Rangers, Protestantism and Scottish Society

Earlier this year, when I realised how serious the Rangers crisis was, I suggested to a couple Church of Scotland ministers I know – both ardent Rangers fans – that they might set up an organisation called “Revs for Rangers”. My approach might have been officious, but it was well intended: I thought there was a need for some moral leadership. Or if not leadership, guidance from people representing the best of what might be called the Protestant tradition. I wasn’t suggesting a search for divine intervention: just a considered input from men of standing in the community who had a genuine love for the club and an understanding of its history.

Perhaps inevitably, the idea never got off the ground. But I still cannot find, in all that has happened since, anything that represents what I still think of as the robust strength and decency of Scottish Protestantism.

I am a Glaswegian and a member of the Church of Scotland. I come from what might be called solid Protestant stock. My mother’s father and grandfather were both doctors in Dennistoun. My father’s family were small businessmen on the south side of the city. But my family moved to Aberdeen when I was four and I became an Aberdeen supporter when I was in my early teens, round about 1961 or 1962. Much later, when I returned to Glasgow to work, I got to know many people – most of them either colleagues, or professional people I came into contact with – who were committed Rangers supporters. Some of them became good friends. I also became aware of the vast pool of business, commercial, financial, legal and media expertise that exists among the Rangers- supporting community in Glasgow and its environs.

What has surprised me most in the current sad saga is that this large and decent constituency does not seem to have been mobilised. Indeed it has vanished, almost as if it never existed.

Even before Mr Whyte appeared on the scene I wrote a piece for the Herald saying that the one –man, one owner model was surely outdated. I don’t want to boast , but with some prescience I suggested that after the David Murray era Rangers would be much better seeking a wider ownership model, instead of investing all hope in one supposedly wealthy and visionary owner who would somehow emerge as the saviour of the club. I was not suggesting fans’ ownership on the exact lines of what has worked well in Spain and Germany, but something similar.

My reasoning was that there are so many credible and able Rangers supporters who are successful in their working lives. They have considerable clout in professions such as accountancy and the law. Others are successful and respected businessmen. A few of them are seriously wealthy. All of them know how the world works; by far the majority of them are people of probity and experience.

There was certainly a big enough pool of expertise for some of them to form a committee or working party to draw up a proposal for a fans’takeover, with a tiered ownership,

I followed this up, some months later, with a similar piece for the Sunday Herald. It was almost a plea for Rangers supporters with business financial and legal expertise to pull together and chart a way forward. Well, this never happened, as we all know. Some folk told me I was being naïve. I don’t think so. It is a real mystery to me why so many sincere Rangers people, with a lot to offer the club in its time of terminal crisis, did not step up to the plate. Instead we had plenty of demonstrations, a lot of raucous name calling and finger pointing, attacks on the media and goodness knows what else. A huge amount of hot air, but little concerted effort actually to do something, to get together to organise a constructive, credible plan. Whatever happened to the work ethic?

And that takes me on to Protestantism. Here we step onto very delicate ground, very sensitive territory. But I was always aware in my youth that there was an understanding that Protestants, at their best, were supposed to be strong, resourceful, steadfast, enterprising people – just the kind who would be good in a crisis, The implication, although it was never spelt out, was that there was in the Protestant community something that might have been lacking in the Catholic community.

This feeling might well have been erroneous, and I certainly don’t think it was in itself powerful enough to lead to sectarian attitudes or bigotry, but it was there all right; a lurking sense of slight superiority, a vague understanding that Protestants had the stuff of leaders, they were hardworking, honest folk who would be able to provide support when it was most needed. They would not disappear in a crisis. They were certainly not chancers, not weak or feckless or likely to be mired in spivvery, slackness or incompetence.

But unfortunately Rangers Football Club, more than any other Scottish institution I can think of in recent times, seems to become something of a magnet for the wrong kind of people.

I know a man who was a fine Scottish footballer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was brought up in a fervently Rangers family in West Lothian. He is one of the most pleasant, most decent people I have had the privilege of knowing.

The first senior club that came for this precocious young schoolboy forward was Patrick Thistle. He signed provisionally for the Firhill club when he was 14. Two years later, none other than the great Bill Struth contacted his father. Rangers wanted to sign his son!

For the father, Bill Struth was a legend. Yet this honourable man, a Rangers fanatic if ever there was one, told his son that Rangers had been second in the queue. Thistle had come first; they had signed him and looked after him. He couldn’t turn away from them now.

I think that anecdote, which is true, sums up all that is best in the honourable Rangers tradition. Rangers had standards and dignity, a sense of pride and self-belief: they were a decent club representing something resolute - aye ready – in the Scottish character and their supporters were honourable people. They had a strength and self respect that was undoubtedly linked to the better aspects of the Scottish Protestant tradition.

All that has withered away now. It is not just because of the demise of Rangers; there has been a parallel decline in the Church of Scotland. Not so long ago it could legitimately claim to be Scotland’s national church; it could speak to Scotland, and speak for Scotland. Now it can barely raise a whimper on any matter of public significance. It may not have collapsed as dramatically as Rangers, but it is no longer the proud, respected national institution that it was as recently as the 1960s.

I’m pretty certain that had Rangers been in crisis during the 1960s, the matter would have been raised, eloquently, at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It would have been seen as a matter of legitimate concern for the Kirk. But much later, as Rangers slipped ever deeper into crisis, the Church of Scotland stood aside and did – absolutely nothing. It is almost as if was embarrassed.

The Kirk is of course embarrassed, correctly, by sectarianism, particularly when it is a distortion of Protestantism. Rangers did once represent, as I have suggested, much that was good in the Protestant tradition. But there was sometimes a downside. Sir Alex Ferguson could – and maybe should - have been by far the greatest manager in the club’s history, for he was born and raised near Ibrox, he played for the club, and Rangers made a very serious, prolonged bid for his managerial services in the autumn of 1983,when he was the most successful young manager not just in Scotland but in the whole of Europe. As he explains in his autobiography, Ferguson had encountered a nasty bigoted man at Ibrox, who held a senior position in the club, when he was a player. This man took against Ferguson simply because he had married a Catholic. So the man who was surely made to be manager of Rangers spurned the club he had been brought up to support. Of course Rangers eventually did much to eradicate this kind of bigotry, particularly in the Souness era when several high profile Catholics were signed– a policy that reverted to the club’s practice in the early part of the twentieth century, when it did employ Catholics.

The overall context in all this is that Scottish Protestantism is in crisis. The demise of Rangers is not directly connected with the decline of Protestantism, but that decline, that lack of self confidence, does not help. The fact that so many well qualified and able Rangers supporters have been standing on the sidelines, simply waiting for the latest dubious saviour to turn up, perhaps indicates that the great Protestant virtues of industry, initiative and self-help are rapidly withering away.

Harry Reid is a former editor of The Herald. He is the author of ‘Outside Verdict: an Old Kirk in a New Scotland’ and ‘The Final Whistle? Scottish Football: The Best and Worst of Times’