Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

30 August 2008

Great Britain is England yet awhile

I was quite surprised recently at the reaction to a post of mine that was published on OurKingdom. In the piece, I explored some different scenarios for a referendum on Scottish independence. One of them was that, as a vote for Scottish independence would effectively break up Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Union between England and Scotland), then all of the people of Great Britain should be given a say. This proposal was intended only as an exercise in logical reasoning: if you regard Great Britain as a nation, then surely the whole of that nation should be allowed to choose whether it should be broken up. In the event, none of those commenting on the post took up this line of argument: there was not even a solitary unionist to defend the idea of Great Britain’s integrity as a nation. Scottish commenters, for their part, significantly seemed to regard any idea that the whole of Great Britain – or, indeed, the whole of the UK – should be allowed to give its assent to the departure of Scotland from the Union, and to the proposed shape of the continuing Union post-Scotland, as an (English) attempt to block the sovereign will of the Scottish people.

I was left with an impression that to argue that Great Britain is a nation – which is not, by the way, what I believe – meets with incomprehension in serious political debate. This is despite the fact that ‘the country’ and the state as a whole are almost always referred to in national political discourse as ‘Britain’; and the New Labour government has expended vast amounts of time, effort and money trying to invent and inculcate concepts such as ‘British values’, ‘Britishness’ and, indeed, British national identity that are supposed to unite all the peoples of the kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And this is also despite the fact that Team GB – the ‘Great Britain’ Olympic team – returned home earlier this week to the rapturous acclaim of what was referred to by the media as ‘the nation’, Union Flags draped all over them; to be followed in subsequent days by patriotic receptions of their athletes from the peoples of Scotland and Wales with not a Union Flag in sight but only Saltires and Red Dragons. No proposals yet for a victory parade for the triumphant English athletes, although we have been promised a parade in London in October for all of Team GB. Understandably, this absence of an English parade, along with the handing out of Union Jacks to people attending receptions of English athletes in their local areas, has been greeted with howls of ‘foul play’.

But it’s clear that the Great Britain celebrations are meant to do double duty as the English celebrations. There’s something rather unrealistic about demanding or hoping that we might be allowed to fête our triumphant English athletes as English when they’re supposed to be representing Great Britain. This would be an ‘unnecessary’ duplication – precisely because Great Britain is already the double of England; and because the patriotic pride we take in Team GB is the publicly acceptable expression of English pride in her athletes. Look at the kit those athletes are wearing: it’s the England football kit – white tops with red trim; blue trousers. (Or is England’s football kit really in the British colours? But don’t get me on to the subject of the football team GB again!)

How can we unpack all of this? The UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is not a nation: to advocate this idea would meet with even more derision or incomprehension than to suggest that Great Britain as such is a nation. Depending on whether you regard Great Britain as a unitary nation, as a political union of two nations (England and Scotland), or indeed of three (England, Scotland and Wales), then the UK is a political union between – a state composed of – from one to three nations plus part of another (Ireland).

Hardly surprising, then, that ‘the UK’ is not used as the name for the Olympic team: it’s not a nation and, therefore, cannot be a channel of national pride. ‘Britain’, on the other hand (as opposed to ‘Great Britain’), is used informally as a synonym for the UK, while taking on the connotations of nationhood associated with ‘Great Britain’. This is why it is also a synonym for what national politicians refer to as ‘the country’: a term which, in its very imprecision, also encompasses and binds together the concepts of the UK state and of nationhood but avoids officially using the term ‘nation’ for the UK. Similarly, ‘Britain’, informally, is described as ‘the nation’ even when it refers to the UK.

So why isn’t ‘Britain’, rather than ‘Great Britain’, the name of the Olympic team, as this would at least imply the inclusion of athletes from Northern Ireland, as well as from other parts of the so-called ‘British Isles’ that are not formally part of the UK, such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? Well, I suppose it’s because – formally – ‘Britain’ is the name neither of a state nor of a nation; whereas Great Britain appears to be a bit of both: literally a bit of – part of – the official name of the UK state, and (to judge from its name at least) an integral nation; that is, one of the two nations that joined together to form the UK.

