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The SNP is no match for Scotland’s Tartan Army

Not necessarily an SNP voter. Credit: Getty

June 19, 2024 - 10:00am

As the Scotland national football team gears up to play Switzerland at Euro 2024 today, memories of last week’s 5-1 defeat to Germany remain at the front of fans’ minds. “Last night was easily the most inept, cowardly display ever… worse than I could ever have imagined in my worst nightmares,” was one fairly representative post on the “Tartan Army” (TA) message board.

There are an estimated 200,000 Scots assembled in Germany for the Euros. Many will have spent a fortune travelling and staying there. Friday was beyond dismal, and another defeat today could see the team effectively out of the competition in less than a week. But any remotely realistic Scotland fan would have known that this was a likely possibility. So, what drives the Tartan Army, swollen at this tournament to one in 25 of the Scottish population, to expose themselves to this punishment?

The TA, dubbed “the world’s friendliest fans”, are a magnet for the media. And the recognition is lightly won, earned merely by dressing like extras from Brigadoon, mugging for selfies with locals, dancing in fountains, not punching anyone, and not being English.

Or, more romantically, perhaps it is a sense of escapism that drives us to these lengths. Listen to the grim litany of Scottish towns in The Proclaimers’ “Letter to America” (“Bathgate, Linwood, Methil, Lochaber… no more”) and it’s easy to understand the wistful appeal of flight from a humdrum existence which lurks in every Scottish soul. Brief campaigns with the national team might partially sate a sentimental yearning for adventure.

The other non-motivating factor would seem to be the cause of independence. Nationalism, yes, but not — despite a committed faction of “indy” supporters on the message boards — the break-up of the Union. There are no political banners at games and no official endorsement of independence has ever emerged. The SNP bigwigs keep their distance, attending games on freebies but not mingling with the fans.

Despite occasional attempts to co-opt the TA by members of the SNP, the fans have proved sceptical of such overtures and remained largely apolitical. I can remember encountering Alex Salmond, then party leader, at a Scotland World Cup game in France 1998. He arrived with a photographer in tow and latched on to groups of fans mingling in a park pre-match. He wasn’t abused, but since it was obvious what he was after he wasn’t exactly welcomed either.

His successor as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, made a few attempts to pass herself off as a football fan at opportune moments, but they generally provoked more ridicule than admiration. She was widely mocked for an over-the-top and clearly choreographed celebration of Scotland’s 0-0 draw with England at Euro 2020. No one ever really bought her as Tartan Army material.

Evidence for why this might be was revealed when Sturgeon condemned the anti-English chants of fans partying in London at Euro 2020. She wasn’t entirely wrong to do so, but the real source of Sturgeon’s ire was probably the difference in tone from her brand of government-endorsed “progressive” nationalism and the blunter, ruder TA version. Singing, of Shakespeare, “You’re just a shite Rabbie Burns” and passing aspersions on the late Jimmy Hill’s sexuality didn’t pass the SNP purity test. And it’s funny — so a definite no-no with the Nats.

Perhaps the SNP resents a rival nationalist (but not explicitly separatist) force representing Scotland. As well it might: whatever the motivation of the tartan hordes in Germany, their exertions will get a bit of benign jingoism and rivalrous Anglophobia out of their system, rendering the UK a valuable service in the process.

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.

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Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
1 month ago

“Anglophobia”, I think, is used very cynically by the ruling caste in Scotland as a means to domesticate it’s nationalistic population.

Instead of risking kindling populist and genuinely nationalistic policies out of the Scottish populace, Anglophobia makes it so that Scottish identity is defined purely against England, and any political projects “England” is purported to be supporting.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Perhaps the SNP resents a rival nationalist (but not explicitly separatist) force representing Scotland.
Does this mean that nationalism is not the malign force we’re told it is?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

The SNP will jump in the polls if Scotland do well in the Euros ahead of the Westminster elections because the Scottish football team promotes Scottish national pride.