Grand Slam or Wooden Spoon?

Although I was born at the Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh, my parents and grandparents were all born in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders. When I broke my leg in three places some ten years ago, and was laid up at home for an extended period, one of the things I did to occupy myself was to research my family tree, and I discovered that, despite a worrying lack of royalty or celebrity, my male line extended back as far as I could research, to the mid 1700s, in an unbroken line of Borders-born Brydons.

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that although I grew up in the west of Edinburgh in the 1980s, surrounded by football-mad contemporaries, the only ball game which was accorded any kind of importance in our household, was rugby union. For those who aren’t aware, rugby union is afforded a near-mythical status in the Borders – it is without a doubt, the beating heart of the game in Scotland, producing a massively disproportionate share of international players over the years. Although the perception of the game in the country as a whole might be tainted by a slightly class-ridden, public-school educated bias, in the Borders, the game is at the sporting root of pretty much every community. Local rivalries, in their own little way as great as any Old Firm battle, provide endless opportunity for one-upmanship and hubris. Growing up, my granny lived just along the street from a garage where the Scotland inside-centre, Keith Robertson, worked, and it was just as normal as popping to the shops for a newspaper, as it was to wander along and chat to him and get him to sign his autograph on a scrap of paper.

We lived and breathed every single moment when Scotland played international rugby; the Five Nations (as was) brought annual moments of tension and anguish, and occasional triumph. I will never forget watching on television, the moment when David Sole led his team onto the pitch in the deciding game of the 1990 championship, the breath-taking entry of the team at a walking, almost funereal pace, in stark contrast to the waspish impatience of the rampant, strong favourites, England. I could hardly breathe for 80 minutes of almost unbearable tension, before erupting in unbridled joy as we eventually ran out victors – the twin successes of beating our oldest opponents, and also securing an historic Grand Slam.

My credentials, therefore, as a full-throated, ardent, committed, Scotland fan are therefore, I hope, well-founded. Although I’ve become somewhat more distant from the kind of impassioned, committed rugby fan I felt as a youngster, I still cheer to the rafters any kind of success arising from our country in sports, the arts, science and technology, or politics. I’m just as hugely proud of the various advances we’ve been able to offer the world, in areas as varied as molecular genetics (Dolly the Sheep, at the University of Edinburgh), as I am the success of the actor David Tennant, a graduate of the RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow. I’m without a doubt, a proud, patriotic, Scot.

Despite all this, I’m also an proponent of maintaining a close union between Scotland and the United Kingdom – if this sounds contradictory, it really shouldn’t. One of the most perplexing, startling transformations which has taken place in Scotland, probably dating from about the turn of the century on, has been the conflation of two very distinct ideas of patriotism and nationalism, to the extent that it now seems almost illogical to have a strong sense of national pride, without this being inevitably linked to a desire for independence. If this has been a long-term goal of the SNP or the nationalist movement, then fair play to them – they’ve certainly done a great job. The Panelbase poll on independence in this week’s Sunday Times Scotland (5/7/2020), suggesting 54% support for independence, is ample, contemporary evidence of this.

It feels difficult, rightly or wrongly, in the current climate, to express this belief in the virtues of Scotland as a strong, vital contributor to a healthy union of nations, without being made to feel unpatriotic – this reached a nadir this weekend with a tweet (since deleted and apologised for) from Devi Sridhar, professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, and scientific advisor to the Scottish Government, which described unionists as “anti-Scottish.” Although her tweet was deleted relatively quickly and a follow-up apology issued, it was clear from some of the comments on her original tweet, that her sentiments struck a chord with some, not least those who elected to station themselves on the border with England this same weekend, to intimidate those who had the temerity to want to visit Scotland for a holiday.

I’m not sure, though, at what point over the last twenty years or so, this sense of patriotism became apparently inexorably wedded to nationalism, or indeed why this notion can’t be challenged. Perhaps part of the fault for this lies with those who support an ongoing union of nations – would it be dishonest to admit to a lingering awkwardness and reticence among unionists, to saltire-waving, Flower Of Scotland-singing, full-throated celebration of Scottishness, for fear of coming across as nationalistic? If that’s the case, then we are just as guilty of a misguided sense of conflating nationalism and patriotism as our independence-supporting fellow Scots. It risks an ongoing alienation of what might be a majority demographic of patriotic Scots, who don’t necessarily support independence, but who feel drawn towards it out of a sense of a lack of patriotism from the unionist parties.

There is ample scope, I would submit, for a strong argument for a maintenance and evolution of the union of nations of the United Kingdom, rooted in a strong and robust sense of Scottish identity, but without the irreversible and detrimental impact of breaking the ties which have served us to our mutual benefit over the last three hundred years. I haven’t had time to conduct a comprehensive review, but a cursory look back over the Twitter output of Scottish Labour over the last few years demonstrates a startling lack of any kind of Scottish-themed imagery or rhetoric. The messages are notable only in their blandness and generic design, like the sort of thing a slick London-based advertising agency would produce. I used this simile with a degree of caution, but the truth is that no matter how uncomfortable this might make some of us feel, this kind of approach simply isn’t going to cut through with the majority of Scottish voters.

Patriotism isn’t Nationalism. An ongoing inability to reconcile the former with an argument in favour of strengthening the union, will only end badly, with the increasing urgency of potentially irreversible consequences following the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The sense of understandable pride in the successes of our small nation, whether in rugby or otherwise, has been ceded to nationalism for too long. It’s time to reclaim a sense of national pride, to unashamedly embrace and wave the Saltire as proud Scots, not just at Murrayfield, but in every aspect of our messaging and policy development, and as successful contributors to a strong and enduring union.

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