But Great Britain is also, as I said above, the double of England. It’s the place within which the ‘subjective’ national identity of the English (how they see themselves and what they call themselves as a ‘great’ nation), the ‘objective’ identity of the state (a Union of two to four nations greater than England, but of which England is the greater part) and the physical territory of the ‘country’ (Britain) converge. But that place, increasingly, exists only in the subjectivity – in the minds – of the English (or at least some of them), not in objective reality.

Great Britain is the name that England gave to itself when it took over Scotland in the 1707 Union: it’s the name of the ‘dominion’ of England (its territory and power) expanded to encompass the whole of Britain – ‘Great’ because it is ‘Greater England’; a Union that consolidated the greatness of England as Britain. In the popular imagination of the English, from 1707 till recent times, Great Britain was a nation – was the nation – because it was synonymous with the nation of England; the Union being imagined as an incorporation of Scotland into the English state, which is what it effectively was if you consider only aspects such as parliament, the executive and sovereignty – although Scotland retained many other aspects of separate civic nationhood, such as its own legal and education systems, and established church.

So, for England, Great Britain became the (English) nation: an imaginative fusion – union – of the English national identity, the political state, and the territory of Britain. But the point is the English did invest their sense of national identity into Great Britain to the extent that ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ became indistinguishable and interchangeable. For the Scots, this meant that ‘Great Britain’ always really meant just England, and its domination and subordination of Scotland through the apparatus of the ‘British’ state. However, for the English, this genuinely implied a blending of national identities – a pouring and offering out of Englishness into and for Britain – creating something new: a British nation and nationhood within which the Scots and the Welsh were also taken up; but which, subjectively, was of necessity the extension of Englishness to ‘Britain as a whole’ (Great Britain), because that imagined common Britishness was imagined through the minds of the English – the controllers of the narrative of British identity.

Nothing essentially changed in this dynamic when Ireland was added to the Union in 1801. The name of the state may have changed but it remained ‘Great Britain’ in its core identity: the national identity of the English as subjectively extended and merged into ‘Britain as a whole’, making Ireland, too (and now Northern Ireland), ‘really’ part of Great Britain: British; British Ireland. ‘Really’ in the sense that, insofar as it lived as a nation at all, this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (this union of Ireland with Great Britain, which was an incorporation of Ireland into the Union that was Great Britain) fully had the character of nationhood only in the minds of the English, for whom Great Britain was the objective reflection – the image, the double – of their own nation and the greatness of England.

The British ‘project’ – the realisation of Britain as a ‘great nation’ through Great Britain, the Empire and now the attempt to encapsulate the philosophical and political ‘greatness’ that is Britishness – has, therefore, always been essentially an English project. Not only in the objective sense that the English ‘as a nation’ somehow owned, drove and dominated the British adventure; but because the very Britishness of that project was a projection of the English: a creation of something, in their eyes, greater than themselves but of themselves, which in turn conferred greatness (the greatness of Britain) upon them.

And so now, too, our Olympians have gone out to the world and returned home in greatness, battles won. ‘Our’ Olympians, I say? Those of England or those of Great Britain?

For now, they are those of England and those of Great Britain; and our celebrations must do double duty for our athletes’ Englishness and Britishness – including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish among them in whom, as Great Britons, we English also take national pride.

But the objective political reality which, for 300 years, has sustained the Great British dream is rapidly unravelling. As those displays of Scottish and Welsh patriotic pride revealed, it’s increasingly only the English who see themselves as British and their country as Great Britain. And then again, fewer and fewer of them. When that objective political union that binds England to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland fully dissolves, then maybe we can have our celebration of great English achievements. Or maybe, our celebrating English glories as English, not British, will be the thing that finally puts an end to the British project: the projection of our English ambitions and identity onto Great Britain.

It’s the desire to be greater than ourselves that led to Great Britain. Maybe England‘s finest hour will be when we accept that true greatness is just to be ourselves. And to achieve all that we are capable of – for ourselves and our country – in a spirit of friendship to others and personal striving that has its meaning in itself.

