ANOTHER World Cup without Scotland beckons and with it the usual tedious challenge posed to Scots about whether we will support England. I won't. Moreover, I have just about had it with those who demand my sporting allegiance for England, as if of right.
What has happened to this country? It is as if the liberal elite have suddenly decided that not supporting England is now socially unacceptable. For some, failure to back the English is almost tantamount to endorsing some form of nasty, narrow racism. Those of us who choose not to wrap ourselves in the flag of St George and who prefer not to roar with the three lions are apparently to be considered small minded, negative and insecure in our national identity. It is an absurd argument that needs to be confronted.
Let's start from the basics. This is a football tournament. Yes, it is a celebration of unity through sport, but it is also a competition predicated on diversity. It is explicitly a clash of nations; a vibrant, colourful, intense and inspiring collision of national identity. That's the whole point, yet apparently all of a sudden we Scots have to subvert that identity and suddenly pretend that Gordon Brown was right, that 'Britishness' actually means something in the 21st century and that we are one nation united under Fabio. It is both dishonest and patronising to ask and expect that.
The main argument for Scots supporting England has always been that somehow it shows a nation which has finally matured. On that analysis, we have always been small and bitter and now, as we grow back towards full nationhood, we can rise above the pettiness of wanting England to fail. It is a line of argument which is superficially attractive, but unravels very quickly.
First, it assumes that the factors which shape national identity must always be positive. That is plainly silly. Every nation, without exception, defines itself through a combination of what it is, and what it is not. There is nothing wrong in that. Does Canada partly define itself as not being America? Does Ireland enjoy the distinction of not being England? Do the former constituent parts of the Soviet Union have no regard to the darkness of what went before in the make-up of their nationalism?
This tournament is taking place for the first time in Africa. Is there a single nation on that continent not defined by its history? The Scottish footballing rivalry with England has always had a political aspect. But even that is far from unique. In fact it is normal and reasonable. Think about the political backdrop to the rivalries of Sweden versus Denmark, Spain versus Portugal and Chile versus Peru?
Secondly, it is often the case that small nations with larger neighbours especially enjoy exercising that identity in a sporting context. That in itself is not a problem. The problem arises when people wrongly speculate that there is some greater and more sinister agenda at play.
When a rivalry like Spain versus Portugal leads the then manager of Portugal, Luis Felipe Scolari, to note ahead of a game with the Spanish in 2004 that "This is war, and in war it is kill or be killed", it doesn't mean that Portugal wishes famine and pestilence on its near neighbour, or that Portuguese fans want the Spanish economy to crash. In fact, given the precarious state of the euro and the interdependence of those two economies quite the reverse is true. Equally, Scotland and England are so heavily intertwined in terms of social and economic ties that any suggestion that not supporting the English football team is symptomatic of a wider anti-Englishness is bizarre.
Critics often argue that if Scotland qualified for the World Cup and England did not, England would support Scotland. Not only do I not necessarily believe that – ask yourself whether on your trips south over the past decade you have felt more or less welcome as a Scot – I also don't care. Were Scotland to qualify for the World Cup, English support, or lack of it, would come as a total irrelevance to me.
Far from needing to support England to show that Scotland has grown up, I take the opposite view. We will be able to claim that the relationship between the two nations has matured only when people accept that a political union does not equate to national homogeneity.
I am Scottish. No part of me is English. I don't feel British. I am supporting Argentina, Spain and Brazil in this World Cup because they play great football. I don't want to become part of the festival of Englishness to which our cousins south of the border are wholly entitled; but nor do I condemn or criticise it.
In return, I simply claim the right to watch this tournament on my own terms. Scotland did not qualify. It is bad enough that I cannot cheer for my own country in what promises to be a sensational few weeks. But before this thing gets going please can we agree that Scots who don't want to support England can make that choice without some media-fuelled national introspection about whether that makes us narrow-minded bigots?
In fairness, it might do England the power of good if they do win. Finally the ghost of 1966 could be laid to rest and we could consign the grainy images of Geoff Hurst to the archives. But surely the fact that so much is still made of that triumph simply tells us that if there is one nation in these islands with an identity problem and which seeks to use the World Cup as more than a football tournament it isn't Scotland, it's England.