The Euros start this week, so I wanted to talk a bit about football, and what it means to the people who support it. Let me start with a sweeping and possibly controversial statement—I genuinely believe that one of humanity’s greatest achievements is the Football World Cup.
It’s a phenomenon that you can’t really put your finger on; for a month or so in the middle of the year, this electric atmosphere buzzes around everyday life as the whole world becomes enthralled in this high-skill, high-stakes stage of a game so simple that almost anyone could play it. The differences between countries are both intensified and nigh-on forgotten as our heroic foot-warriors jostle with, shoot at, dive from, leap over, and blatantly foul each other to the shouts, jumps and cries of the millions watching, proudly bearing the same jerseys as the ones plastered on the big screens. The competitive yet unifying energy of it is something genuinely like no other, and is an incredible feat. I think human progress is at its best when it brings us all together; when done right, that is exactly what the World Cup (and, by extension, the Euros) is about—appreciating and embracing diversity.
But why is this so different to normal club games? After all, it’s the same sport, just with different jerseys, new teams, and a fancy, if sometimes utterly irrational, location (I’m looking at you, Qatar). What changes in the World Cup, though, is this element of national identity; those odd labels that merely represent the place that you’re from, yet somehow have the ability to turn a game of football into a worldwide spectacle. The thing is, nationality isn’t just a passport, or a flag in your Instagram bio; much of the time it is an indicator that we use as the very definition of who we are. There is serious power to that. This sense of identity and belonging is what drives that World Cup fever, I think; rather than looking at any football game and thinking that we could probably do it ourselves, having these players represent our country, and by extension us, on this global stage makes us feel that we really are somehow involved in it—that we are more than mere spectators. This connection is uplifting, captivating and inspiring; international sports simply wouldn’t be the same without it.
The extent that nationality matters to people bleeds pretty heavily into many aspects of life; from sports to immigrant communities down to the very lines along which our country’s borders are drawn. It’s more or less this last aspect that I want to focus on—nationality, and its importance, is something that I think is blindingly obvious yet not appreciated nearly enough in political conversation. Ultimately, it holds a compelling power over people that, when properly harnessed, is almost impossible to convince them away from. This has the power to turn politics from a rational debate to an all-out clash of ideology and identity, with the power to cause war, break apart countries, or both. This has been specifically evident in the UK, with the division of Ireland some hundred years ago and the now hot-button topic of Scottish independence. Nationality plays a central role, I think, in why Scotland wants to be independent in the first place, and why the UK government’s attempts to get rid of the debate won’t work.
People who know me will know full well that I never stop going on about being Scottish; my dad’s family is originally from here, and my parents met in Edinburgh (I qualify for SAAS, alright?). But despite how much I jokingly go on about it, I really am Scottish in name only; my dad’s job has meant I have never actually lived here, and I grew up in the South of England, far away from even the faintest whisper of bagpipes or a trace of Haggis on supermarket shelves. What this distance means is that while I’m “Scottish”, I lack the Scottish experience; that intimate relationship with this country, gained from growing up and spending one’s life in it, that makes it an irreversible element of your identity. At the end of the day, no amount of ranting about education fees can provide that. It’s taken coming to university here, though, and actually interacting with people who do have this experience for me to realise its importance and how much I’m lying to myself when I call myself “Scottish”; if we’re honest, I don’t really have the full picture. I think that this means that I fail to properly understand the issue of Scottish independence, because like my Scottishness itself, I view it as much more of a title and less of a part of who I am; for someone truly Scottish, though, it is all about the latter.
I think that democratic politics is, in a way, a lot like football: people have this desire to see a reflection of themselves when looking at their representatives on the political stage. But much like the difference between club games and the World Cup, this reflection is not just about looking at government and thinking we could take over and make it better ourselves (which, let’s be honest, most of us do), but it’s about feeling that we are already doing so through the people we elect. And though that sense of involvement isn’t displayed as clearly as by those matching national uniforms, it’s every bit as important to the people’s participation in the process.