26 August 2008

It’s not just about a football Team GB: it’s about the existence of GB as a nation

Alex Salmond is not just a superb tactician; he’s a master of strategy, too. At first, I thought his reiterated statement on Saturday that Scotland should have its own Olympics team was just a clever tactical response to the calls for a Team GB (or UK) football team for the 2012 Olympics. What better way, after all, to protect the existence of a separate Scottish football team and association than to have the entire Olympic team under the banner of Scotland, thereby ‘scotching’ efforts to have Scottish footballers playing for Team GB? This is an example of what I wrote about in my last post: the nationalist backlash to the other GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] efforts to engineer a football Team GB for 2012 and, who knows, permanently deprive the UK’s nations of their separate national football teams as a consequence. The more GB pushes the issue, the more the SNP will insist on a Scottish Olympic team, knowing they’ll enlist more and more support for the idea, the more Scots feel their cherished football team is under threat!

But I think Salmond is playing for higher strategic stakes: he actually seriously wants a Scottish Olympic team for 2012 – whether independence has been achieved by then or not – and is not just using the proposal as a bargaining chip to get GB to drop his insistence on a GB football side. GB, Seb Coe and the unionist establishment know they need to act fast and capitalise on the supposed waves of enthusiasm that Team Britannia is currently ruling! This is because the recognition of the four national UK Football Associations by football’s international body FIFA creates a precedent that could be exploited by the Scottish Government in any application to the International Olympic Committee for a separate Scottish Olympic team. If FIFA recognises that Scotland is a distinct nation and therefore allows it to have its own team, why shouldn’t the IOC? So the longer the idea of a football Team GB is challenged, the greater is the opportunity for the Scots to press for an Olympic Team Scotland.

Think what a disaster that would be for GB and his chums! The 2012 Olympics is supposed to be a massive showcase to demonstrate to the world that Great Britain is both a great and united kingdom (the verbal confusion here is deliberate!): successful (as demonstrated by the coveted medal haul), confident, dynamic, multi-cultural. Above all, GB wants it to become a narrative that will convince not only the world but the people of ‘this country’ itself that Great Britain (or the UK) actually is one nation: the ‘tribal’ national loyalties of its citizens, as most powerfully evidenced by its separate football teams, definitively overcome in a representation of ‘great Britishness’ in which the people of Britain will come together – will be present to themselves – and their existence as Great Britain will be confirmed in the admiring gaze of the assembled global audience.

What a farce, by contrast, if a separate Team Scotland poops the party and does its utmost (to quote GB’s school motto) to demonstrate that Scotland is a proud nation distinct from Great Britain, or whatever Team GB would be called at that point. What would it be called, in fact? I bet they’d try to get away with still calling it ‘Team GB’, even though – without Scotland – Great Britain no longer exists. I suppose technically, if Scotland hadn’t yet achieved political independence but only Olympic autonomy, they could argue that Great Britain still existed. In fact, Team GB might include some Scots in 2012, as their official nationality would still be British. However, they might be obliged to call it Team UK on the same grounds as the continuing British state post-Scottish independence would be called the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland?) – even though such a nation also would not yet exist in 2012 if Scotland hadn’t yet quit the Union.

What a mess, indeed! This would totally destroy any pretence that ‘Great Britain’ actually exists as a nation, which is what is ultimately at stake. Salmond wants to shatter that illusion in front of all the world and wants to spark off Scottish-national fervour by the spectacle of that country’s bravehearts doing battle against the ‘British’ (i.e. the English): depriving them of an even greater tally of medals than they achieved with the participation of the Scots in Beijing and – who knows? – even competing against Team GB in the football! Maybe Salmond realises that he’s not going to get away with a Scottish-independence referendum till after the Olympics: he may have difficulty gaining support for it in the Scottish Parliament until after the next Scottish general election in 2011; and by that point, the unionists may have succeeded in talking up the importance of not causing a national humiliation ahead of the Olympics. However, if Scots are competing proudly as a distinct nation in the London Olympics, what a wonderful symbol that could offer of a new, vibrant Scotland freed from the restrictions of Westminster rule! Hold a snap referendum shortly after a successful Olympics, and then Scotland could be independent and organise its own showcase sporting spectacular – the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – in which the existence of separate national teams for the four nations of the UK has somehow, inconsistently, never been challenged in any case.

