Rangers and the Union have changed forever
- 02 October 2014
In the book ‘Born Under a Union Flag’, I had a written debate with Scottish writer Alan Bissett on Rangers, independence and unionism. I ended with a referendum prediction that “most Scots are happy being British citizens and see no reason to change. For Rangers fans, there will probably be the same attitude. I suspect most will choose Unionism, while a large minority will vote for nationalism.”
This is hardly earth-shattering analysis, but it was the ordinariness of the Gers support I wished to get across. While Rangers’ collective fan culture is undoubtedly expressed in unionist songs and symbols, there is a wide variety of opinions amongst individuals which do not follow the stereotypes. This is why I deliberately said there would be a ‘large’ minority of Rangers fans who will vote Yes. Far from being wacky outliers, the fanbase more or less follows the Scottish average.
Assuming Aberdeen FC fans voted in Aberdeen, Falkirk FC fans in Falkirk, Hibs and Hearts fans in Edinburgh, then with the final voting figures for each area taken into account, there is a case for suggesting that as many unionists watch the Dons, Falkirk, Hibs or Hearts as Rangers. Whether this is exactly true in each case doesn’t matter as it won’t be that far off. Most Rangers fans are unionists, with a large percentage nationalists and some who don’t care - just like the rest of Scotland.
There are roughly three types of supporters when it comes to Rangers and their attitude to Britain. (In reality it is more of a spectrum of identity, as many unionists are equally, or even more, proud of their Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish identity, but I’m using how an individual would vote in the referendum as a guide.) Firstly, there are supporters who literally wrap themselves in the Union Flag, and see Britain and Rangers as the same thing. The second are strong unionists and nationalists who are Rangers fans but don’t link their nationality with football. Lastly, there are those who couldn’t care less about national identity and just follow the team.
The numbers in each are impossible to tell without some scientific polling, but in my opinion - and feel free to politely disagree - the latter two groups are in the majority and growing. While supporting Rangers is often expressed with legal unionist songs and symbolism, I don’t believe the majority are using it for anything other than to support the players on the pitch with noise and passion.
All fan culture is a broad church, and crowds tend to fall into the easy and familiar path of least resistance when expressing themselves against ‘the other’. That is why unionist Aberdeen or Edinburgh football fans go crazy when hearing pro-union songs even when their cities voted overwhelmingly for the United Kingdom. Recently, Falkirk fans, who belong to a 53% unionist area sang Flower of Scotland to try and annoy Rangers fans who come from Glasgow, a 53% nationalist area. It seems obvious that both are verbally fighting each other with stereotypes each side hold as a collective truth, but which doesn’t necessarily represent the individual.
None of this is a moral judgment. No-one is a better person for wrapping themselves in a flag or not, but we have a problem when a minority in the first group mix Rangers and unionism in ways that harm both. On the 19th September at George Square, Glasgow, a group of unionists supposedly had Rangers banners, and seemed happy to identify their bad behaviour as the epitome of being ‘Rangers and British’.
This isn’t in any way true, but unfortunately there was a minority of journalists, and many on social media, who were absolutely delighted to help them in their goal of portraying all Rangers fans and unionists as aggressive and exclusive. Once again, there is nothing wrong with flying flags or having pride in your country - if that is a crime then I too am guilty - but when you add twisted faces full of rage and straight-armed salutes you are killing the very thing you say you love most.
(No doubt someone will reply that it was a ‘red-hand of ulster salute’ and had nothing to do with national socialism. Whether true or not doesn’t matter one bit. That excuse is only available to someone who has never seen a Nazi salute and I doubt there are any. If a hundred people decide in private that they will slap strangers as a sign of respect, they may well believe it as a group, but don’t expect anyone else to see it that way.)
The truth is that social stereotypes are crumbling everywhere. The union and Rangers portrayed at George Square doesn’t exist except in the minds of a few. They assumed they were the best of British, but it was the worst. This minority have a symbol fetish which equates Britain or Rangers with inanimate objects, historical dates and ideas thankfully long past their time. They believe most Rangers fans and British people have betrayed them and the past they idolise, yet straight-armed salutes outside the cenotaph would have disgusted the previous generations they think they emulate. Jim Murphy MP, a Catholic and Celtic fan, probably someone a good few in George Square would dislike, exemplified the best of British values during the referendum campaign. He spoke with dignity and determination about the people of Britain fighting for social justice and helped keep the country together.
The Rangers and Britain of today is not the same as a hundred, fifty or even ten years ago. They have changed forever. But before you become sad or angry, remember that this has always been the case. Rangers once played in hoops and in the east-end of Glasgow. Britain once refused women the vote, never mind equal rights for all. Without change nothing exists. I know some would rather Rangers or the Union ended so they can live in a fantasy world of a frozen past, but the majority don’t and should see the near-death of Rangers and Britain over the last few years for the opportunity it is.
Whatever team, group or country you belong to, you have a duty to claim your history. That doesn’t mean you have to deify it as perfect, or disown it because generations before you made mistakes. Nacho Novo or Jon Daly would not be allowed to play in the Rangers team of the 1950s. That was wrong and we are all the better for it being a non-issue today. The truth is that while we don’t live in a utopia, the overwhelming majority of Rangers fans look upon not playing Catholics with as much shock and puzzlement as anyone else. That rarely gets through to the wider community because a minority shout the loudest, while the rest can’t be bothered with it. The former get easy headlines and the narrative continues unchallenged and ordinary people are unfairly tarnished.
I love Britain for giving me freedom and democracy. I love Rangers FC for the hours of pleasure and pride in my football team. But neither can survive if we treat them like an old pressed flower, crushed and hidden away in the closed pages of a history book. They have to see the light and grow - sometimes in ways we don't expect. Whether it is politics or sport we can’t deny our past, but we can’t live in it either. Without tradition we have nothing to build on, but without new ideas and change we will die. Pick what’s best about the past and fill the rest with what’s best of the present and move forward. Always move forward.