The nature of prejudice and its role in the subjugation of groups in just about every human society has long been discussed by social scientists. It remains a cultural heirloom passed down the generations and as such can be difficult to eradicate. Abraham Lincoln once wrote to his friend Joshua Speed using words which could fit any number of conflicts today…
‘“As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
More years ago than I care to remember, I sat in a bothy on a building site nestling in a Glasgow scheme which was being renovated. To my left was ‘Chelsea’ so called because he wore a Chelsea top to work each day; on my right was ‘Ian’ who wore an England top and liked to spend his breaks using felt pens to decorate the bothy walls with child-like artistic impressions of Loyalist insignia. Both young men were Glasgow born and bred. What surprised me was the fact that the mixed group of workers in the Bothy barely batted an eyelid at behaviour and language which was overtly racist and sectarian. It was as if this was the way things were and nothing could alter it.
‘Ian’ was a particularly nasty person with what some call ‘wee man syndrome.’ His daily anti-Catholic remarks and bitter little jokes could perhaps be excused as he was also clearly, ‘not the full shilling’ as my dad used to say. He didn’t like my humorous putdowns and was far from happy when my response to another of his predictably moronic statements; ‘Ain’t no black in the union Jack’ was, ‘Aye but there’s blue and red so can Smurfs and native Americans get in yer wee club?’ His face was as scarlet as the red hands he liked to sketch, particularly as the bothy laughed at him. Humour remains a powerful weapon when used well against those seeking to spread division.
Chelsea was a brighter if somewhat misguided young man. He seemed desperate to find an identity and a world view to guide him in life. I told him one Monday morning that I saw him at the weekend fighting with Celtic fans at Duke Street railway station. He tried to explain himself with the old. ‘Aye Tims like you are OK but those other ones deserve it.’ I pushed him to say why the others deserved it and he fell back on tired old tropes like, ‘They’re all IRA supporters’ etc. He was bright enough to see how hollow his words were even as he spoke them; in honesty, he just liked the excitement of violence. I got to know him quite well and it struck me that his life revolved around cultural, sporting and social events which restricted his interactions to those he called his ‘own people.’ Getting to know people from other backgrounds personally through work though introduced him to the idea that they weren’t so different to him. ‘Ian’ may have seemed to be beyond redemption back then but Chelsea was potentially a good guy despite adopting shallow tribal postures and attitudes which helped him fit in to his chosen sub-culture. You got the impression he never fully bought into the nonsense he sometimes spouted.
We all know people like Chelsea and Ian; young men looking for purpose and meaning in their lives and through the more malign influences around them, find it in worn out attitudes and prejudices which in reality can blight their lives. I met Chelsea in a totally different context a couple of years back and he was thankfully a wiser man who had shed the worst of his prejudices and lost the friends that needed losing. Some people learn and grow in life; some follow the same old groove all their days.
I thought of these two chaps as I watched footage of England fans in Seville for a match with Spain. A minority displayed all that old ignorance and arrogance which makes them as popular as the plague. Their prejudices have been weaponised by Brexit and are now portrayed as less absurd than they should be by some. We had the usual ‘fuck the Pope and the IRA’ no doubt learned over the years from those other Brit-Nats further north. There was also an utterly obnoxious ditty about Scott Brown and Madeleine McCann. Jack Pitt-Brooke, writing in the Independent with characteristic candour said of them…
‘We all know inside ourselves that the behaviour of so many of England’s fans abroad is no aberration and no accident. It is not at odds with our national character and mood but entirely at one with it: insular, arrogant, confrontational, territorial, unable to see anything through the eyes of anyone else, suspicious of minorities and foreigners, increasingly dependent on national myths and purity tests. Do not be too surprised by the behaviour in Seville. Just turn on the news.’
The current national discourse regarding Brexit is undoubtedly feeding this xenophobic fringe in the UK. The so called ‘Football Lads Alliance’ march in London demonstrated that a group set up as ‘anti-extremist’ has in fact drifted to the far-right itself. People of my age have seen these types before. They have gone by many names but the values they espouse are always the same; exclusively nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and reactionary. We saw then in George Square in 2014 after the referendum on Scottish independence. We saw them try to march into the Jewish quarter of London’s east end in 1936 when the Jews, Irish and others stood up to them. They never change,’ it’s always some minority’s fault, never the fault of the so called ‘elites’ who work them like puppets.
No matter your politics, your view on Brexit or the team you support, there are limits to what is acceptable. Overt racism or bigotry is going too far and we must stand up to it as individuals and as a society. As Abraham Lincoln said of the bigots of his time…
'When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except Negroes…. and foreigners…. and Catholics….'
The ‘Know nothings’ exist in every group, every community and yes, every support. That’s why it’s everyone’s business to call it out and shame those who practice the sort of ignorance and racism we saw from a minority of England fans in Spain. It’s not about being anti-English; it’s about being decent human beings.
These are challenging times in our world and we need the good folk to be heard now more than ever.