Do politicians really understand what Alex Ferguson can teach them about Scottish independence?

Fergie's stock list of fine Caledonian qualities has been paraded by those same commentators who use national stereotypes to dismiss Scottish independence


Although I don’t follow football, I have a friend who does and am aware it encourages enthusiasm among many. On its lighter side, the game can call itself beautiful, offer examples of skill, dedication and community spirit and allow grown men to feel like happily anxious kids for a few hours, to be one in a clever and daft assembly of like-minded friends. Football’s ability to generate both enthusiasm and revenue means it can occupy our media’s attention in ways that are both glamorous and undemanding. And, despite the persistence of racism, bigotry and violence on the terraces and the bizarre and distressed behaviour of some prominent players, football can sell pretty much anything.

Its ability to sell and its status as “the people’s game” mean that football attracts politicians in the way that jam and happiness gathers wasps. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, for example, echoes a football chant and has marketed itself accordingly. In the UK, politicians who hope to woo “the people” use footballing metaphors, profess in-depth knowledge of the 4-5-1 formation and frequent high-profile fixtures, while tweeting. So, as Sir Alex Ferguson prepares to retire after what even I know is a remarkable 1,500 games with Manchester United, it seems only fair that Fergie’s ability to motivate and inspire, his admirable personal life and qualities, his success in achieving his aims and bringing joy to many have been contrasted with our current political management team and its sad list of inabilities and failings.

In a Britain where many leader writers and leaders appear to think Shameless is a documentary about the average urban voter, I’ve found it heartening to come across praise of Ferguson’s leadership as a gritty product of the University of Life, rather than the narrow rat run that squeezes likely chaps along from prep school to public school to Oxbridge and a seat in the House with private-sector options thereafter. Fergie has long been characterised as a canny Scot, full of my nation’s industrial wisdom, prudence, application and moral fortitude. It’s interesting to see that stock list of Caledonian qualities being paraded when commentators are equally keen to assume that all the other stereotypes of “chip-eating, aggressive, stupid, red-haired, foreign” will prevail should Salmond – the other Alex – get his way on independence.

Whether an independent Scotland would be paradise on earth or not, it certainly is a country with traditions and a history that have proved valuable to itself and Britain, some of them entirely alien to Westminster’s current thinking. As far as I understand humanity, it’s as silly to assume that every artisan has a heart of gold, as it would be assume that knowing which way to pass the port makes you a good person. Sadly, what we might now call the Great Untaxed do seem to operate on the assumption that personal wealth and personal worth are synonymous. The getting of wealth is therefore as spiritual a pursuit as the buying of perpetual prayers once was in the Middle Ages. Except now your wealth doesn’t get wasted on monks, it simply forms its own glorious chorus around you, expressed in material goods and influence, the granting of prayers in Parliament and HMRC and the blessing of non-executive directorships. Because wealth is virtue, any behaviour which amasses wealth is virtuous, even if it creates an environment so toxic it becomes unsurviveable without money to insulate individuals against sabotaged healthcare provision, undermined schools and self-defeating transport systems and rapacious utilities. Activities which could be defined as treasonous become simply the remedying of “market failures”. Not that the market is ever believed to fail. Only people do. Therefore poor people are also bad people – QED.

While Scotland’s history can show enthusiastic slave-traders, arms dealers, racial supremacists, Nazis and Adam Smith, it does have other traditions – of education, enlightenment and workers for liberty. (And Adam Smith did point out that markets left to their own devices would turn on consumers.) Scottish manifestations of religion can be heavy on misogyny, guilt and wrath, but – although the pulpit was often expected to keep rebellious Scots in line – even Scotland’s spirituality could be rebellious. Red Clydesiders left Glasgow for Westminster to the accompaniment of hymns, as well as red flags, embracing values such as charity, co-operation and responsibility. Govan, in Ferguson’s day, was both a hard place to survive and somewhere that expected you’d behave decently.

Young people had some chance to learn skills, be useful and proud of their craft. Glasgow’s working classes were encouraged to learn what their schools failed to teach, and the welfare state was bringing the beginning of widespread health, a degree of social mobility and hope, even as giant industries changed and died. And being sharp, funny, ingenious, human and humane would just about get you through – the other options being to live as a predator, or to not live at all.

Politicians on the right may take Ferguson as an example that hardship produces rough diamonds if it’s kept hard enough. For the new left, he will be a working-class hero who only needed “choice”. For me, he’s a man who worked with realities – with minds and bodies, winning and losing. Inspire, train and educate a group of people, find their strengths, tell them they have the power to do wonders and eventually they will. Our current leaders deal in fantasy statistics and ideological vehemence, faith-based policies and narcissism, feudalism and profiteering disguised as democracy. This means that reality will always contradict them. And the weakest among us will be lost along the way.

AL Kennedy’s most recent book is ‘On Writing’, published by Jonathan Cape

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