Alan Bissett – the Falkirk-born novelist, playwright and performer – has a complicated relationship with Rangers. He has been publicly labelled as a supporter because the club features in his novels 'Boyracers' and 'Pack Men' and he did follow Rangers between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. But the contemporary relationship is more anthropological than intimate.
He explained: 'I suppose it's worth saying, first of all, that I wouldn't describe myself as a Rangers fan but somebody who's got a Rangers past'. The combination of his growing engagement with other cultural pursuits and leaving Falkirk to go to university served to undermine his previous attachment to Rangers. He continued: 'The other thing that happened was that you start to become aware of the whole sectarian element which I found uncomfortable'. In addition to the sectarianism, he began to find the overt unionism insurmountable. He summarised: 'It got to the point where I was challenging my Rangers supporting mates and I thought, well if I'm at that stage can I reasonably call myself a Rangers supporter?'
Despite maintaining a critical distance, Bissett has been drawn towards the financial plight of the club and he feels strongly that the club should repay its debts. The formation of a 'newco' is one possible outcome but Bissett, like many others, would be saddened to see this. He said: 'It wouldn't be the same. I think Scotland would be losing something...Govan has already had the shipyards taken away from it, to then lose Rangers...you're basically just grinding that community into the ground. Rangers are what give that area, in the absence of economic opportunity, purpose and self-belief'.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he favours one particular resolution to the current situation. He argued: 'As a socialist, I think fan ownership is the way ahead. What I thought was very interesting was when Rangers owed money to Dunfermline and Dundee United and the fans themselves raised the money to pay these clubs off'. He pointed out that because of a dispute only Dunfermline received payment but was still of the opinion that the fans would be more likely to look after other clubs and small creditors than figures like Sir David Murray or Craig Whyte, both of whom prioritised their own needs. Bissett went on: 'That's what [Sir David] Murray did, he got out when he realised it was game over'.
Asked if he could ever envision a time when he would once again describe himself as a Rangers fan he responded: 'Weekly fixtures and transfers and league positions and stuff like that bores me. I'm interested in the human drama of football: what clubs represent politically, what they represent for communities and what they represent emotionally'. He held out the prospect of a route back into football through Rangers if the club became fan-owned and the culture emphasised its roots in Glasgow and Govan, rather than being defined by unionism and Britishness. It would be a mistake to regard the culture surrounding Rangers as static but any change is likely to be slow and must, by necessity, be organic and popular.
'Pack Men', Bissett's most recent novel, follows three of the characters from 'Boyracers' as they join the armada heading to Manchester for Rangers' appearance in the 2008 UEFA cup final. He made the trip himself and it evoked a conflicting sense of nostalgia and the very things that had complicated his relationship in the first place.
'Pack Men' can be read as Bissett trying to reconcile his intellectual and emotional relationship with Rangers. He said: 'Over the course of writing the book I had to think my way back in'. He was conscious of the need to undermine the more lurid stereotypes that exist about Rangers fans while reflecting the occasionally fraught relationship between Rangers and elements of Scottish society. He went on: 'It felt like I was trying to explain Rangers to the world and explain the world to Rangers. I had to explain why Rangers fans are so disliked, I had to look at that, but also try and use the novel to say "wait a minute, sometimes Rangers fans don't get a fair crack of the whip"'.
Adrian Searle, writing in the Scottish Review of Books, suggested that it is possible to see 'Pack Men' as a descendant of some of the work of Alan Spence in the way it explores working-class Protestant experience. Attitudes to Rangers are an important element of both 'Pack Men' and Spence's novel 'The Magic Flute' and often act as metaphors for larger themes such as social mobility and alienation from one's roots. Bissett acknowledged a debt to Spence and said: '"The Magic Flute" probably did influence "Pack Men" to a certain extent, if for no other reason than it's the only contemporary Scottish novel that I can think of that's directly looking Scottish Protestantism in the face'.
Bissett agreed when asked if he thought this was remarkable and went on to say: 'There's a cultural Protestantism by which people mean, generally, "I'm a Rangers supporter, or I'm a unionist, or I went to Sunday school". I'm an atheist, and I'm against all religions, so I've no interest in defending Protestantism, as such, but given that there are a lot of cultural Protestants out there in Scotland, why aren't they represented in the novels? Now that might be because artists aren't comfortable with being seen to be defending that community because of the connotations that come with it or because many artists are Celtic supporters. And I think it's possibly true that there are more Scottish novelists who are openly Catholic than there are who are openly Protestant. That's fine but it does seem like a remarkable absence. So I think he [Spence] made it all right to go there'.