This is directly relevant to independence; ultimately, for a large part of the Scottish population, British politics is no longer a game they want to play. They don’t feel that the people they are watching truly represent them; Westminster for them is full of people who, much like me, claim to understand Scotland but have no real conception of the true Scottish experience. And though these people should be easily democratically replaced with better ones, Scotland is currently still a (relatively small) part of the UK—they can’t just vote in a whole new Westminster Parliament by themselves. Now, if the Scottish people were still fully invested in preserving the Union as a whole, this would be fine by them—but the point is that they’ve had enough. Scots have found that who they are no longer matches up with the rest of Britain; their left-wing, internationalist yet distinctly Scottish outlook is ever more starkly contrasted with England’s Brexit-fuelled separatist Tory government (even if a cabinet more similar to Scotland’s won a general election, though, I think that the damage has been done). The current system denies them the chance for that sovereignty that they so desperately want—breaking free of that is what independence is fundamentally about. I don’t think that such a dramatic ideological rift can be easily closed once it has formed, and the one between Scotland and England is widening at an alarming rate.
Those in power at Westminster, though, appear to have taken an interesting strategy to tackle the problem—namely, just ignoring it entirely. Obviously, Covid has thrown domestic politics into disarray, providing a convenient excuse to dance around the issue, but the Scottish elections in May especially has driven it right to the forefront; all the while, the UK government has barely spoken out on it at all. This refusal to directly address independence head-on has been going on for years now—from devolution, to the “once-in-a-lifetime vote” rhetoric from 2014’s referendum, to this year suggesting the SNP would require an outright majority at Holyrood before another referendum is even considered. When they do mention it, they proffer flimsy narratives in response of impracticality and economic instability that only seem to delay a vote rather than truly convincing anyone away from independence as a concept. But this childish plan of debate-dodging won’t last; issues of identity, especially those as deep-rooted as this, only grow stronger if not dealt with. If anything, it only proves how out of touch the English government truly is; if they don’t face this argument that has gripped Scottish politics for over a decade, how can they hope to truly represent it? It either shows a lack of understanding or a lack of democratic competence—honestly, I’m not sure which is worse.
A lot of this was playing on my mind last month as I voted for the first time ever in the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and watched the SNP narrowly fall short of that essential majority at Holyrood. Boris Johnson, yet again, will surely take this as a sign that he can continue to reject Nicola Sturgeon’s requests for another independence referendum. But Westminster has already been trying that for too long, and I can promise that it won’t work much longer. To be fair, much unlike the World Cup, I don’t think anybody wants a referendum every four years—by now, we’re all pretty tired of this worn-out debate. But what I’m arguing is that another vote is inevitable. People’s identity, and genuinely feeling that they have sovereignty over their own affairs, rather than being controlled by a government from a distant English metropolis who doesn’t understand them, matters. That feeling of fundamental disconnection is not one that any amount of delaying and sidelining can have any long-term effect on—the argument of Scottish independence is as prevalent as it is permanent, no matter how much Westminster may pray that it might disappear if they ignore it enough.
Much like the beautiful game, Politics’ value comes from the fact that anyone can get involved and make a difference on the pitch. Remove that appeal, though, and people stop wanting to play—it ends up becoming a bit more like polo than football. If the people don’t believe in Britain, British politics simply won’t work anymore; even if it means trading the money and security of a stadium for the familiarity and chaos of a playpark, people would rather play a game they have control of. Scotland may have decided that the UK simply doesn’t provide that; no matter how much you deny, delay, or argue against it, we may have come too far for that schism ever to be healed. After all, football has never been about how many trophies the team wins, but about their genuine connection with the fans; for that, I know which match I’ll be watching on Monday.
Most of this one was done from my own experiences having spent a year (already!!) at university in Scotland. This article is a sort of tribute to that. I’d like to take this chance to thank everyone I’ve met along the way; I’ve learnt a lot, not just about Scottish independence, from the people I’ve met and the interactions I’ve had.
However, I picked up George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism for £1 from Lighthouse lately, which was incredibly interesting and quite influential towards my writing of this piece (even if he takes a very different view on Nationalism and even sports throughout). You can pick it up in-store or from here (for a quid):
Image references (in order of use):
Taken and owned by me