Aidan Smith: ‘We don’t need Labour’s weasel words on football’

Kezia Dugdale has gone from making political pitches at Spartans to TV celebrity in the Outback. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Kezia Dugdale has gone from making political pitches at Spartans to TV celebrity in the Outback. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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So Richard Leonard, the new leader of Scottish Labour and maybe one day Holyrood’s First Minister, has come right out and said that when we play England at football or rugby or presumably even tiddlywinks, he’ll be supporting the Auld Enemy, land of his birth.

I reckon he must have taken counsel from some Parliament veterans of 2006, the year an off-the-cuff remark from one of his predecessors sparked the mother of all stooshies and a constitutional crisis.

If you remember, in football’s World Cup of that year England had qualified but Scotland hadn’t and the question of where Scots should cast their votes – which team they should support – was a penny banger flung into an old metal dustbin.

Jack McConnell kicked off the full and frank exchange of views by announcing he intended to cheer for England’s group rivals Trinidad & Tobago. He justified this on the grounds they played with a bit of flair, had half a dozen Scottish-based players in the squad and the fact he enjoyed those occasions when the little guys left the big shots with a bloody and embarrassed nose.

Two Scots politicos working down south, Lib-Dem leader Menzies Campbell and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, quickly declared their support for David Beckham and his men, with the latter going even further: “Remember that Gazza goal against Scotland at Euro 96? Lobs it over the carthorse centre-half – can’t remember his name – and hits it on the volley. Whap! Dentist’s chair celebration. Glug, glug!”

OK, I’m paraphrasing, but, invited to nominate his favourite goal scored by England, this was Broon’s choice. He was attempting to bring Middle England round to the idea that he could one day become premier. Frustrated at being only the assistant manager, he craved the top job and his wizard wheeze for a national holiday, to be called British Day, was also part of the charm offensive.

Nevertheless, a newspaper leader column called his hosanna-ing of an English hero “as controversial a statement as has ever been issued by a Scottish politician”. Then everyone bar the goalies got involved in the punch-up. A Tory, Michael Portillo, lambasted McConnell for “undignified chippiness” and proposed that England should uncouple a sponging Scotland and let it drift into the North Sea with its greatly reduced stocks of oil and gas.

Portillo was dubbed a “Scotophobe”, as was the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. The prime minister himself, Edinburgh-born Tony Blair, entered the rammy, his aides letting it be known he was “irritated” that Scots weren’t rallying behind the Cross of St George. But that summer, out on the streets of Scottish cities, wearing an England shirt was getting people duffed up.

The United Kingdom was breaking up. The Union was unravelling on the eve of its 300th anniversary. This was what intelligent people were saying. Meanwhile, some other intelligent people, opinion-formers drunk on jingoism, stepped up the bulldog ranting. “It’s time for Scotland to grow up, accept what an enfeebled, dependent wreck it’s become, and recognise the debt it owes England,” went one broadside. “For while the Scots gorge on deep-fried death food, it’s English taxpayers who subsidise the health system that treated their clogged arteries.”

I remember all this because I was writing a book about trying as a Scot to holler: “England, ra ra ra.” I admire Leonard, pictured, for his truthfulness and wish there had been more of it about in 2006. He’s simply being honest. He’s spent most of his life in Scotland and has a Scottish wife – which would be more than enough to qualify him for a game for us – but he’s English. Of course he should support England in their frequently semi-tragic sporting endeavours.

Should Scotland and the Auld Enemy once again contest meaningful football matches, and should he attend, Leonard will find the long lenses trained on him during the anthems and reaction to goals scored. The England rugby team are definitely coming north next February in the Six Nations. But these will be the least of his worries. Labour used to enjoy Old Firm-style supremacy in Scotland – not any more. If they’re ever going to return to power they won’t need weasel words about sporting preferences from their leader – and especially not while his immediate predecessor is munching real weasels on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

2006 was a tawdry affair and no mistake. Who knew McConnell could possibly top the impact made by his too-short designer kilt? He seemed to enjoy being football’s most notorious fan, having not previously shown himself to be much of a fan at all. Blair was accused on knowing “nothing” about football by the then SNP leader, Alex Salmond, a Hearts supporter. There seemed substance to this given that Blair had waxed lyrical about Jackie Milburn, despite being too young to have ever seen the Newcastle United legend play.

Brown said the same thing about David Cameron and again it seemed like a point well made, with the Tory leader admitting he could only name three players from Aston Villa, “the team I half-heartedly support” (and who he would later confuse with West Ham United). But Cameron turned up in Germany, blagging an invite to Beckham’s World Cup party, which led to Cameron and Brown’s flunkeys lobbing metaphorical rolls of Izal at each other. Brown’s lot called Cameron an “immature little twerp”. This was, said one leader column, “an unseemly spat between the two men bidding to be our next Prime Minister”.

In this company, Brown’s football credentials are impeccable. He sold programmes for his beloved Raith Rovers as a laddie and can name the team, one to 11, from the era when they first grabbed his affections. But the game can make mugs of anyone, not least politicians, and there’s only one thing this breed look sillier pretending to like and it’s pop music – as the same Broon, who once raved about the Arctic Monkeys, would surely agree.

Richard Leonard is wise to avoid accusations of carpetbagging, although this won’t be the last time he has to explain his position.