Tom Peterkin: What’s wrong with Richard Leonard supporting England?

Scottish Labour leader’s support for English teams should not be an issue in modern Scotland, writes Tom Peterkin

Scottish Labour leader’s support for English teams should not be an issue in modern Scotland, writes Tom Peterkin

It is an oft-repeated adage that sport and politics should not mix. Sometimes, however, it seems that they are inseparable. The latest politician to make headlines for commenting on sport is Richard Leonard, the newly installed Scottish Labour leader.

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As an Englishman born and brought up in Yorkshire, Mr Leonard made the not unsurprising admission that he supports England at football and rugby.

Furthermore, were England to play Scotland, he would support the land of his birth even though he has spent his adult life in Scotland.

“If it’s England vs Scotland, I do support England,” Mr Leonard said. “Every other game I will support either Scotland or England, I’m not going to make up something that’s inaccurate.”

For most people this would be a completely unremarkable thing to say. No one bats an eyelid when an expat Anglo-Scot admits to supporting Scotland against England. But the rules appear to be different when you are the leader of a Scottish political party.

At various points during Labour’s nine-week campaign, Mr Leonard’s nationality was raised as an issue – the suggestion being that an Englishman might struggle to connect with Scottish voters when the independence question looms large over the political landscape.

And, at a time when Labour seems to be going through leaders in much the same way that a struggling football club ditches managers, any weakness will be pounced on.

But whether the list of a leader’s perceived weak points should be what nationality he happens to be or what national football team he happens to support is a moot point.

Nevertheless the question of whether Scotland is ready for an England-supporting politician running in the race for Bute House has become a bit of a thing.

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At the very least, Mr Leonard can take solace from the fact that his honest answer to a straightforward question spared him from the ridicule that others have attracted.

Tripping up politicians on sport has long been an entertaining game for the press pack.

Some years ago, at the Scottish Tory conference in Perth, a group of Sunday journalists were waiting to doorstep Iain Duncan Smith when he was Leader of the Opposition. The group of hacks couldn’t help noticing that the man from the News of the World was grasping a See-You Jimmy hat in his paw.

To everyone’s disappointment, Mr Duncan Smith refused an invitation to pose for a picture wearing the elegant ginger wig and Tam O’Shanter ensemble.

Happily, the day was saved for the tabloids when Mr Duncan Smith was asked who the Scotland football manager was. His inability to name Berti Vogts caused glee. His failure to remember a manager who most of us would rather forget grabbed the next day’s headlines.

A similar case of sporting amnesia led to David Cameron claiming to support West Ham when he is supposed to be an Aston Villa fan.

Equally laughable was Alex Salmond’s appeal for Scots to support “Scolympians” during London 2012 – a plea that suggested the then First Minister was unable to bear the thought of Scottish athletes competing for Team GB.

The attitude of Scottish political leaders to English sporting teams has proved particularly problematic.

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Gordon Brown’s admiration of Paul Gascoigne’s brilliant goal against Scotland in the 1996 European Championships was portrayed in Scotland as a contrived and unpatriotic attempt to curry favour with English voters.

The last Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell, went to the other extreme in the 2006 World Cup when he pointedly said he would not be supporting England (Scotland had not qualified – again), preferring to root for the underdogs.

His argument that he did not link his politics with his sporting allegiances did nothing to quell the inevitable row from those who felt Scotland’s most prominent politician ought to set traditional football rivalries aside and lend his support to England.

Perhaps Mr (now Lord) McConnell’s stance could have been explained by a desire to underline his Scottishness in the face of the threat posed by the SNP – a party with national identity engraved on its heart.

Whether you are a Scottish Labour Prime Minister or a Scottish Labour First Minister, it would appear that sporting allegiances can prove troublesome.

Experience tells us that Mr Leonard’s candour about his football loyalties will not play particularly well in a political arena where a key dynamic is how convincingly a Scottish party represents Scottish interests.

The SNP has made a virtue out of standing up for Scotland against Westminster.

Ruth Davidson’s Tories are increasingly seen as a distinct Scottish entity at Holyrood and Westminster, while previous Labour leaders have invested much effort in asserting Scottish Labour’s autonomy from the UK party.

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But, regardless of the nature of Scottish politics, there is something disturbing about the idea that nationality and support for a football or rugby team is somehow relevant to our politics. Mr Leonard should be commended for standing up for his country and its teams.

The fault lies with attitudes in Scotland. In 2017 Scotland should be ready for an England-supporting political leader and something is wrong if we are not.