For me, there are two articles missing from the blizzard of commentary surrounding Euro 2020. One is the late Hugh McIlvanney’s take on Scotland returning to international competition for the first time in 23 years only to follow the same tattered script to glorious failure; the other is his late brother Willie’s cultural essay about a wildly successful and globally respected England team that was sniped at by its own government and in ultimate defeat found itself pitchforked by racists.
Such irony. If anything should persuade far-right ultras of the case for immigration it is surely their treasured football. The Jamaican-born Raheem Sterling was England’s best player throughout the tournament, a quicksilver flash of opposition-cleaving sprints and stabbed goals. Bukayo Saka, born in Ealing to Nigerian parents and just 19 years old, danced around grizzled defenders almost twice his age and brought youthful fearlessness to an otherwise conservative side. Jadon Sancho, whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, shone in his spells on the pitch and will light up next year’s Premier League following his transfer to Manchester United.
Marcus Rashford is the closest thing England has to a secular saint. Tyrone Mings made sure Harry Maguire wasn’t missed and is a more eloquent and convincing orator than the vicious, shrunken-hearted Home Secretary. And on it goes… what a prize the world has delivered to England’s door.
North of the border, we can only look at these players and drool. Whether some form of genetic athleticism, or skills honed in the football cages of London, or the drive that comes from the beautiful game offering a path out of poverty for them and their families, or a mix of all this, England’s heroes are cool, smart, humble and conscientious. We should be so lucky.
In Scotland, a nation whose modern story of itself is one of cultural tolerance, openness, progressiveness and liberalism, the racist abuse that followed defeat in the final to the superior Italians was nauseating. As was the booing that accompanied every taking of the knee. The arrant hypocrisy of Boris Johnson’s government, the wearyingly familiar having-its-cake-and-eating-it strategy deployed to such socially divisive ends, is now entirely expected but no less grotesque for that. The timing of the cuts to overseas aid might have been orchestrated to emphasise a Millwall approach to public sensitivities. “Little England”, John Major called it. Wee England, to us.
We know that these racists are not anything like the majority, either in the stadium or in the wider English nation. In many ways, England’s embrace of multiculturalism is a lesson to the world, and pushback from aspects of the white population is always likely and certainly not restricted to that nation. In Scotland, where immigration levels are comparatively low and where to this day, certainly outside the main cities, you can go for a stretch of time without passing a black person in the street, we are largely untested and should be wary of expressing moral superiority. Many of the immigrants or children of immigrants who call Scotland home tell stories that do not reflect well on us. We have our own racists, and the immigration we badly need for economic, demographic and cultural reasons would draw them from their dank holes.
What makes the past few days harder to dismiss as simply the behaviour of a few unreconstructed English drongos is the behaviour of this Westminster government, elected with such a healthy majority by votes south of the border. Its blunt anti-woke posture, a dividing line deliberately and cynically drawn in pursuit of a certain kind of voter, will not be judged kindly by history. When thoughtful and nuanced public debate should be led from the centre, that centre is instead behaving as a self-interested provocateur – as Samuel Kasumu, the Prime Minister’s race adviser, said upon leaving his Downing Street role, “there are some people in the government who feel like the right way to win is to pick a fight on the culture war and to exploit division”.
This is not an administration or a Prime Minister to trust in big moral moments, and it will not help – it has no interest in helping – the country find its way through. The shadow of Brexit, and especially the referendum campaign, with its helping of greasy opportunists, hard-right misfits and, yes, racists, hangs over everything.
And all of it is of course tangled up in Britishness, an identity that is already on its uppers in Scotland. The discussion around racism is often framed as “British” rather than “English”, which co-opts Scots into a heated argument where they may feel largely uninvolved if not innocent. It complicates and contaminates the work of those striving to maintain the Union – an idea supported by culture as much as politics. If the culture is seen to be rotten and unrepresentative, the supporting joists weaken further.
No one should deny vast progress has been made on racial integration over decades just as no one should deny a huge amount of work remains – I urge you to read this typically measured and enlightening essay by Sunder Katwala. And, as I say, Scots must avoid moral preening. But these past days can only have added to the feeling – encouraged by Brexit, Boris, the cuts to international aid, the general, unbending and deliberate unpleasantness of this government – that there is a rat loose in the drain pipe of Unionism and that it is causing untold damage that may not yet be fully visible.
Oh for the clarity of a McIlvanney. Oh for a multi-racial Scotland football team good enough to be beaten in the final of the Euros.