But what of the football Team UK itself? In GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] Sky TV interview on Saturday, he spelt out that it would indeed be a Team UK, not Team GB. In my post on Saturday, I speculated that the insistence on the UK might be in deference to the players (and, indeed, the Association) of Northern Ireland, to whose participation it might be something of an insult if the team were still designated as GB. Speculating somewhat, could it be that FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in his discussions with GB, insisted that it should be referred to as a / the UK team? The logic behind this is that either the UK has four national teams or one national team that fully represents the same four nations, and which therefore has to be a UK side not a Great Britain team. Obviously, if Scotland decamps before 2012 – either sportingly or politically, too – this makes the question academic.

However, assuming Salmond’s strategy or dream of a Team Scotland doesn’t come to fruition, any actual Team UK would probably end up being – yes, you’ve guessed it – an England team, or perhaps an England + Northern Ireland team if unionist pressure in the Province succeeded in persuading the IFA to take part. Incidentally, this combination would again ‘justify’ the ‘UK’ tag. This doomsday scenario, from an England supporter’s perspective, is due to the fact that it’s hard to see the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales or, indeed, popular opposition in those countries being swayed to the idea of a Team UK. If those associations were persuaded or coerced into participating, then there really would be a possibility that their right to exist as separate national bodies – and hence, the existence of separate national teams – would be seriously under threat; which is something they are well aware of. This danger is in part a consequence of the logic behind a Team UK I outlined above: either four UK-national teams or one national-UK team encompassing the four nations, which is possibly FIFA’s own logic.

In this context, I had an interesting afternoon yesterday following all the coverage on BBC Radio Five Live while carrying out a long and tedious bank-holiday chore. They were actually broadcasting from Edinburgh, so there were multiple references to and discussions of Sean Connery’s and Alex Salmond’s voicing of support for a separate Scottish Olympic team; while they also kept tracking the progress of the BA ‘Pride’ aircraft bringing the victorious Team GB back home from Beijing. There were lots of live and recorded interviews with politicians and sports personalities. One of them was with Tony Blair’s former (English) Sports Minister Richard Caborn, who said he had been present at Gordon Brown’s meeting with Sepp Blatter, and that Blatter had assured GB that the separate UK FAs would not be at risk if they helped organise a Team UK for 2012. Caborn even asserted that Brown had received written assurances to this effect. This was contrasted with a comment from – if I remember correctly – a member of the Scottish supporters’ association, who said that when Sepp Blatter visited the SFA in March of this year, he had stated explicitly that the SFA would be very unwise to agree to a Team UK, as it could put their existence in jeopardy. Who do you believe? Better to be safe than sorry, I would say!

Another person they interviewed was Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport (in England) Andy Burnham, who uttered highly predictable remarks about how ‘the country’s’ Olympic success made one proud to be British, while making a muddled defence of the proposal for a Team UK. He said that it was right that young people “from all four corners of Great Britain” (err, shouldn’t that be the UK, Mr Burnham?) should have the opportunity to play for ‘their country’ at the Olympics. Asked whether he thought there would be much support for a Scotland Olympic team, he stated that he didn’t think there was a lot of support for this idea in ‘the country’; by which he appeared to mean ‘Great Britain’, although the only country whose support for the proposal is of any relevance is Scotland. And then he came out with the wisdom that, in any case, he felt British first and foremost, and then English only secondarily. Well, firstly, I don’t believe that: it’s the kind of thing that only an English unionist could say, and it reflects a traditional anglocentric view of the Union. And secondly, one was tempted to say to him (and maybe I did shout it at the radio!), ‘well, in that case, go and create your British football team, if you like; just leave our English team for those of us (in the majority, I feel – at least, the footballing majority) who feel English first and foremost, and British less and less. Now that’s a thought: separate Britain and England football teams – no more illogical, although fantastical, than the more realistic prospect of separate Teams Scotland and UK in 2012!

In any case, Mr Burnham was speaking out of turn as far as a Team UK is concerned: since sport is a devolved matter, his responsibilities in the area are officially limited to England. And that, incidentally, is another reason why a Team Scotland is a realistic possibility: as the Scottish Government is responsible for sport in that country, there is no reason why it should not campaign and apply for separate Olympic status, in keeping with the distinct nation status the British government itself conferred upon it through devolution.

