Ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, some apparently fear that Scottish Nationalists will use the opportunity to express and stir up anti-English feeling two months before the Independence Referendum, and it is reported that English athletes have been briefed as to what they should do if they are booed. But I am sure that the fears are unfounded and the briefing unnecessary. This is not only because these are traditionally “the friendly games”; it is also because most Scots who attend them are quite capable of making a distinction between sport and politics. Any who fail to do so are likely to meet with disapproval from those around them. Indeed any expressions of anti-English sentiment would be likely to be countered by applause for English teams and athletes.
This is certainly what the SNP leadership will hope for. They know that expressions of Anglophobia would do their cause considerable damage. This is not a Nationalist festival; indeed the Games were awarded to Glasgow when the SNP were not even in government in Edinburgh, and it was the Labour First Minister Jack McConnell who led the delegation that lobbied successfully for Glasgow. The SNP will not try to make any direct political capital from the Games. They would be foolish to do so, and Alex Salmond is no fool. Their hope is that the Games will generate a feel-good factor which, by encouraging people to be happy and self-confident, may make them more likely to vote “yes” on September 18. Any acrimony resulting from expressions of hostility to English athletes would dissipate that feeling.
Of course there has always been keen rivalry when Scotland play England at football or rugby, and there is nothing that Scots like better than beating England. Some take this further and are happy to see England lose to other countries too. This, naturally enough, is resented by the English. Andy Murray took a long time to live down his joking “anyone but England” quip when he was asked in the course of a light-hearted conversation with Tim Henman whom he would be supporting in the 2008 European Football Cup. (It’s usually forgotten that Henman had been teasing him about Scotland’s failure to qualify.)
Sometimes there has been a keener edge. The fiercest atmosphere I recall was at the 1990 Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield, when both teams were going for the Grand Slam. There was certainly some nastiness in the air that day. Some thought this political, and to some extent they were right. The match was played in the wake of Thatcherism and the hated Poll Tax. Yet it was provoked more by what was perceived as the arrogance of Will Carling and his England team, the perception that they thought they had only to turn up to win. Actually they had good reason to be confident; they had played magnificently in earlier matches. Nevertheless they got our backs up, and Carling was definitely disliked even by a Murrayfield crowd, the majority of whom would never vote SNP.
Our attitudes tend to be ambivalent. When there is anti-English feeling, it’s more often provoked by the perceived complacency or arrogance of sections of the English media than by anything else. Perhaps because there was less of it this summer, an opinion poll showed a majority of Scots hoping England would do well in the World Cup in Brazil – though perhaps not too well. For years Scots were irritated by the harking back to England’s solitary World Cup win in 1966; now it’s so long ago that dwelling on the memory seems only rather sad. But, as I say, our attitudes are inconsistent. Most Scottish cricket fans – more numerous than many suppose – support England, especially in an Ashes series.
So to the Games in Glasgow, and I shall be astonished if the English athletes get anything but a warm and friendly reception, though of course we’ll be delighted if any of them lose to a Scot or Scottish team.