By I Am Séamus Fierce
Hey everyone, belated Happy Armed Forces Day!
What? That was in June? Oh yeah, it was. But there’s been another one. We need to have one during the football season you see, because nothing says ‘healthy democracy’ like a mob of uniformed combat troops parading on field prior to a sporting event.
Who to host? Step forward the patriotic proprietors of Castle Greysk… sorry, Ibrox Park.
For those of you who may have missed it due to not being members of the Holy Fraternity of Paranoid Bead-Rattlers, allow me to direct your gaze to the following astonishing scenes from last Saturday.
Sticking two red, white and blue fingers up at the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, 400 service personnel strolled around waving for a bit, before jumping up and down singing traditional folk songs such as: ‘
‘Rule Britannia (slavery was a hoot)’;
‘We Are The (vaguely fascistic) People’;
‘The Cry Was No Surrender’ (“surrender or you’ll be subject to UN sanctions/DIE DIE DIE”);
‘Father’s Advice’ (the one about pistols and rifles stopping a united Ireland, augmented by shouts of “fuck Bobby Sands he’s deid”);
and – not just for toddlers and people with brain injuries – ‘The Bouncy’, the one that looks genuinely fun and harmless, until you discover its origins are laughing about a boy being kicked to death in a sectarian attack.
Maybe it’s just my formative years of Catholic school, brightly-coloured party pills and happy clappy peace marches, but to me there is something deeply horrifying about this spectacle. North Korean TV will probably include it in a documentary about how weird British society is, interspersed with footage of people Morris dancing, binge drinking on alcopops, and weeping uncontrollably when they discovered Dodi Fayed’s girlfriend had expired.
I don’t wish to over-generalise. I know not everyone who follows the Teddy Bears is a bigot, just as not everyone in the army is a sadistic baby killer. I’m not saying no-one is allowed to follow follow their team, or that everyone associated with the military is automatically evil. But sometimes you have to analyse social forces as a whole, and when you combine Rangers FC (or whatever they’re called since they became undead) and the British Army, a chemical reaction occurs with toxic side-effects. They bring out the worst in each other, then shake it about in public and bang massive drums so everyone knows about it.
Living in the West of Scotland sectarian fishbowl, occasionally you talk to bluenoses at work or in your peer group about this stuff. A lot of the time you reach common ground, accept mutual criticism and imagine a more peaceful future. Then something like Saturday happens and all progress seems to go out the window. Such events are offensive and antagonistic to most people, especially those not of White Anglo Saxon Protestant stock. Yet, to me at least, it feels like as soon as the temperature rises, the shutters come down, and far too many otherwise brilliant people start defending the indefensible. You talk again, explaining why you’re appalled and asking them to act on their principles, but it’s like trying to tell a paralytic drunk that they’ve been sick on your couch and it’s time to go home – it’s normally an easy conversation, but now the response is irrelevant gibberish, slurred insults or a violent outburst.
The aforementioned directives on songs at football matches were meant to stop all of this. In practice, it’s meant specialist police teams investing time and taxpayer’s cash into harassing a lot of ordinary fans. This isn’t just delusional Timmy talking. Motherwell fans were recently incensed at in-your-face crowd control, the same that’s been used against the anti-cuts movement. The suspicion is that grassroots supporters’ organisations are viewed as a threat by the social-gentrifying forces of football’s money men. But for all the ill-feeling I have against Police Scotland over this, I can’t help but sympathise with any members of the Anti-Sectarian Taskforce who actually wanted to do their job at Ibrox. What were they gonna do, start huckling navy seals in front of a 40,000+ crowd whipped into nationalist fervour? Aye, right.
Here lies the essence of so many grudges. There’s a common perception that the law isn’t applied equally because of the threat of a unionist backlash. A similar thing happens every summer. It’s an open secret that many cops turn a blind eye to law-breaking (sometimes serious) at Orange parades because it’s not safe to intervene. This has just settled as a truism. To outside observers it’s extraordinary, yet we’ve allowed it to become the norm. The problem is, when the authorities create a flagship law against ‘offensive behaviour’ at football, with constant innuendo about “one side’s as bad as the other”, then each side will keep an eye on how the other side is being dealt with. What you see in that video is a flagrant violation of the spirit and letter of the law, all the more remarkable because it was co-organised by 2 of Scotland’s foremost public institutions.
