Attacks on Scottish tennis star suggest an intolerance of cultural diversity among ruling elite, writes Joyce McMillan
HE’S THE GREATEST male tennis player Britain has produced in 70 years; and once again, he has hauled himself by the narrowest of margins into the semi-finals of Wimbledon, the world’s premier tennis tournament. So this should, all things being equal, be a moment for enjoying and celebrating Andy Murray’s huge sporting achievement, whether he goes on to win the championship or not, He has, after all, already chalked up a year of outstanding success, winning Olympic gold for Team GB in London last summer, and taking his first grand slam title.
Yet when it comes to Andy Murray, it seems that “the nation”, if that nation is Britain, can never simply sit back and enjoy his success; and not only because of his nail-biting habit of dropping a couple of sets, even in matches he fully expects to win. For Andy is Scottish; and Scottish in a way that somehow seems to ruffle feathers, and to cause debate. As soon as he appears on court, for example – particularly at Wimbledon – assorted wags in Scottish cyberspace begin the time-honoured game of accusing BBC commentators of describing Andy as “British” whenever he wins, and “Scottish” whenever he does badly; although whether this actually happens or not remains unproven, at best.
This chip-on-shoulder strand of complaint is not the only problem, though; for there are always just enough snobbish buffoons, in certain sections of the UK media, who are prepared to play up to these complaints, and to talk about Andy as if he were some kind of weird cultural anomaly. One charming respondent to a Daily Telegraph blog yesterday described him as a “harrumphing haggis” whose demeanour is “horrid”. And Andy Murray’s more serious press archive is also full of vaguely hostile stuff about whether “we” can “learn to love” the grumpy Scotsman; or whether the public tears he shed after losing last year’s Wimbledon final – and on a recent television documentary, when he was asked about the Dunblane shooting through which he lived as a child – have finally convinced people that “he is human”.
Well, so far, so foolish; to some extent, all of this is just showbiz, with major players being built up as heroes or villains like the afternoon wrestling stars of the 1970s. All the same, there are aspects of the response to Andy Murray that I find slightly worrying. For in the first place, the stereotyping to which Andy Murray is subjected by certain elements in the UK media is strikingly similar to the baiting of Gordon Brown, towards the end of his premiership, when he was subjected to increasingly humiliating demands that he appear on chat-shows, talk about his private life, weep over the loss of his child, and generally “prove” his humanity, as against some supposed image of Scottish “dourness”.
There is, in other words, some kind of double standard in operation; Tim Henman and David Cameron can be assumed to be human, whereas these granite-faced Scots have to “prove” it. Nor, alas, do all Scots have the confidence to kick this kind of crude ethnic stereotyping out of the park. On the contrary, the social networks are full of Scots cheerfully accepting the definition of themselves as dour – although, on another day, I suppose those same idiots could also be found endorsing the alternative cliché that Scots are all drunken, aggressive and over-emotional. Stereotypes of national character are false by definition, and dangerous the moment anyone begins to take them seriously; yet we still deploy them, even against ourselves.
What the treatment of Andy Murray suggests, in other words, is a growing intolerance of real cultural diversity among some elements of Britain’s ruling elites, an intolerance often internalised and deployed even by the groups against whom it is used. In theory, our elites are all for cultural diversity and classlessness. Yet in practice, MPs with regional accents are increasingly jeered at in the House of Commons by phalanxes of Identikit career politicians, a staggering proportion of them educated at public schools. The traditional trade union route into political life has been all but shut down. And in sport – well, working-class heroes are the norm in sports like football and athletics, and are often much loved, particularly if they blush when they meet the Queen and eventually send their children to Eton.
Andy Murray, though, is a champion in a solo sport traditionally dominated by the well-to-do; and beyond that, he is a man who clearly defers to no-one. His political views on the matter of independence are not known; but he is not about to apologise for being Scottish, to indulge in forelock-tugging displays of British patriotism, or to accept a scale of values which suggests that an education at Dunblane High School – and in the remarkable community of Dunblane itself – is somehow inferior to an education at Eton.
And for a ruling class used to regarding themselves as the cultural norm, and everyone else – that is, 99 per cent of the UK population – as some kind of inferior and badly-spoken version of themselves, that kind of confidence, coming from someone with a very different cultural background, is deeply unsettling. Andy Murray will perhaps, one day, be accepted as a national treasure, and a darling of the British establishment; but not until he too becomes a Thames Valley boy, and sends his children to those schools that call themselves “good”, despite the evident social harm they do.
And if he does not follow that path, he will continue to itch away at Britain’s national life like a piece of grit in an oyster. The brilliant tennis he plays will be the pearl. But his boldness and skill, in daring to become a prince of tennis without changing his accent or bending the knee, will continue to send a ripple of unease through a metropolitan elite increasingly unused to Murray’s kind of challenge, and increasingly unnerved by the idea of a generation of Scots who will not defer to the values and culture they represent; even though the polls suggest that, with or without that new self-confidence, Scots will not vote to end the Union in 2014 – or at least, will not vote to end it yet.