Spiteful attacks on our best ever tennis player help explain why so many Scots voted Yes in the referendum on independence
Even before voting figures were announced and the Union duly declared saved, a new and hugely distasteful separationist movement burst into life, barely less fully formed than Athena sprung from the head of Zeus. The English, or a violently voluble chunk of the English, made a unilateral declaration of independence from Andy Murray.
The marriage between Murray and a portion of English nationalist sentiment had, in strict truth, always been one more of convenience than love. The surface dourness that disguises a surprisingly witty and merry nature did little to endear him as a teenager.
But the moment the Scots tennis genius answered an inquiry as to which country he wanted to win at football with a light-hearted “anyone but England”, a catastrophic sense-of-humour failure on the southern side of the border – from the very kind of people, one suspected, who rail at “PC gone mad”, and who claim to defend the right to josh – had him cast as some kind of cut-price traitor.
The rapprochement between Murray and the English that took many years to build – first with the spectacular Olympic triumph that saw him draping himself in the Union flag; then, a few weeks later, with his glorious victory at the US Open; finally with his majestic if heart-stoppingly tense subjugation of Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2013 – took a handful of seconds and fewer than 140 characters to destroy.
So it was on Thursday, as his compatriots were heading for the polling stations, that Murray tweeted his support for Yes. The negativity of the Better Together campaign, he wrote, had settled his thinking, and – though as a non-resident of his homeland he could not vote himself – he was gung-ho for independence (I paraphrase at many more than 140 characters, if he will forgive that impertinence).
The reaction on social media, and in some newspaper columns, was instant and predictably vicious.
Someone on Twitter, who might yet be arrested for a hate crime but would probably be best allowed to fester in his own depressing, stupid, obscurity, expressed the wish that Murray had died, along with so many of his tiny schoolmates, in the Dunblane massacre. Others, possibly a bit confused about the subtler implications of freedom of speech, confined themselves to describing this utterly splendid young man as a traitor.
There will always be odious half-wits in this country, as elsewhere, and it would be faux naif to affect shock about such a poisonously demented response to a proud, if expatriate, Scot expressing his opinion about his idea of the best future available to his country. And yet, for all the attempt to hide behind world-weary disdain, I find my disgust at this treatment of Andy Murray almost overwhelmingly raw.
I have worshipped him, as readers of our sports section will be bored to be reminded, since he exploded on to the tennis scene at Queens Club as a coltish 16-year-old whose ungodly brilliance was betrayed by his legs’ habit of splaying like a new-born foal after a couple of hours on court.
There was more to admire about him than the staggering natural talent. The facade may have been, and may sporadically remain, lacking in couth, but off court he is (from anecdote and the briefest acquaintance) a startlingly modest and charming young man. His loyalty to his friends, most notably a fellow Davis Cup player who developed lymphatic cancer, is matched by his loyalty to his home town. When he broke down while being interviewed about the unspeakable horrors of Dunblane, which he survived by hiding beneath the headmaster’s desk at the age of nine, he revealed a sensitivity and humanity that ridiculed the portrayal of him as some kind of ill-tempered automaton.
That he is the greatest British individual sportsman of all time, and will now remain so, can hardly be in doubt. During the greatest era tennis has known, and more than likely ever will, he took on and often defeated the three finest players in history (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic) with a level of mental fortitude that belies Great Britain’s well-earned reputation for producing sporting chokers.
He has provided us with more excitement, more electrifying tension and more pure pleasure than any other sportsman these islands have produced. He did it without once being rancorous in defeat or swaggering in triumph. For more than a decade, he has done his country nothing but credit, and it is beneath citizens of that country to repay his absolute right sincerely to express an opinion with sneers, disdain and insults.
The notion that Murray, simply because he has a house in Surrey and represents England as well as the other constituents of the Union in the Davis Cup, owes England more loyalty than he owes his own conscience is worse than childishly misguided. It bespeaks – it bescreams – an outrageously arrogant sense of entitlement that may go a long way to explaining why 45 per cent of Scots wished to be rid of the English.
Andy Murray owes England nothing. It is the English – or that better part of the English who have taken such immense pride in his career, and wish him only to recover the form that made him the greatest British sporting star of his generation – who owe him.
On behalf of those this side of the border who are ashamed of the ingratitude and spite visited upon him, I hope the above constitutes a minuscule down-payment towards repaying that debt.