Long to reign over us? Rangers and the monarchy

The celebrations to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee allowed many Rangers fans to revel in the overt display of British and monarchical symbolism, such as one would normally only see at Ibrox. Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative MSP and Rangers fan, remarked on Twitter that his local supermarket was reminiscent of the Copland Road on match day.  The Jubilee celebrations, however, did not go uncontested. Republicans, socialists and some Scottish nationalists made clear their opposition to the monarchy as an institution and/or the sense of British identity the celebrations evoked. There would have been Rangers fans in these ranks too. The celebrations exacerbated constitutional anxieties and led to renewed discussion on the vexed issue of British identity. This is undoubtedly healthy and necessary, particularly for supporters of the union, and it indicates a willingness to grapple with tough issues. Some of the problems facing the unionist political project are to be found in microcosm among the Rangers support but there seems to be less evidence of a desire to find contemporary justifications for traditional beliefs. Many fans will take comfort in old certainties and recent predicaments will encourage retrenchment and the comforting embrace of the familiar. For others, the dominant culture has become stifling, a caricature of its former self that does a disservice to the diversity of Rangers fans.

Support for the monarchy has traditionally been considered one of the defining characteristics of the Rangers support. It overlaps and reinforces other aspects such as unionism, Britishness and Protestantism. Evidence of royal sentiment is easy to find on the Copland Road or Edmiston Drive when Rangers are playing at home. The Queen’s image has been superimposed on flags and there is usually a photo-shopped picture of her in a Rangers top on sale adjacent to the subway entrance. Home games are often marked by the singing of God Save the Queen but this isn’t normally taken up with any gusto. Furthermore, fans who have taken the tour of Ibrox will be familiar with the portrait of the Queen that hangs in the dressing room. In short, there is evidence enough to give credence to the popular perception that monarchism is still an important part of what it means to be a Rangers supporter.

Ronnie Esplin’s book Down the Copland Road is an important source for investigating the political sympathies of Rangers supporters in general and the monarchy in particular. As might be expected there was evidence of clear monarchist tendencies. An illustrative example might be the fan quoted as saying, ‘I’m one hundred percent behind the monarchy. I think it’s an important part of being British and I consider myself British.’ But another fan said, ‘The monarchy is not something I think about too much to be honest. I’m not one of these God Save the Queen people, no way...I mean, how can they kid on they represent me, the working man in Scotland?’ This testimony serves to complicate commonly held notions and should lead to a wider process of critical evaluation focused on some the political and constitutional associations that are taken for granted when it comes to supporting Rangers.

What emerges from Down the Copland Road is a picture of a support with conflicting political allegiances and different attitudes to a number of important constitutional issues. It serves to undermine the stereotype of the average Ranger fan as a Tory voter and even a unionist in much the same way that it undermines uncomplicated ideas of monarchist sentiment. It is only correct to acknowledge that there was a certain historical affinity between working-class Protestants in the west of Scotland and the Conservative Party and that this can be explained, to a certain extent, by religious and cultural factors. But it is important to remember that the Conservatives drew support from a range of groups and across classes in Scotland until the 1980s. Perhaps the most that can be said is that the affinity may have lasted longer for Rangers fans and west of Scotland working-class Protestants but, even at its height, there would have been a large number of Rangers fans who voted Labour. This is unsurprising in light of the limited evidence we have about the socio-economic profile of the support through to the 1970s which suggests the core of was drawn from skilled manual workers associated with heavy industries such as shipbuilding. Mark Dingwall has, in the past, suggested that the political affinities of most Rangers fans could probably be labelled ‘right-wing Labour’. As has been noted already, Esplin’s book poses a challenge to simplistic but popularly held notions of what it means to be a Rangers fan.  The diversity of opinion is perhaps best captured by the fan who confesses to being both a member of the Orange Order and former SNP candidate in the council elections. Indeed there are a number of fans who are open about their desire for an independent Scotland and Esplin cites survey evidence from 1990 which found 14% of Rangers fans who took part were SNP supporters as opposed to only 4% of Celtic fans. Given the political advance of the SNP since the book was published in 2000, it would be surprising if more Rangers fans were not voting ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’.

It should be a source of concern that Esplin was moved to conclude, ‘notions of left-wing, anti-Royal and/or pro-independence Rangers fans is fine in theory but discussion would still be best kept away from Ibrox...fans with less conventional “Rangers style” political views, do well to keep silent.’ How many Rangers fans have stop attending games at Ibrox for reasons entirely unconnected to football? This speaks of a monolithic culture that is exclusionary and restricts what it means to be a Rangers fan, one that is not conducive to debate and dissent.  It risks creating a hierarchy of fans with only those who fully subscribe to certain political, religious and cultural associations being ‘true Rangers fans’. There is no such thing. Arguably, some prominent fans and figures associated with the club have contributed to this stereotyping by projecting their own sympathies onto the club and its history. Some will no doubt argue that it is wrong to start questioning what are seen as the foundations of the fan culture surrounding Rangers. But this has only encouraged stereotyping and left the club and fans vulnerable to changes in wider society.  The starting point for any discussion on the future direction of our culture should be a nod to the past and then an acknowledgement that supporting Rangers means supporting the eleven players in blue on the pitch at Ibrox. This is the default setting, the fall-back position, the common bond. Everything else is-or at least should be-up for debate.

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