What can you do?
There is a story about that great champion of non-violence, Gandhi, which goes as follows: During the partition of Indian and in the midst of horrific inter communal violence a Hindu came to him and said, “I am going to hell.” Gandhi asked him, “Why?” He said he had killed a Muslim boy. Gandhi in his wisdom replied, “I know a way out of hell. Find a child with no parents and raise it. Only make sure it is a Muslim child and raise it as a Muslim.” Gandhi wasn’t excusing the man of his crime but he was asking him to pay part of his debt by raising a child as a Muslim and in this way learn about the Muslim faith and perhaps come to see that it isn’t so alien after all.
Thankfully few of us live in such tumultuous times and have never been asked to make such choices. Of course in our lives we have our own rivalries be they based in politics or sport and how we deal with the inevitable successes and failure these throw up tells us much about ourselves. When the SNP won a majority at the Scottish Parliament in 2011, few could have blames Alex Salmond if he appeared a little triumphant. Instead he held out an olive branch to his rivals by saying, ‘We may have the majority of seats but we have no monopoly of wisdom.’ Not everyone is as magnanimous as Mr Salmond and for some the old saying, ‘It is not enough that I succeed, someone else must fail,’ comes to mind. This is especially true in the tribal world of Scottish football. Let me give you an example…
Only once in my life did I accept the opportunity to go to a Celtic match at Ibrox and sit among the home fans. It wasn’t that I wanted to do this rather it was merely the fact that tickets were as rare as hen’s teeth and the pull of seeing the Celts in action there was too strong. On that occasion I was offered a couple of tickets by a chap who knew I was a Celtic fan and was kind enough to offer some advice. ‘Sit on yer hands if Celtic score and try to stand up and put on a fake grin if Rangers score.’ My brother and I headed over to Ibrox on a Celtic Supporters bus and it was strange walking through our green clad comrades who were milling around the away end and heading along Edmiston Drive towards the Copeland Road end. In such situations you have that strange feeling that the word ‘Tim’ is branded onto your forehead but we walked the walk and joined the line at the appropriate turnstile.
The first thing which struck me as a stranger in a strange land was the venom being expressed by a vociferous minority around me. One grey haired chap who sported a UDA badge on his scarf informed me that he was, ‘Looking forward to battering a few Papes before the day is out.’ As the line moved closer to the turnstile the old bigoted war songs filled the air as the Police looked on and said nothing. My seat was four rows from the front of the Copeland Road stand and chatted to an old chap who looked about 80 at half time. ‘I can’t go all of these hate songs,’ I said to him trying to sound like a Rangers fan. He nodded, ‘That’s the way it’s always been, what can you do?’ As I watched Celtic stutter to defeat that day long ago the vitriol pouring from the what seemed like most of the people around me could best be described as poisonous. I recall Danny McGrain overlapping and being met with a barrage of abuse much of which was disgusting and unprintable. With Celtic losing my brother and I left the stadium with still around 10 minutes left to play. It had been a sobering experience to see up close a culture which was to be honest pretty obnoxious to me. Words my old man said once came back to me… ‘The difference between us and them is that we don’t like them but they hate us.’ He may have been a little unkind to the more reasonable Rangers supporter but there was more than a grain of truth in his words as there seemed little sign of those reasonable fans in the Copeland Road stand that day.
Of course books have been written on group dynamics and the subtle pressure to conform to the norms of the culture around us. Perhaps there is some mitigation for those supporters brought up in a certain way to think in a certain way but there comes a time in life when we must think for ourselves. Human beings are social animals and the power of the culture can be internalised and accepted before we’re old enough to ask critical questions about it. That is why one of the great betrayals in life can come from those who teach a child to hate. No child is born that way, someone taught them those values.
That experience at Ibrox was many years ago but it stuck with me as it demonstrated what can happen when a certain culture develops and goes unchallenged even by those who abhor it. Clearly not all Rangers supporters are slavering bigots but there was in those times a mono-culture which allowed the sort of poison I experienced to go largely unchecked and even to thrive. No one challenged it then, not the Rangers support, not the media (with one or two honourable exceptions) and to their shame not the footballing authorities. At Celtic there has always been a debate among fans about what is acceptable and hard words are often exchanged about issues such as the singing of political songs, the content of banners or the behaviour of certain sub-groups among the support. This was notable in the 1980s when some supporters let the club down badly by throwing bananas at Rangers player Mark Walters at Celtic Park. Fanzine’s such as Not the View called them out as ‘racist arseholes’ and that tiny minority were made quite aware what Celtic stood for and what is and isn’t acceptable. That to me is one of the chief differences between the Celtic and Rangers supports. I seldom see real discursive debate on Rangers websites about the bigotry which a substantial percentage of their support indulged in for many years. There seems instead to be a culture of throwing mud at Celtic and attempting to drag their supporters down as if this somehow justifies their opinions and behaviour.
There is little doubt that Rangers FC as a club did make attempts in recent years to educate the less cerebral among their support but to some it seemed to have more to do with UEFA taking an interest rather than a moral decision to dispense with the sins of the past. Playing a mixed team was a step forward although it certainly threw up some incongruous moments. During the post Cup Final party when Donald Findlay the club’s then vice chairman was filmed singing about being ‘Up to his knees in Fenian blood’ it did not go unnoticed that Catholic player Neil McCann was standing behind him. Far from being harmless ‘folk songs’ such behaviour gives tacit, if unintended, approval to the less intelligent who’s bigotry festers in such an atmosphere. Intelligent men like Findlay should perhaps ponder on the fact that on that same day, a Celtic fan was murdered and another shot with a crossbow bolt.
The perspective of time suggests to me that things are improving in Scotland and the sort of bigotry which was once quite common is now less noticeable. The exaggerated passions of football still offer a context for some to vent their spleen but things have changed and the law is more likely to intervene now. However, real change is never achieved by use of the law alone. There needs to a focus on education and the development of a fan culture which doesn’t accept the negative influence of hatred. Fierce rivalries are part of the game but blind bigotry doesn’t have to be and needs to be held up as the vulgar and destructive force it is.
That old Rangers fan I talked to all of those years ago had said to me, ‘That’s the way it’s always been, what can you do?’ I think many people have realised since then that there were things you could do. Some despaired and gave up on football altogether. Others tried to change the culture surrounding their club because they genuinely wanted things to improve. Change is always possible but it relies on individuals brave enough to challenge the ingrained group mentality.
As Gandhi said, ‘Sometimes you must be the change you want to see in the world.’