Euro teaches Scotland hope. What does it mean for independence?

The current version features a fair doctor (Sanjeev Kohli) who diagnoses a young woman who wears the top of Scotland. He complains about the moments of random grins, the butterflies in his stomach, the spontaneous raising of his arm.

“Are you… a Scotland fan? I thought that cases like this have long passed,” the doctor thinks. “You have a fit of optimism!” He prescribes a box of golden nectar and two plane tickets, with the fervent command: “Get yirsel tae GERMANY!!!”

“Monday Scotland!!!” concludes the doctor, so tiring that his trousers have to be readjusted. The waiting room is full of Tartan Army regulars, beaming, arms locked in the air. Irn-Bru hits home with the caption: ‘Optimism is back in Scotland’.

I should point out that this is in reference to the Scotland men’s football team and their participation in the Euro Championship in Germany next month. And I retain a core disdain for what my grimy mentor Jim Sillars used to call “90-minute nationalism.”

It’s like peeling off God during my highs, realizing that praying for an outcome was no substitute for hard work. In the same way, I surgically disconnected my beloved indy’s lead from the risk-laden passing game and thin margins of performance of our national team.

But Bru’s announcement highlights what we might mean by optimism rather than hope in Scottish life.

A recent American visitor to our shores, the inspiring radical theologian Cornel West, sees the distinction very clearly. As West says in one of his master’s courses: “Hope is taking a leap beyond the evidence you’re given. Optimism usually looks at the evidence and sees whether it is possible to infer that things will get better.”

In this sense, Irn-Bru (or the Leith advertising agency they hired) use “optimism” with some precision.

We have had long years of miserable failure to qualify for tournaments, perpetrated by Scottish teams and managers. But Steve Clarke does provide the evidence that makes it “possible to infer that things will get better” (ie he took enough guidance against strong opposition and defended it, leading to our second involvement at the Euros in a row).

We can be “optimistic” because our track record of excellence is the foundation of our belief that we can advance in the competition ahead.

Of course, football fans have a sense of distinction from their own tradition: “It’s hope that kills,” as the cliché goes. Much of the literature on hope and optimism would agree with fitba’-mad, where hope is a much more emotional, less rational affair. It is, indeed, about “taking a leap beyond the given evidence”.

Every game, before it begins, is still to some extent a game of chance. There is an element of chaos in the game that always gives the underdog a few opportunities.

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West believes that there is a creativity that emerges from such an understanding of hope. Miraculous inventions occur even—and sometimes especially—when the opposing forces seem most resistant. Of course, Professor West’s context of hope is white supremacy and the gloriously generous response of black Americans to jazz-and-blues. This is what hope sounds like.

But my generation will remember exactly one footballing example of the magic that hope can bring out of disaster. And this is Archie Gemmill’s goal against a supreme Holland team in the 1978 World Cup. This was when a desperate, demoralized Scotland, needing to win by three clear goals to qualify from their group, almost to make for a brilliant moment. I was brought there by Gemmill’s touch of genius and command of the space around him.

So yes, it may be hope that creates – but yes, it also kills. We finished with a 3-2 Scottish victory, emerging from a competition that many expected Scotland to contest as potential winners.

The clip of Gemmill’s goal is making the rounds on social media as one of the greatest ever (it’s also inspired poetry and dance). But we know what happened a year (and a rigged devolution referendum) later…

And there, I broke my own rule – conflating constitutional advance with athletic advance and vice versa. But let’s trace the parallels a bit while we’re here, if only to shrug them off.

To be sure, many could boost the “optimism for Scotland” as something based on “displays of competence” from both the government and the national team. We have a lot of talent and some of the resources: with enough forethought and managerial organisation, Scottish capabilities can be brought together to deliver new and desired results.

National: John Swinney

John Swinney (above) and Clarke are, in this sense, isomorphic: their mindsets match, both seeking to build the future on the evidence of past performance.

‘Hope for Scotland’, for both football and government, is by comparison much more challenging. The assumption is that the odds are overwhelmingly against us – but it is because of this that we are driven to great singular acts of creativity and courage, which then inspire others who share the same predicament.

Stealing the Stone of Destiny, the tank man refusing to budge in Tiananmen Square, Greta Thunberg’s actions in the streets sparking a generation of protest—these are the actions of those led by hope. They do what they can with their bodies, hearts and minds, often turning normal life upside down.

Czech dissident (and eventually president) Vaclav Havel was most eloquent about hope.

“Hope is the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance of succeeding,” he wrote in 1991’s Disturbing The Peace (a collection of his writings while living under communism).

“The more inappropriate the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope. Hope is definitely not the same as optimism. It is not the belief that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Havel continues: “Also, it is this hope, above all, that gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours, here and now .”

The sweet spot for indy politics (if we were to draw the sports parallel) would seem to be a strategy that dips into both hope and optimism. The current minority SNP government, lacking a green outlook, wants to return to an “optimistic” view of all of Scotland’s powers and natural resources.

Certainly, the past and present of fossil fuels in Scottish economic life (as one of my recent columns noted) facilitates the reproduction of posters such as ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ which now appear in campaign literature.

But to what extent is this false optimism or confidence? He seems oblivious to the deepening despair of most climate scientists. Many are tearing up over the Global North’s failure to meet its zero-emissions targets – and the calamity and chaos our current trajectories are causing.

There is a certain desolation in me that sees decades of ambitious climate targets in Scotland being trashed. Either as a result of the small moves of election campaigns, or as strategic failures as a result of insufficient powers given to Holyrood.

This is where West and Havel’s characterization of hope versus optimism comes into play. If Scotland is sliding back into the carbon age, what are the bold and crazy actions and notions that can keep awareness of climate danger sharp and present in Scottish minds? What keeps our hope alive, as opposed to our optimism, which makes it plausible?

Hugh MacDiarmid, as always, had a line for Scottish hope: “For we have faith in Scotland’s hidden poor,/The present is theirs, but past and future.”

That said, I’ll go along with the general “liquid optimism” (as the Bru ads say) from the opener with Germany. Otherwise, this is hope that could kill.