Why Scotland qualifying for Euro 2021 matters to the SNP

At this moment, the country’s sporting success feels more relevant to its politics than at any point in recent history.

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In 1992, Jim Sillars uttered the phrase for which he would be remembered forever. Having just lost his Glasgow Govan seat at the general election, the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party derided Scots as “90-minute patriots” who confined their nationalism to major sporting events.

Remarkably, Sillars’s ploy – blaming voters for being insufficiently patriotic – did not secure him an imminent return to front-line politics. But he’s hardly the first politician to have been both beguiled and bewildered by the curious stirring of their nation every other summer, in even-numbered years. To glimpse the flag-waving fervour that greets major football tournaments, and wonder why so little of this nationalistic sentiment seems to translate to the ballot box. To confuse sporting patriotism with the real thing.

As Scotland celebrates qualification for its first major men’s football tournament since 1998, perhaps we are in danger of making a similar mistake. Perhaps the heady bouquet of euphoria that accompanied their penalty shoot-out win against Serbia on 12 November, securing qualification to Euro 2021, will have long dissipated by the time next summer rolls around.

But something seems different about this moment, this Scotland. It is not just the team – a young and rapidly improving side who have shed many of the inhibitions of their predecessors – but the nation they serve. Opinion polls show overwhelming support for independence; the very idea of Scottish nationhood has never been more contested. At this moment, the country’s sporting success feels more relevant to its politics than at any point in recent history.

[see also: Gordon Brown on how to save the United Kingdom]

Why might this be? Partly because sport has acted not as a catalyst for separatism but as a counterweight against it for much of Scotland’s history. Scotland’s dual status in the sporting world – independent in sports like football and rugby union, competing under the British flag elsewhere – seemed a perfect articulation of its basic existential paradox, the eternal tension between autonomy and statelessness. Sport became the means by which Scotland could be both “within” and “apart” at the same time: a largely apolitical outlet for nationalism that thus left the underpinnings of unionism mostly undisturbed.

This steady-state model has historically been held together by three forces. First, the relatively meagre support for independence among the general public. Second, unlike in Catalonia, where FC Barcelona has become a focal point in the secessionist struggle, that Scottish independence has long lacked a natural sporting ally. The Old Firm clubs have largely been associated with sectarian causes – Catholicism and Irish nationalism in the case of Celtic, Protestantism and loyalism in the case of Rangers – and so in a sporting sense, Scottish nationalism resided primarily in the Scotland team itself. Which – and this is the third and most important factor – often wasn’t very good.

To this day, and despite possessing some of the greatest players and coaches in history, neither Scotland’s men nor Scotland’s women have ever made it past the first round of a major football tournament. They haven’t won rugby union’s Five/Six Nations since 1999. And so, over the decades, Scottish sport has been defined less by jingoism and more by pessimism, melancholy and wry self-deprecation. When Scotland reached the 1998 football World Cup, their official song was titled “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” (which, of course, they did).

These were not sentiments upon which to build a buoyant, bombastic independence movement. And so even as the SNP swept to power, sport and Scottish nationalism maintained a vague, ambivalent relationship. The biggest names to sign up for the “Sport for Yes” campaign ahead of the 2014 referendum were a judo player and a featherweight boxer. Meanwhile, Alex Salmond’s use of the term “Scolympians” served only to underline the reliance of many Scottish Olympic athletes, from Chris Hoy to Andy Murray, on UK funding and facilities.

Yet in just a few years, the landscape has changed dramatically. Scotland in 2020 feels like a different place from Scotland in 2014, politically, culturally and temperamentally. Brexit and the growing independence cause have embedded the idea that a small, outward-looking nation can flourish in the global marketplace with a little optimism and a willingness to break with its past. Nationalism is no longer a “90-minute” concern but the dominant ideology.

[see also: Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame]

And so into this breach step the nation’s footballers: in many ways, the very embodiment of New Scotland. For the first time in a generation, Scottish footballers populate the squads of some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs: Kieran Tierney at Arsenal, Scott McTominay at Manchester United, the Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson, perhaps the first Scot since Graeme Souness to be the best in the world in his position. They work hard, punch above their weight, and above all refuse to submit to the complexes of their predecessors.

It might end in tears. For all their current bliss, Scotland are, according to world rankings, 21st of 24 nations at Euro 2021, and remain strongly tipped for an 11th consecutive first-round exit. Perhaps, like the disastrous World Cup campaign of 1978 (often cited as a factor in the failure to achieve devolution in the 1979 referendum), sport will ultimately serve as a reminder of Scottish frailty, of the perils of going it alone.

But maybe that’s Old Scotland talking. It’s also possible the SNP will win a handsome majority at Holyrood in May and that Scotland’s Euro 2021 becomes part of something larger: a second independence campaign taking place against the backdrop of Scotland’s crucial second group game on 18 June. Their opponents? England, of course. 

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Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

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