We and us
A small confession: when news of the draw with the United States reached my hotel room last Saturday, I could not suppress a smile. Help. Does that make me anti-English? It is the question we must ritually address every fourth June, for I am not alone in deriving a perverse satisfaction from the failures of the England football team. When Scottish Television organised a competition inviting its viewers to suggest a country worthy of Scottish support during the World Cup, England was not even on the short-list. All over Scotland on Friday night, people will gather in pubs ready to cheer the least Algerian advance on the hapless goalkeeper. What is wrong with us? Is it time we were examined by the men in the white coats?
I don't feel anti-English. I feel anti-metropolitan – opposed to the concentration of power, money and intelligence in London and the arrogance that goes with it; the grotesque inequalities it creates; the unwillingness of successive governments to do anything serious about it. The unhappy results of this centralisation are felt as keenly in Cornwall or Cumbria as they are in Ayrshire or Angus. We are all victims of the lack of equity. We are all entitled to feel aggrieved by it.
In my youth, such was the nature of Scottish education, most of my influences were English, including my two favourite essayists. The first, the son of an Indian colonial official, was brought up in Henley-on-Thames and went to a brutalising prep school on the outskirts of Eastbourne. It is true that, towards the end of his short life, he spent some time in Scotland, writing in Jura and then hospitalised in East Kilbride, but there is no denying that Orwell was as English as they come. The second had lower middle-class roots in the West Riding, in a town he fictionalised as Bruddersford. Priestley appeared to be the quintessential Englishman – a solid, down-to-earth, pipe-smoking Yorkshireman; of course this caricature disguised a more complex emotional hinterland, but his devotion to provincial England was genuine enough.
I learned more from Orwell and Priestley, and later from the Welshman Alan Watkins, than from any Scottish writer or journalist. In a working-class village between Glasgow and Edinburgh I was brought up to believe in something or somewhere called Britain in which the BBC was a civilised and civilising influence – perhaps that is why, offered the chance, I was so keen to work for it. Although I don't find the idea of England so attractive as I once did the vanished idea of Britain, that is a personal cultural preference born mostly of my upbringing. It doesn't make me anti-English, but nor does it explain my shameless frisson of pleasure when I heard of England's poor start to the World Cup.
The explanation is essentially silly because competitive sport is essentially silly, but somehow it gets under Scottish skins, even mine. It is to do with language.
When someone at the BBC asked Terry Venables before the tournament whether 'we' should take the United States seriously, a question rich in multi-faceted absurdity, I remember thinking that I didn't feel part of the 'we', the national community of interest implicit in the question. The chauvinism around football makes all sorts of lazy assumptions about large sections of the population – including many women – who feel disconnected from patriotism in this form or perhaps in any other.
Occasionally employed, 'we' or 'us' in this context would be a source of no more than mild irritation. There are people at the BBC being paid six-figure sums to prevent such solecisms, but it seems these executives cannot be expected to listen to the actual programmes; bad journalism gets through anyway. However, their use is not occasional, it is constant; the tiny words 'we' and 'us' are repeated hundreds of times in discussion of the English team and even when more neutral language is employed, the jingoistic tone is unmistakable. The effect is inevitably alienating. It excludes anyone who is not part of the club, among them English people – there will be some – who are not natural patriots or to whom football expresses nothing of value.
What are other parts of the disintegrating kingdom expected to make of this? What are the men in the pub next door expected to make of it? If I joined the smokers outside and did an informal poll, I have no doubt that the biased commentaries would be the major source of resentment and of anti-English sentiment. If Terry Venables had been asked, 'Should England take the United States seriously as a footballing nation?', it would have been a more formal question but one less likely to offend.
Yes, indeed, it is all very silly and it will all be over in a few weeks and quickly forgotten. But, for the time being, it matters. So when I smiled in my hotel room on Saturday night it was because jingoism, one of the least attractive of all human qualities, had been punctured in South Africa. Here is another small confession: I would have felt exactly the same about puffed-up Scottish pride.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review