Scottish and British: why Andy Murray brings a fragmenting UK together

It is a sign of the health and maturity of civic Scottish nationalism that sport matters so much less to nationhood than it did a generation ago.

It is a second successive Wimbledon final for Andy Murray. Now only world number one Novak Dvokovic, as formidable an opponent as Roger Federer last year, stands in the way of Murray completing the quest for that most elusive of sporting holy grails, seeking to become the first British Wimbledon men's singles champion since Fred Perry's 1930s triumphs. Scotland has waited even longer. Most people think Murray would be the first Scot to win the men's singles, though it was discovered a couple of years ago that the Irish 1896 champion Harold Mahony was Edinburgh-born.

Murray is the most talented British player for decades, and the greatest Scot to ever pick up a tennis racket, his Wimbledon final does have a distinctive ability to bring a fragmenting United Kingdom together. That is captured in striking Wimbledon viewing figures, provided by BBC Scotland to the think-tank British Future. His 2012 Wimbledon final had a peak audience of 16.5 million, including 1.5 million in Scotland. That was a TV viewing share of 64 per cent, reaching as high as 72 per cent north of the border, involving almost one in three of the entire population. The final averaged 13.5 million, including 1.3 million in Scotland. By contrast, the 2011 final - Federer versus Dvokovic - had an average audience of 5.5 million, including under half a million Scots, and a peak of 8.8 million (790,000 in Scotland). The 2011 Scottish viewing share was, perhaps counterintuitively, still marginally higher, at 47% than the share of 44% across the UK. (The BBC could not provide an England-only breakdown. "There is no BBC England", we were told).

Wimbledon is a sporting arena which often shows how sport transcends nationality. Its fans embraced Borg and McEnroe, Becker and Graf, Federer and Nadal. This reflects the ethos of a sport which, like cricket, cherishes a cosmopolitan spirit of fair play over more tribal rivalries. Yet this has depended, too, on a more contingent factor, the hopelessness of the hosts. The viewing figures show that nationality does matter in tennis too. It engages a much wider public audience beyond tennis afficiandos when there is British participation.

Yet this Wimbledon final could even turn out to be one of the last great British sporting occasions, taking place little more than a year before the Autumn 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Sport has often offered the most popular, public sphere in which notions of identity are played out; where ideas of the nation are contested, and shifts in the question of what it means to be "us" have also been ratified and resolved. But there are three reasons why sporting allegiance looks unlikely to play any central role in the politics of the Scottish independence vote.

Firstly, it is primarily a sign of the health and maturity of civic Scottish nationalism today that sport matters so much less to Scottish nationhood than it did a generation ago. At the nadir of modern Scottish identity, in 1978 and 1979, the two were tightly, and ultimately humiliatingly, intertwined. Scotland had a fantastic football team, capable of beating anyone on their day. The footballing hubris of Argentina 1978 saw Scotland's World Cup single immortalise Ally McLeod's infamous boast that he would return with the trophy. Scotland couldn't beat Iran or Peru though they did beat the great Dutch side in their final game, just to show that they could. This "we were rubbish" football hangover didn't help in the failure to secure enough votes for devolution in the 1979 referendum.

Scotland routinely qualified for the World Cup, going when England did not. It has little prospect of qualifying for another in the foreseeable future. Yet that matters much less given a much broader Scottish cultural and civic presence today than at the end of the 1970s. (Ipsos-Mori report that support for independence peaked at 47% in April 1998, just before the last Scottish World Cup appearance, but this may be a coincidence rather than a cause).

The second reason is that the United Kingdom has long been able to accomodate a separate Scottish sporting identity. Sport was devolved from the very start. International football was first invented in 1872 with an England v Scotland football match between two nations who shared a state. The growth of Scottish identity has been increasingly recognised. It now seems remarkable that God Save the Queen remained the anthem for Scottish rugby matches at Murrayfield throughout the 1980s. The cacophony of booing was unhealthy for Scotland, for Britain and the monarchy too. Flower of Scotland was finally adopted in 1990.

One significant sporting choice would depend on the referendum result: whether or not Scotland was part of Team GB at the Olympics and Paralympics. Going it alone might well mean more Scottish participants at the event, but probably fewer Scottish medals being won at it. Eleven of the fourteen Olympic medals won by Scots in London 2012 were team efforts involving English and Welsh team-mates too. That could be seen as a metaphor for the trade-off involved in the independence choice - the visibility of representation versus the benefits of cooperation.

Outside the Olympics, the nature of Scottish participation in most international sporting events are not at stake. Scotland has competed under its own flag at every Commonwealth Games, since the first Empire Games in 1930. Scottish golfers in the European Ryder Cup team, would remain. Both Unionists and civic Nationalists can deploy this example to illustrate wider points: it shows both that the Union can accomodate national aspirations, and that the relationships of a 'social union' would survive a change of statehood.

The third reason that sporting identity seems unlikely to shift is that, a year before the vote, independence has now become a more distant prospect. The polls have fluctuated much less than many expected. The punter who walked into a betting shop and put £200,000 on the independence bid being rejected stands to only win £33,000. How close the referendum result is - how the under 40s vote - may well have a significant impact on the prospects of independence within a decade or two, but a Yes victory in 2014 appears beyond the grasp of the SNP.

Would anything be different for Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2015 and 2016 if Scotland had voted Yes? Would the crowd wave Union Jacks, or would they seem out of date. It is hard to know in advance what the psychological impact of independence would turn out to be. Murray's career has coincided with a reshaping of British identities, particularly a sharp rise in Englishness, as a new IPPR report published on Monday will detail. This may explain why the 19-year-old Murray was subjected to a Tebbit-style "football test" over the 2006 World Cup, when Scotland had not qualified. Traditionally, the English had supported the Scots against non-British sides, while fully aware that 'anybody but England' was the dominant, default Scottish position. Refusing to reciprocate the rivalry was also, perhaps, a subtly effective way to annoy the Scots. Post-devolution, confident superiority gave way to grievance, so that it was the English who now sought reciprocity, making support of a Scottish-Brit at Wimbledon somehow dependent on a willingness to cheer for England against Paraguay. (The tabloids invented Murray's purchase of a Paraguay shirt, and returned to the topic frequently, but Murray diplomatically withdrew his endorsement of England's opponents as banter.)

The audience for the 2012 final showed that those stale jokes about Murray being Scottish when he wins and British when he loses are well past their sell-by date. Indeed, his emotional response in the post-match interview now ranks with Gazza at Italia 1990 in the pantheon of sporting tears. Alex Salmond needs something dramatic to happen - a couple of breaks of Alistair Darling's serve at least - if he is to take Scotland's 2014 vote into a five-set nailbiter. An Andy Murray Wimbledon victory is a rather more immediate prospect. There will be no doubt that he is both Scottish and British when he takes to Centre Court tomorrow. So it is that the burden of ending 77 years of hurt - and perhaps a lesser known 117 for the Scots too - falls squarely on his shoulders.

Andy Murray celebrates victory after his semi-final match against Jerzy Janowicz of Poland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.