James Millar: Harry Kane could be Nicola Sturgeon's secret weapon
What's with all the SNP MPs switching their allegiance to the three lions?
Football and politics are natural bedfellows. Let’s not pretend that should England and Russia win on Saturday the resulting semi-final showdown will be not be as much a political as a sporting event. But success for Gareth Southgate’s men may have repercussions closer to home.
Could the greatest threat to the UK union come not from Nicola Sturgeon or Theresa May but from Harry Kane? There are a suspicious number of Scots – particularly SNP MPs - switching allegiance from the lion rampant to the three lions. This is not normal.
The SNP may have engaged in some parliamentary shenanigans on Monday by forcing votes while the Colombia game was on but more telling was the photo that emerged of a huge group of MPs watching the match and there in the corner was Gavin Newlands and Alan ‘Alan’ Brown (it’s a nationalist in-joke that his nickname is also Alan) of the SNP. Most Scots would rather set fire to their sporran than share space with jubilant Englishmen. Or even just one Englishman. I know, I’ve been that Englishman.
I well remember walking into a Glasgow newsroom for a late shift on the day England beat Scotland 2-0 at Hampden in 1999. I was grinning, until the chief photographer rushed up and warned me that even that would not go down well with my Scots colleagues. The one time I dared to wear an England shirt to watch a game in a Scottish pub – Kevin Keegan’s lame side threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to Portugal – I did not feel safe walking home afterwards.
For the Argentina game at the 2002 World Cup I was brave enough to wear a plain red shirt but before I could punch the air as Beckham scored from the spot a Scot grabbed my wrist and returned it to my side. Whether for my own protection or simply out of annoyance I never did determine.
So were these two MPs watching the game just because they are fans of football? If so, why does another particularly zealous nationalist keep texting me throughout England games welcoming their success?
Is there something going on here? The key is that everything the SNP does is driven by winning independence. That’s fine and a perfectly noble aim. But it means that if Westminster leader Iain Blackford joins Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in congratulating England during Prime Minister’s Questions - as he did this week - then he’s calculated that it will advance the cause.
Cut-through is what any politician seeks. Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill – the one that determines that powers returning from the EU will rest in Westminster before being pushed out to the devolved assemblies and parliaments - may keep the political wonks busy but it doesn’t capture the public imagination. Organising a stooshie and walking out of parliament does. Complaining that Marks and Spencer have taken the saltire off their strawberries does. And football does.
Every success that England enjoy unlocks a new level of jingoistic madness south of the border. A nation that a month ago was largely simply waiting for failure is starting to believe. The supermarkets are ordering in more St George’s flag branded tat rather than preparing to discount unsold merchandise. And the tabloid press is getting more and more outrageous. They managed to offend Colombia, a nation with whom the UK has never really had a quarrel, heaven knows what nonsense they are lining up to fling at Sweden, perhaps the most inoffensive country on the face of the globe.
Here’s where the SNP come in. England is not a jingoistic, borderline racist nation but that doesn’t mean the impression wafting over the border is not of just such a state. Somewhere alien to Scottish sensibilities.
Scottish football viewers wait by their social media to complain at the first mention of 1966 at every World Cup. TV companies that think viewers want to see Alan Shearer and Iain Wright (presumably hired by ITV because he’s a clown and that fits with their odd circus themed graphics) jigging exuberantly at every goal only appal the majority of Scots fans.
Now it may be the case that if they were exposed to more Scottish telly English viewers might tire of the deification of Archie Gemmell because he slalomed round some Dutchmen before most of them were born. And it’s unlikely that should Scotland ever qualify for anything ever again that pundit Pat Nevin would only clap politely.
But such cultural differences only serve to highlight the differences between Scotland and England. It’s almost like they are different countries. The celebrations in England should Harry Kane bring the trophy home would only be matched by the despondency in Scotland.
Enough to make Scots vote for independence? It sounds far-fetched but the polls on independence remain fairly tight. It wouldn’t take a big swing to give Nicola Sturgeon the advantage she seeks to trigger another referendum. Where Brexit, austerity and Tory rule could not shift the dial football just might.
Remember Alistair Campbell actually feared English success at Euro 96 would give the Tories a bounce. And independence, particularly in the face of the Brexit chaos at Westminster, is an easier sell than John Major.
The idea that Scots could get behind England at a World Cup is so unlikely that it requires an unlikely explanation. One almost as unlikely as England actually winning the thing. But if football does come home this summer, and I’m right about the impact in Scotland, it may be returning to a broken home.
Photo credit: Press Assocation.