At England vs. Scotland, it’s party over politics

LONDON — Scotland’s rival political leaders chorused in harmony: “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie!”

At a point when Scotland is experiencing heightened political polarization, the nation — including Scottish nationalist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Tory opposition chief Douglas Ross — was united in joy Friday evening by a resolute, enterprising performance from its football team, plus the ‘70s disco classic which has become its unofficial theme song.  

Flying in the face of pundit predictions, the Scottish underdogs secured a crucial 0-0 draw in the group-stage game with Euro 2020 heavyweights England, who had home-team advantage in London’s Wembley Stadium. 

For Sturgeon, it was a “proud and gutsy” display. For Ross, who was at the match, the battling draw showed “passion and determination.” 

And unusually, in a football rivalry that has spanned 149 years and 115 matches, antipathy between the “old enemies” was replaced by temporary camaraderie over a long-awaited opportunity to party, following more than a year of COVID-induced abstinence. 

“People were just ready for a good time,” beamed James Paterson, a Scotland fan from Ipswich in England, who said he’d endured “many” defeats at Wembley. “Until the Euros started, I’d not been at a match since February last year.” 

James Paterson, a Scotland fan from Ipswich in England | Ali Walker/POLITICO

There was the usual reciprocal pantomime jeering of the national anthems and derogatory songs directed at opposition players, but genuine hostility was scarce (though some arrests were reported by the Metropolitan Police) on a chilly, wet evening in front of a Wembley crowd reduced by continuing COVID restrictions. 

Thousands of booze-soaked Scotland supporters splashed through puddles (at least one headfirst) on pre-match bar crawls around Leicester Square, but the soggy London afternoon extinguished the threat of widespread fan violence which marred the teams’ Euro 1996 Wembley encounter — the last time they met in a major tournament. 

Despite the political tension caused by Brexit and agitation for a second Scottish independence referendum, the overheated rivalry of the past has dissipated as the on-field gulf between England and Scotland has widened, said England fans Karl Espley and Mark Davies from Stoke-on-Trent.

For this night at least, in a helter-skelter game on a slick, rain-drenched surface, Scotland closed the gap. England wasted the clearer goalscoring chances, but the Scots were never outclassed — and, in 20-year-old Billy Gilmour, had the official player of the match. 

The Scotland support around London was, as usual, awash with national symbolism as fans donned kilts, glengarry hats and saltire flags. But, while the Tartan Army, as the Scotland supporters are known, is generally pro-independence, it remains largely free of politics — and most fans seem happy to keep it that way. 

“You can be a staunch Tory or an SNP (Scottish National Party) supporter, it doesn’t matter,” said Alan Ward from Perth, waiting at Kings Cross station before heading to Wembley. “It’s not an issue in the Scotland support.”

The game ended in a 0-0 draw | Rob Pinney/Getty Images

For James Coggs and Graeme Baxter — who have traveled from the neon lights of Tokyo, to the shores of southern Spain and the snows of Kazakhstan to watch Scotland games over the last 15 years — a separation of stadium and state is essential. 

Speaking to POLITICO ahead of the game, Coggs said following the national team around the world is not an extension of any political ideology “and nor should it be.”

Despite supporting Scottish independence, Baxter too was clear that he doesn’t like his football with a side dish of politics. “We’ve got enough problems in this country with people picking a political view just because of the football team they support in Glasgow,” he said. 

Fans, like Baxter, point to the national team as a release from the toxic football atmosphere in Scotland’s biggest city, blighted for more than a century by sectarianism associated with club rivals Celtic (catholic, Irish nationalist) and Rangers (protestant, unionist). 

Billy Douglas and Bryan Ford from Dundee on Wembley way | Ali Walker/POLITICO

There was also bipartisan consensus between opposing Scottish lawmakers that 90 minutes of patriotic fervor wasn’t going to translate into shifts in opinion on the independence question. 

The encounter at Wembley was not a “proxy for politics,” said Russell Findlay, a Conservative member of the Scottish Parliament, who covered Euro 1996 as a journalist for the Sunday Mail and traveled to the 1998 World Cup in France as a supporter. John Mason, an SNP backbencher at the parliament in Edinburgh, said that the outcome of the match was unlikely to have any impact on the nationalist movement.

Brian Lithgow, from the south side of Glasgow | Ali Walker/POLITICO

The desire to keep politics out of Scottish football was echoed again and again, including by Brian Lithgow, from Glasgow, as he sipped a can of Foster’s lager on Wembley Way an hour before kickoff. Independence “isn’t part of my identity as a Scotland fan,” he said. Lithgow said he goes to Scotland games with friends who have a range of different political perspectives. 

There were some dissenters on the boulevard leading to the stadium. Billy Douglas and Bryan Ford from Dundee claimed English “arrogance” was likely to fuel separatist feeling in the Tartan Army, at a time when support for Scottish independence is flagging, but still near its all-time high.

On the whole, any overt politics that did creep in was light-hearted: Anthony Lydon from Sunderland, in northeast England, and bare-chested, tattooed Paul McGinnity from Edinburgh joked about the respective merits of Sturgeon and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and they hugged on a Tube train coming back from the game. 

Anthony Lydon from Sunderland and Paul McGinnity from Edinburgh discuss British politics | Ali Walker/POLITICO

But for most, on both sides, the party took priority.

“After a year of COVID and lockdowns, people are just happy to be out and about again,” grinned England fan Liam Noble, who was in London, ticketless, just to enjoy the festivities.



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