I wonder if it’s galling to military families to see their loved ones used as political footballs like this. Just as war is a good way for governments to distract an unhappy population, organising yet another Armed Forces display at half-time is a good way for a dysfunctional club board to deflect the attention of restless fans. If that was their intention, it didn’t work, as ‘sack the board’ protests ensued. This was deemed a big story by the Record, yet ‘our boys’ singing about killing our neighbours didn’t warrant a mention. No surprise to anyone familiar with the cosy relationship between authority and sports journalism in bonny hackland.
Not that concern for troops doesn’t make great copy. Just last week shadow defence minister (and candidate for Weekly Wanker) Jim Murphy was splashed proposing an Orwellian new criminal offence of insulting members of the armed forces. I’m sympathetic to the plight of many working-class soldiers who leave the army only to find themselves casts them on the scrapheap. But this type of jingoism feeds into a dark undercurrent of British nationalism – everything the military does is justified; don’t dare criticise; if you don’t like it you can get to France.
The whole episode shines a light on just what a mess of unresolvable contradictions the UK state is. In theory, the armed forces defend the country from external dangers, serving all citizens regardless of social group or political opinion. These events showed that present reality does not match that ideal. All the modernisation and positive thinking in the world won’t convince a significant part of the population now that the military is not an institutionally hostile entity to them. Hypothetically, I wonder if an independent Scotland’s new Defence Force would cause such partisan division. Probably not. Yet it’s also unlikely that any football club would have these new forces parading at their ground; somehow it wouldn’t have the same pathos.
Context is everything, and it’s impossible to say “it’s just a carry on” given the Troubles are still in living memory. I can’t see how you can maintain a defence of “it’s a small minority” given that British troops were until recently active in large numbers on the streets of Northern Ireland; maintaining a sectarian statelet, often through the tried-and-tested means of military occupation. It is representative This is Britain. This is one example of the trail of division and destruction left in the Empire’s wake. There has been little in the way of acknowledging the sins of our forebears. While the independence referendum gives us a chance to imagine a new country dedicated to fostering peace in the world, we ought not to maintain the myth that a bigger boy made Scotland participate in colonialism. I don’t mean this as a guilt trip, I mean it as a call to improve the way all levels of our society operate, including the culture in football grounds.
That’s where ordinary punters come in. Nothing changes without people speaking out. Individual members of the military are not the problem, but militarism is. It’s a danger to democracy. While we can breathe a sigh of relief that the government was prevented from blundering into a bombing campaign in Syria, competition for resources makes more years of war a terrifying prospect. Media and government have led a concerted effort to crank up pro-military sentimentality in recent years. It’s not ungrateful to say they do it for cynical reasons which harm all of us.
We are at a crossroads – stay on the route of intervening in the Middle East, sacrificing hundreds of young people to maintain corporate profits and power. Alternatively, smash the structures that have locked us in this downward spiral, and rebuild our country from the bottom up, setting us on a sustainable path that provides a real future for all.
Something has to come of this, or the long-term consequences will be serious. What should be done exactly? To be honest I’m not sure. Even if it is just going through the motions, there has to be some sort of accountability and contrition. I will make one suggestion though. A common get-out clause I hear from progressive pro-independence Rangers fans who participate in this type of thing is that it’s just the way it is, it’s just part of following the club. In a facebook barney the other day, someone said to me ‘Rule Britannia’ is “just a football song”. I once had a guy telling me there were Union Jacks everywhere simply because it’s the same colours as the Gers top. This won’t do.
Loyalist songs, British flags and military displays are political acts. They generate a response from lefty hand-wringers like me and many others beside. There is nothing wrong with following your team, and I get that many Rangers fans are tired of being guilt-tripped for which team they like. But the division between politics and club that you invoke when on the defensive is currently only an idea. You won’t create that desirable type of secularism simply by telling people to stop criticising reality. You make it by taking charge of the situation and demanding an end to the backwardness and bigotry which was all too evident last week. It won’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. But if good things come to those who wait, even better comes to those who stand up for what’s right.
Will anything change? Will the powers-that-be rethink the wisdom of such events? Well, we’ll find out soon enough, as they also have a big military commemoration ceremony on Remembrance day. The joys.
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