And this really is the hub of the matter. The Scottish-nationalist position is logically consistent, whether you agree with it or not: it’s based on the unquestioned premise that Scotland is a distinct nation and, as such, has a right to separate national sports teams, both Olympian and footballing. It’s this sort of confident assertion of Scottish national identity that informed Sean Connery’s words yesterday: “Scotland should always be a stand-alone nation at whatever, I believe”. By contrast, there is no such unwavering certainty about ‘Great Britain”s nation status. In fact, it’s neither a nation (as it’s a kingdom encompassing two nations, or three if you include Wales) nor a state. Gordon Brown and all the Great Britishers ardently dream of Britain taking on the status of a nation; and a separate Team Scotland would give the lie to that. The British state, as opposed to nation, is the UK; and, unpacking what I assume to be Sepp Blatter’s Team-UK logic, he’s offering the option of either four teams for four nations, or one team for one state (the UK).

The solution? Transfer the nation status of England, Scotland and Wales (and, ambiguously, Northern Ireland; hence the vacillation between GB and UK) – as embodied in their separate football teams – onto ‘Great Britain’ by creating a single, united GB team; as if, in the process, the separate national loyalties and identities of the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish could also be transferred over and merged. This does appear to be the delusional and vain hope of all the passionate advocates of a Great Britain football team, who enviously eye up the even greater passion with which the UK nations’ supporters follow their football teams, and who say to themselves, ‘if only we could have all of that passion and national fervour behind Team GB in the greatest sporting event “this country” has ever held’! Some hope! It shows gross ignorance of football and condescension towards the people of the UK nations to think their loyalties could so easily and glibly be transformed.

(In passing, let me just express my indignation at the 2012 Olympics being characterised as the greatest sporting event Britain will ever have put on: this was the 1966 World Cup, of course. Another thing Andy Burnham said that I took issue with was when he described Team GB’s Beijing Olympics performance as the greatest sporting success he can recollect ‘this country’ having achieved since he was a child in the 1970s. Wrong again, Mr Burnham, it was the 2003 Rugby World Cup. I can’t speak for Scotland or Wales in these matters; nor can you.)

So the absence of a Great British football team stands as a glaring insult in the face of the British ‘project’ – as Lord Coe refers to it – that is Team GB and the 2012 Olympics. The game which, in GB’s words at the weekend, “[Britain] gave to the world” [sic], refuses to play ball and deny a century and a half of sporting rivalries, and centuries more of national rivalries and competition. ‘Surely, the Olympic spirit should overcome such nationalism’, Seb Coe was reported as saying at the weekend. But hang on, what are you saying? Is the Great Britain team in fact an example of the Olympic spirit bringing separate nations together, meaning that Great Britain is actually an international team. If so, then there should be no theoretical objection to us competing as separate England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams, in keeping with the traditions of sporting rivalry that have characterised both the UK and the Olympic movement throughout their history. Otherwise, if you followed Coe’s logic, there should be no national teams competing against each other at all, and the Olympics should be some multi-national, multi-cultural melting pot – rather similar, indeed, to the very image of Britain that they want to be realised in the London Olympics.

Oh sad, delusional GB! 2012 is a dream of a united nation of Great Britain: ‘the nation’ that is said to be acclaiming its returning Olympic heroes but which can’t even decide on its name or composition. I’m sure it will be a great spectacle. But football – the true spirit of football, if not the English FA – won’t collude with the Great British lie.

25 August 2008

Pressure for a football Team GB could help the nationalist cause

Thinking further about this issue, which erupted at the weekend with reports that GB [Gordon Brown] not only favours a football Team UK / GB for the 2012 Olympics but has talked to FIFA chairman Sepp Blatter about it, it seems to me that if GB and Seb Coe push this issue, they could be scoring a monumental own goal.

