Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Only fitba makes you this mad

"Will you be supporting England, Magnus?" A theatrical shrug of epic 11-year-old proportions; a look of pitying contempt: "I stopped supporting England years ago, Dad."

Hmm . . . this is news to me. It seems like only yesterday that Mag, and by definition his worshipful younger brother, were demanding England strips for Christmas and imitating Michael Owen on the violently sloping peat-bog they use as a football pitch. "But you're Scottish," I would tell them, only to meet with withering scorn.

"Dad, Scotland are useless," Magnus would say, eyes raised to the heavens. "I don't support rubbish teams." And he didn't know any of the players in the Scotland team, he pointed out. They weren't famous. They didn't adorn cornflakes packets and Saturday morning children's TV shows, like various Knights in White. I say "knight", but I was thinking of the word with a silent "kn" and the "sh" carefully pronounced. For when it comes to sport, I have a serious problem with England.

Now, nationalism is simply unthinking sentimentalism devoid of intrinsic moral content. Which makes it ideal for football supporters, and useless in the political arena. At least that's my excuse for supporting the idea of a united socialist republic and wishing with all my heart for the defeat of England at the hands of any and every team they play.

Make no mistake, if England beat Scotland in the upcoming fitba matches (and sanity says it seems more than likely), I will not be switching my allegiance to Keegan's chaps for the rest of the tournament. I will be praying fervently for their humiliation.

I know, it's pathetic. But my punishment came with my children's own equally unthinking desire to be England fans. "But . . . but you're Scottish," I said. "Dad, it's only a football team," replied Magnus patiently. Which had me somewhat stymied. Because if I transferred my football- following philosophy to politics, I'd be closing the border at Berwick and insisting on some kind of trade embargo. Whereas, in truth, I'd rather be in Newcastle than Edinburgh any day. It is only football.

Except it isn't. It is a monstrous, demonic force that possesses you; anti-intellectual, beyond any kind of conscious control. And not just on the level of national competition, where years of conditioning by viciously contemptuous pundits on television have left some Scots baying for England's defeat just for the sake of seeing Jimmy Hill die of a heart attack on live telly.

Take Rangers, for example. I have spent large chunks of my life in denial about Glasgow Rangers. When I lived in the west of Scotland, for example, it was completely unacceptable, within my circle of friends, to support Rangers. In much of the Scottish Labour Party, it still is, even though the bigotry at Celtic is just as bad.

My sons take a different view. They decided to support Rangers because their schoolfriends did, and they recognised some of the players, such as Gazza.

Because I was reared to support the Teddy Bears, I connived at their fandom, despite the long years of politically correct official opposition. Soon we were on first-name terms with Ibrox's youth support development executive (yep, they have one), who was offering personal tours round the ground. A friend supplied free tickets for a home game, and I will for ever remember the boys' awed excitement at sitting in a ground filled with more than twice

as many people as live in their native islands.

Yet I had to explain things. That they couldn't wear their strips in the street, not in Glasgow. Nor their scarves. That some Rangers supporters were bad, violent people, and so were some Celtic ones. But I did point out that Rangers had for years refused to sign Catholics and that this was A Very Bad Thing.

Recently, after a particularly horrific sectarian attack by a Rangers fan on a young Celtic supporter, I angrily announced at the dinner table that I was going to ban the familial wearing of Rangers tops. Magnus went white as a sheet and rushed to his room, utterly inconsolable. Later, after a stern wifely talking to, I was forced to explain the reasons for my outburst, and then agree that blue acrylic garments costing fortunes were once again wearable.

It is out of our control. I tried to interest the boys in supporting Ross County (sneers) or Aberdeen (incredulous laughter). But now Magnus is lending his allegiance to Scotland, not England. Trying to disguise my relief, nay joy, I asked him why.

"I don't have any choice," he replied.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.