Reflecting on this perceived imbalance, and some of the attitudes it possibly legitimises, he revealed: 'When the whole issue of Rangers has come up somebody's said "oh you're not a dirty hun are you?". My response has been "well no, but what if I was?", meaning, if I am do you have a problem with that? Or, if I am, why would you think it's acceptable to use that language against me? But the word hun is somehow all right – a word that most Rangers fans take offence to – and to then preface it with the word dirty and that can be written off as banter'.
Bissett claimed this had happened on at least two occasions and had involved someone 'high-up' in Scotland’s artistic community. He added: 'It is inconceivable in the world of the arts that I could go "oh, you're not a dirty fenian are you?". I'd be extradited'. He concluded: 'So that's when the tribalism comes back out in me, when I feel the need to challenge that and point out that that's not acceptable'.
In Scotland, certain forms of tribalism are often reinforcing and this makes them more potent and stubborn. Football, religious and cultural allegiances overlap to a significant extent and this blend can find negative expression in what is popularly referred to as sectarianism. The issue features prominently in 'Pack Men'. Bissett recalled a personal encounter with sectarianism as a teenager that he continues to use as a reference. During a game of football he exchanged sectarian insults with a Celtic-supporting friend, something he quickly regretted. What Bissett seemed to be describing was the unconscious imbibing of tribalism and the way it found expression at a particular moment of antagonism – despite not being deeply felt. While not to be dismissed, it does lead to questions about the significance or intent we attach to the expression of sectarianism.
He considered one of the less remarked upon aspects of the sectarianism debate and related issues: the fact that by implication you are attacking some people's sense of themselves. He said: 'You don't want to deny somebody their cultural heritage. People have the right to support the union, people have the right to be Protestant. I'm an atheist so the arguments between Protestants and Catholics, to me, is like arguments between goblins and fairies'. Nevertheless, he recognised that challenging too strongly an individual's political, religious or cultural affinities was likely to create an anxiety that would be counter-productive.
He added: 'I'm uncomfortable with unionism and that aspect of Rangers supporting and I do think to a certain extent that it is a false consciousness and that Rangers fans have been asked to identify with very, very rich people who essentially are the controlling interests of Great Britain. Rangers fans have been convinced that somehow the Queen represents them and Irish Catholics, or Irish Catholic immigrants are the enemy. That is a false consciousness but I don't think you're going make much headway by telling them they are morally corrupt for believing in that consciousness'.
Tribalism is, to a certain extent, legitimised by historical memory and the perception of hostility from others. Bissett asserted: 'I think the reason why so many people of Irish descent identify so heavily with the Catholic Church is because of that legacy of persecution when they first came to Glasgow which was real and did exist. So if you're part of a persecuted group – and, to be honest, I think Rangers fans feel this way as well, when they're being attacked by the media or by Celtic fans or by Scottish society – you go further into it rather than saying "why are we being criticised?"'.
'I feel the same way, in some respects, about the Orange Order as I do about the Catholic Church who do a lot of work for charity: I'm glad they're doing it but they're essentially still a powerful institution who command loyalty from the tribe...a lot of Catholics of Irish descent, who have the same working-class concerns as Rangers fans, get caught up in the whole Catholic thing which prevents them from making that connection. I understand why these tribes take place. People feel the need to identify with a group and then take on the iconography of it and I understand why'. Bissett suggested that anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness are often conflated and while he has a problem with the latter, which is racism, he doesn't particularly have a problem with the former.
Celtic, like Rangers, are often a vehicle for the expression of a tribal identity. There are aspects of the culture surrounding the club that many find problematic even if they don't necessarily consider them to be the equivalent of what is found with Rangers. Bissett said: 'The sectarian element within the Celtic support clearly does exist and a lot of Celtic fans will tell you that they notice it at away games when you're getting the hardcore. Now the particular brand of sectarianism that Celtic supporters are involved in...unless they're glorifying in IRA murder...I don't find it as problematic as I do the stuff that comes with Rangers because they're not equal and opposite forces'.
This assessment, drawing on the dynamics of the situation in Ireland, will be viewed as contentious in a number of respects, not this least of which is the ranking of different forms of bad behaviour. Many Celtic fans will deny they have a problem with sectarianism at all while Rangers fans will argue that their problems shouldn't be elevated above those of others.
Bissett's views will doubtless elicit criticism, some of it from sources more used to antagonising each other. One of the more striking aspects of his comments about Rangers is that they represent an isolated example of a cultural figure being willing to reflect publicly on the current situation at the club. Some will see this as a mixed blessing given his critical stance on a number of issues. But criticism can be a catalyst for positive change and the more interesting response is to consider how many other fans have been alienated, their affection dormant but ready to be put to use in the right circumstances.
Alasdair McKillop is a member of the Rangers Supporters Trust writing in an independent capacity