The idea of a Team UK for the Olympics, let alone the permanent replacement of our national sides by a Team UK – which could be one of the consequences – is hugely unpopular with football fans up and down the lands of Britain. Let’s not forget that supporting the England football team is the most popular socially acceptable manifestation of English nationalism, since patriotic English sentiment is stripped of any possibility of expression in civic society, public life and national institutions, which are all ‘British’. If you try to undermine this, you could get a massive popular backlash against the Britishness agenda. This is just if GB pushes the point but fails. But if the doomsday scenario of a Team UK actually materialised, think what a publicity nightmare it would be for the 2012 Olympics: mass protests before and during the Games; attempts to grab and extinguish the Olympic flame as it passed through British streets; crowds staying away from the Team UK matches, or turning up to protest and unfurl their Flags of St. George and Saltires! Come to think of it, this could be the one cause that would reunite Scots and English people, ironically in opposition to the UK!

Then imagine the horror of a Team UK being permanently inflicted on us, replacing the four national teams of the UK’s four nations! Hardly any real football fan would support it or turn up to the matches, for a start. I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to say this could actually provide the spark that would ignite the final conflagration of the UK and its break up into its constituent parts: ‘if we can only have one team per nation, then let’s have four nations instead of the UK’ would become a popular saying.

Think this is overstating it? Well, as I said in my last post, football is about more than mere football – it’s also highly political. Seb Coe certainly seems to think so, according to the report linked above: “The chairman of London 2012 insists the Olympic spirit is more powerful than Scottish or English nationalism”. So it’s not just about football or sport – it’s about defeating Scottish or English nationalism. QED.

All I can say, GB and Seb, is bring it on! We’ll provide more than a match for your Team GB!

23 August 2008

Football’s coming home – to Britain: GB backs Team UK for the 2012 Olympics

Thanks for alerting me to this piece of news go to a comment from ‘Big Englander’ on my last post on ‘Team GB’ at the Beijing Olympics. GB – Gordon Brown, that is – has come out in favour of a ‘UK’ (yes, UK, not GB) football team at the London Olympics in 2012. Apparently, according to the report on Sky News, GB has already “met with head of FIFA Sepp Blatter, Olympic organisers and FA organisers in Britain in order to broker an agreement”. Watch out, lads; this looks serious.

Again according to the report, GB is quoted as saying, “I hope there will be a team by 2012. It will be team UK”. Could it be that GB has taken note of the criticisms – of which my last post was just one among many – of the use of ‘GB’ for the name of the British team and of the country as a whole in the Olympics and, indeed, in his own paean of praise to team GB last weekend?

“I want to send my congratulations to Team GB on this golden weekend for British sport. Eight gold medals and seventeen medals in total in one weekend is a superb and unprecedented achievement. The whole country has been watching and has been thrilled by Team GB. We are immensely proud of what they have achieved so far, and inspired by their performance. Our Olympians’ talent and dedication represent the very best of Britain and we look forward to another great week of British sporting success”.

Are we now to conclude that the whole of the British team will be designated Team UK, not just the football team? This may come as quite a shock to the marketing bods at the British Olympic Association, which has been diligently building up the ‘brand’ of Team GB since it was launched at Atlanta 1996 and is making it the centrepoint of its preparations for 2012! How would a Team UK for all the Olympic sports accommodate the delicate issue of Northern Irish athletes who elect to compete for Team Ireland (as it is in fact called)? Football is a sport where you could make an exception or, depending on how you look at it, where it would be unavoidable to make an exception. This is because football is one of the few sports with a mass following where there are separate Northern Irish and Eire teams. Therefore, to include Northern Irish footballers, some of whom might be very well known, in a four-nation team and still call it ‘Team GB’ would make the anomaly of that name even more glaring and offensive – to unionists, at least.

GB’s justification of the Team UK idea is apt to make the blood of many an English patriot, and even that of not especially patriotic English football supporters, boil: “Britain is the home of football, which we gave to the world, and people will be surprised if there is an Olympic tournament in football and we are not part of it”. Yes, you read it right: football was invented in Britain, not England, as you may have read elsewhere; and GB wants the Olympics to be an occasion when – to adapt the lines in the Lightning Seeds’ anthem for Euro 96 – ‘football’s coming home’. To Britain.

