Sunday 8 December 2019

Ruined by hope, 'yes' voters know how Scottish fans feel

That was the week

Andy Murray
Andy Murray

Dion Fanning

In the end, a football man won it. Gordon Brown's speech in Glasgow on Wednesday was hailed as the decisive intervention in Scotland's referendum, even before people were aware of the decision.

Brown delivered a rousing address, articulating the progressive case for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. This was Brown at his finest, a man of vision, intelligence and what one commentator called evangelical fervour, towering over the small-minded people who dominate politics today. This was a reminder that he was arguably the greatest prime minister Britain never had.

Some of you will dispute this claim. Some of you might even point out that Brown was in fact prime minister of Britain which would appear to be a convincing counter-argument.

Yet the Gordon Brown who became prime minister had waited so long to become prime minister that he had been driven mad by the prospect even before he was given the opportunity to be driven mad by the office. He had been tormented too by the smooth style of Tony Blair, so tormented that he received smiling lessons to help him appear more relaxed in public.

The man we saw last week was a man who saw no need for smiling lessons or to do anything which would make him more approachable to the ordinary voter.

Brown's spell as prime minister was a time when he tried to behave as if he was just an ordinary voter himself, a man happy to abandon a ten-volume biography of Adam Smith in order to appear on TV and chat about The Great British Bake-Off with Phillip Schofield.

The Brown who spoke so thrillingly last week was not that man. He was a man who seemed to have learned the hard way that there was no point in trying to appear normal. The Brown who made the stirring case for 'No' had been released from the expectation that he should be able to smile naturally beside ordinary voters or, even worse, make smalltalk with them.

He is a towering figure compared to those who followed him. Britain's leaders could probably pass an audition to be catalogue models and they can all smile easily and with conviction, even if their ordinariness is just a husk that has failed to conceal their position as members of the elite.

In a campaign which seemed to be about many things, including the reluctance to be governed by that elite, Brown's intervention was significant. For those of us who have always admired his inability to behave like a normal human being, it was comforting to see him as awkward as ever as he left the polling station on Thursday. He posed for photographers before making an extravagant gesture to signal that he was now going to walk down the ramp and exit the building looking like a member of an airport ground crew guiding a 747 towards a gate.

Brown is a football man, a Raith Rovers fan, and like another Raith Rovers man, Jim Baxter, he exists at a remove from the rhythms of humdrum life. The two men expressed this distance in different ways but they were essentially individualists, infuriating and deranged at times, but individualists nonetheless.

Brown's internationalism might have been shaped by being a Raith Rovers man in a football landscape dominated by the Old Firm and he took on nationalists in his speech, damning them for their isolationism.

Sport featured often in the debate but it was unlikely there was any link between sporting pride and the views of Scottish people in the referendum. Certainly full-throated expressions of blind loyalty uttered when supporting a country in sport rarely survive exposure to the real world.

For example, imagine a conversation with somebody who was insisting that 'You'll Never Beat the Irish' had some meaning beyond its use as an inaccurate terrace consolation. Most reasonable people would find themselves edging away very quickly.

Equally the only time when the widespread display of national flags doesn't provoke a sense that you have found yourself in a land being run by some crazed nationalistic junta is when that country is in a football tournament. These are exceptions to how we live our lives and probably shouldn't be aspirations.

It is entirely consistent that somebody could passionately support Scotland and decide to vote no, just as it is entirely reasonable that Andy Murray - or 'Surrey-based Andy Murray' as he became known - could call for a yes vote without having to deal with people in England wondering why he was still in the country. "If you're going to speak to him, you can tell him that if this is his attitude he can go back to Scotland," the Daily Mail quoted what they called a 'well-spoken middle-aged lady of the parish' as they observed Murray train at the All England Club.

The divided loyalties of many people in multi-cultural south-east England might come as a surprise to her but then again Scottish people's desire to remain within the United Kingdom seemed to be viewed suspiciously by others in Scotland and one of the most insidious aspects of nationalism is its insistence that it is the one true way of expressing a national identity.

Happily most Scots who voted yes didn't self-identify as nationalists and on Friday morning those who had voted for independence woke up in deep despair but there were some small consolations to be found in Scotland's deeply tragic football history.

On Thursday, they were like Ally MacLeod standing on the runway and promising to come back from Argentina with the World Cup. In those moments of great excitement, anything seemed possible. In those moments, it was easy to see how those who planned to make voting the centrepiece of a weekend of celebration saw 'Yes' as the most hopeful act of all.

By Friday, they had drawn with Iran and lost to Peru. There is talk of 'Flower of Scotland' not being sung when the national side play next month and it may be that sport is more significant in the aftermath than it was in the campaign.

On Friday, those who had voted 'Yes' understood what it meant to be 'ruined again and again by hope'. But if they were football people, they understood that already. Gordon Brown, victorious this time, understands it better than most.

dfanning@independent.ie

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