Jubilee's trumpeting of privilege and the Olympics of neoliberal England. Is this justified? One way to find out is by examining the politics of Scotland's sport. 

Christian Eriksson
27 June 2012


Looking back on a weekend of royalism and forward to the Olympics, Scotland appears stuck between a Diamond Jubilee and a hard Olympic race. Unenthusiastic about monarchy, and practically excluded from Olympic celebrations, it is easy to conclude that Scotland has no stake in the ‘Great British Summer’.

There is a widespread view that Scotland’s political attitudes are of a different character to those in England. Much is made of the split between social democratic Scotland and neoliberal England, usually alongside arguments for a renewed social contract to reflect this difference. The “mind-crushing deference” towards wealth and privilege seen in England over the Jubilee celebrations has yet to overtake Scotland, others claim.

But how significant is this difference in reality? One way to find out is to examine the politics of Scotland’s sport.

It is safe to say that Scotland is not known as a nation of athletes. Barring football (which I’ll turn to shortly), the two sports of golf and rugby at which Scots do excel are currently non-Olympic. Elephant polo - a sport at which Scots have proved themselves world champions on a number of occasions - is unlikely to ever be admitted. Even if it were, it’s so obscure as to practically exclude any serious competitors.

Teasing out a national tendency, one might say that the more of an upper hand Scots have, the more enthused they are about competing. But if Scotland prefers a rigged game to fair play, then they are no different from England. Let me explain.

Daniel Johnson, Professor of Economics at Colorado College, has proven himself a perceptive forecaster of which countries will win the most medals in the Olympics. His method? He extrapolates his predictions from several economic indicators - population, income per capita, level of democracy, climate and home-field advantage. Johnson’s biggest finding is that the more a country spends on training athletes, the more medals it receives. There does not appear to be an upper limit on this trend. The Olympics, in other words, are a rigged game, one at which the richest nations consistently win.

Scotland receives 8.4% of the UK’s total Olympic expenditure, the size of its population relative to the rest of the UK. Figures from the Office for National Statistics shows that Scotland has slightly below average per capita income than both the UK as a whole and England.[1] The figure for London is almost twice that of Scotland’s.[2] If Scotland were allocated its share of North Sea oil and gas income by drawing a median line out across the North Sea from the border between Scotland and England (as per the Geneva agreement on natural resources), with any sea-bound resources north of that line accorded to Scotland, rather than on the basis of Scotland’s population relative to the UK‘s as a whole, Scotland’s per capita income would be substantially higher. And higher per capita income means higher Olympic spending capability, which, on Prof Johnson’s formula, equates to a greater chance of Olympic success. With such a dismal tide of economic forces against them, Scotland doesn’t bother with the Olympics because it knows it can’t win.

But it is not as though the sports at which Scotland excels are those which are emblematic of fair play and a level playing field. Far from it. Beside elephant polo, Scotland prides itself on bloodsports, the most popular of which are grouse-shooting and deer-stalking - industries that are worth around £23 million and £105 million a year respectively, and which support 11,000 full-time jobs.

Despite the environmental mismanagement these industries constitute, both sports are persistently defended on the basis of revenue and jobs. By simply allowing Scotland’s vast heather moors and uplands to ‘rewild’, however, and thereafter reintroducing native species, a far more lucrative and educational wildlife tourism industry could be fashioned, one which would employ countless more people than does the bloodsport industry at present.[3] And yet, the Scottish government’s support for these inefficient industries demonstrates the deferential attitude Scotland’s political classes take towards the unreasonable dictates of privilege and power. Much like England, then.

And just where do Scotland’s upper classes do their hunting? Like England, on land whose ownership patterns could hardly be described as ‘sporting’. Half of all privately-owned rural land in Scotland is owned by 438 people. 969 people own 60%.[4] With a population of more than 5 million, ownership of most of Scotland’s land is not so much the privilege of the 1% as the 0.02%. Despite the political will for land reform, the Scottish government has done little to remedy this un-sporting state of affairs. Much, then, like England’s government.

So what about football? Leaving aside the controversial national politics of Euro 2012, part of the shock of Rangers FC’s dodgy tax affairs, some have claimed, stems from a feeling that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen in Scotland. In contrast, the culture of corporate tax avoidance is so widespread south of the border that it is expected from English teams and fails to provoke the same outrage.

If only it was that simple. The Scotsman ran an article last year that raised the prospect of an independent Scotland engaging in tax competition. It speculated that Scotland might position itself as a tax haven on the model of Jersey or Guernsey. A far-fetched proposal, you might suppose, but one that would be entirely consistent with the Scottish government’s plans to set their own corporation tax rates.

As the excellent Tax Justice Network has shown, tax competition undermines national democracy whilst distorting international markets, leading to systemic corruption and widespread poverty. And yet, in the seriousness with which tax competition policies are being considered, Scotland’s political classes display their deference to the oligopolist dictates of today’s nationless financial elites. If they heed the relentless advocacy of the plutocratic 1%, an even greater wedge will be driven between Scotland’s haves and have-nots. If that sounds familiar that is because it’s the story of England, a democracy bled dry by the demands of a financial sector which holds its parliament captive.[5]

Whilst we in Scotland watch the Olympics, a game that is thoroughly rigged against us (and represents in so many ways an absence of fair play), we should be wary of a complacent faith in our unshakeable brand of social democracy. Independence of itself will not guarantee the rebirth of a socially-equitable and egalitarian Scottish democracy. On the contrary, Scotland may be in danger of strengthening the right of its political classes to rig the game in favour of the same wealth and privilege that many of us hope, with independence, to escape.


[1] See here. It shows that Scotland has a Gross Value Added (GVA) per capita income of £20,220 for 2010, compared to £20,476 for the UK as a whole and £20,974 for England.

[2] £35,026

[3] For more on this proposal, see George Monbiot’s upcoming book: Feral: Rewilding the land, the sea and human life, due to be published next year.

[4] Incidently, Whigtman has mapped out "a network of power and influence starting with the (late) Queen Mother" who, between them, own 12% of private land in Scotland.


[5] For more on this point see Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens (2011, Palgrave Macmillan).

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData