One of my earliest memories of living in Scotland was watching Diego Maradona score the “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World cup, through tear-stained, eight-year-old fingers.
I’d moved up from England a few months earlier and I was still pretty homesick for the friends and life I’d left behind. Seeing England robbed of a place in the semi-finals, by a blatant hand-ball, was just about more than I could bare. I looked for solace among some of my new chums in Fife, but I didn’t find much sympathy. That was the first time I remember encountering the “Anyone But England” phenomenon.
I understood from where it came. Scottish fans had had to endure years of endless commentary bias from pro-England pundits and droning references to 1966 and all that. Small wonder then, that this cringeworthy patter drove so many Scots into the arms of the opposing team, whoever they happened to be.
It was always mostly tongue in cheek and a source of banter in the pub, but in recent years the Scottish tradition of backing whoever might be drawn against our southern neighbours has spilled over into the politics around our constitution and that’s a real shame.
Take this Saturday, for instance. I was gripped by the Rugby World cup semi-final between England and the All Blacks in Japan, and tweeted encouragement to the lads in white.
This was met almost immediately by a member of my fan-club in the online, nationalist community who replied: “Such top level crawlery to your masters. Will they allow you a crumb from their table if your sycophancy is suitably obsequious?”
Aside from having a high vocab score, this guy must be great at parties.
His sentiment is just part of a dark underbelly of the nationalist movement that has grown in confidence since 2014. I’ve written before about the time the police came to see me about the anti-English abuse I was getting on Twitter.
They told me I should report it as a hate crime. I now mute those people who engage me in such terms and move on, safe in the knowledge they are only harming their own cause. But the fact that I now have online trolls jumping on my sporting preferences is wholly depressing.
If we are ever to heal the fractures in our country, and such deep fractures there are, then we need to take a look at some of the ways we speak to each other.
“Anyone But England” isn’t just banter in the pub anymore and is being misappropriated by the militant wing of the SNP.
I’m not saying that everyone north of Coldstream should learn the words to Swing Low Sweet Chariot in time for the final this weekend, but it’s probably time to stop singing about shoving chariots where the sun doesn’t shine.
Scotland is my home, it has been long since that eight-year-old boy grew into the man I am today. My wife is Scottish and my kids are too, I even find myself backing Scotland in fixtures against the country of my birth, but I still can’t help being English.
It doesn’t define me but it will always be part of me. So if England win on Saturday, that homesick, eight-year-old boy will be overjoyed. I hope that joy is shared across my adopted homeland.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western