Tim Luckhurst: The Celtic fringe is kicking against the ancient folk-enemy

'Nobody has produced a scintilla of proof that the nastiness was precipitated by English invaders'

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The facts are sufficiently depressing to obviate any desire to pour naphtha on the flames. Saturday's Scottish Premier League football match between Aberdeen and Rangers had to be stopped for 20 minutes after Aberdeen player Robbie Winters was struck by a coin apparently thrown by a Rangers fan.

That act of petty thuggery preciptated a minor pitch invasion. Some Aberdeen fans broke out of the stand and surged onto the pitch-side track. There were scuffles, arrests and injuries. Football hooliganism was back. The incident was minor, but the response was not.

"Football riot yobs are English," screamed the Daily Record. The less excitable Herald declared: "Police probe English link to football violence." Even staid, respectable BBC Scotland joined in. "English blamed for violence," it announced.

Is it true? Did elements of the notorious Chelsea Headhunters or West Ham's InterCity Firm travel 500 miles north with the explicit purpose of provoking a riot? It is not impossible. Witnesses claim to have heard English accents in the crowd. Others say that they saw fans wearing England strips among the Rangers support.

But nobody has produced a scintilla of proof that Saturday's nastiness was precipitated by English invaders. Evidence is not required. The consensus in devolved Scotland resembles British public hostility to "the evil Hun" after the first battle of the Somme.

Violence at a Scottish football ground requires a scapegoat, and the popular candidate lives just south of Gretna Green. Blame the bloody English! They were, after all, entirely culpable for every fault in Scottish life from the battle of Culloden to the poll tax. Parallel investigations by the police, the football clubs and the football authorities can now proceed with one objective firmly in mind.

The only investigation that might really help, a sober consideration of why Scots are so ready to believe such stories, will never happen. The Prime Minister will not comment. Having presided over the most ill-considered and lopsided reform of Britain's constitution in memory, Mr Blair has hardly uttered a syllable on the subject.

Those who care sufficiently to contemplate public life in Scotland since devolution will be aware that it has not been a stunning success. Three first ministers in two years, wild cost over-runs, serial incompetence and nepotism? Yes. Growing public disillusionment? Certainly. More efficient government? Even the most wide-eyed enthusiasts admit that has not happened. But above all, the truth that dare not speak its name, growing evidence of the very opposite of what devolution was designed to achieve. British identity is disappearing. Scotland is manifesting a burgeoning sense of separateness.

The same is true in Wales. Football has shown us that, too. Only a fortnight ago Cardiff City fans chanted "Always shit on the English side of the fence" as their triumph against Leeds United threatened to descend into mayhem. Constitutional reform has not cemented the union. It has exaggerated difference and reawakened sectional passion. The Celtic fringe is asserting itself, and when those who nurture a historic sense of grievance against the centre begin to assert themselves they do so by kicking against the ancient folk-enemy.

We knew this would happen. Quebec showed us the way. Flemish-speaking Belgium followed. General de Gaulle, that arch defender of the nation against the centrifugal threat of sub-national identities, knew it instinctively. It was why he gave such short shrift to demands for Breton and Basque political institutions.

Cultural identity is fine, but supercharge it by adding the badges of political identity and a dangerous hybrid emerges. The fringe becomes convinced that it no longer needs the centre, that hundreds of years of shared development and achievement can be discarded. And, because the mechanisms that elided distinctions and encouraged unity have been undermined, the process rapidly gathers momentum.

Mr Blair must pause for thought. The very forces of sectional difference and separate identity he fought in Kosovo are manifesting themselves at home. The good sense that dictated that Afghanistan's Pashtun majority must not be forced aside by the ethnic minorities who control the Northern Alliance has been ignored in this state that only the English still call Britain.

There is no danger of violence. Every corner of Britain is affluent and content. The ingredients for real conflict are blessedly absent. But our new political settlement, the most radical thing Labour has done, was created without thought. Devolution to the fringe has not been matched by any comparable strengthening of the centre.

Sober constitutionalists have warned that the House of Commons should not tolerate an elected House of Lords with a competing democratic mandate. Why not? It has already surrendered power to a Scottish Parliament and to a Welsh Assembly, and it did not even stop to consult the majority of the British population.

What happened in Aberdeen on Saturday evening was inconsequential. The response of the Scottish press was not. Anti-Englishness is becoming fashionable. The British Government is to blame. Devolution is for ever, not just for Christmas, and General de Gaulle was right. It leads inexorably in the wrong direction.

TimLckhrst@aol.com

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