What amuses me particularly about this is that GB seems to have forgotten his words in October 2007, when FIFA announced it was dropping its continental rotation system for allocating the World Cup, allowing England to prepare a bid to host the true greatest show on earth in 2018:

“I am delighted that FIFA have opened the door for the World Cup to come back to England. By 2018, it will be 52 years since England hosted the World Cup. The nation which gave football to the world deserves to have the greatest tournament back on these shores.

“If The FA decide to go ahead and bid for the tournament, they know they will have the full support of the Government behind them, and we will make it our mission to persuade other countries to back us in bringing the World Cup back to England.”

So, Mr Brown, England is the nation that gave football to the world, is it, not Britain? And you’re backing England’s bid to bring “the greatest tournament . . . back to England”. ‘Back home’, indeed. You could almost be mistaken for thinking Brown’s words here were those of an English First Minister. Sorry, they are the words of an English First Minister; only an unelected one who does double duty as the PM for the UK. Hence, with his English hat on, he actually says ‘England’ and refers to it as a ‘nation’ (quite a staggering thing to emerge from the mouth of our leader and highly untypical of him); and with his British hat on, what was previously attributed to England (the invention of football) now gets reattributed to the UK. At least, in his statement today, GB didn’t have the gall to refer to the UK as a ‘nation’.

Just another example of Brown’s appropriation of English identity and history to Britain when it suits his unionist agenda. And, believe you me, the Olympics are going to become an almighty battleground between nationalists and unionists in the run up to 2012! As I argued in my previous post, the unionists are going to try to exploit the success of Team GB at Beijing and the hosting of the Games in London in 2012 for all their worth to try to whip up British patriotic fervour (in England, mainly, of course), and to slow or even halt the progress to a pro-independence referendum in Scotland that could break up GB (or should that be UK?) in the most humiliating fashion just as it was about to put on an event calculated to portray GB / UK as a united, proud and great nation!

As the great Scottish manager of Liverpool, Bill Shankly, once said: “football is not a matter of life and death; it’s more serious than that” (or words to that effect). In similar vein, putting together a football Team UK is about more than football: it’s about keeping the UK together, which means denying England’s distinct identity and traditions – some of the most cherished of which are those of football. Olympic Games (Team UK) or World Cup (England): I know which matters more to me.

So hands off our national teams, GB!

18 August 2008

Team GB’s Olympic Success: Should We Be Proud?

I suppose this morning’s newspaper headlines were inevitable: ‘It’s great to be British!’; ‘Britannia rules the Games!’. It was, after all, a terrific weekend of success for Team GB at the Beijing Olympics, and Great Britain sat in third place in the medals table at the end of Sunday’s events: an unwonted sporting triumph for ‘the country’, indeed!

That other GB, Gordon Brown, inevitably chimed in. The inappropriate headline I came across in Yahoo! News read, “Brown hails UK’s golden weekend”. Inappropriate because there was no mention of the UK as such in the article’s quotes from Gordon:

“I want to send my congratulations to Team GB on this golden weekend for British sport. Eight gold medals and seventeen medals in total in one weekend is a superb and unprecedented achievement. The whole country has been watching and has been thrilled by Team GB. We are immensely proud of what they have achieved so far, and inspired by their performance. Our Olympians’ talent and dedication represent the very best of Britain and we look forward to another great week of British sporting success”.

Britain, Britain, Britain. Well, I suppose I should stop being a (typically British, English?) misery guts and should just be proud of our sportsmen’s and sportswomen’s successes, as GB says. And, indeed, I was and am proud, not least – but also not only – because the great majority of those medal-winning contestants were English. In most patriotic English people, indeed, rare victories such as these stir up those old sentiments of being ‘proud to be British’ – feelings suffused with memories of our once routinely ‘world-beating’ Empire. This is the way English patriotism has traditionally been expressed; and it’s a more obviously English-British patriotism now than ever, as one no longer feels that the triumphs of the Scottish medal winners (such as triple gold medal-winning cyclist Chris Hoy) really quite belong to ‘us’ (i.e. to us English) any more, if they ever did. In fact, I’m sure that the Scottish media are following and proclaiming the successes of Scottish contestants as Scottish victories in the first instance, and then British only secondarily. No such possibility of celebrating English success: no, that’s British.

The political dividends of all this are obvious; hence, the intervention of GB (the Prime Minister, that is). It’s a chance to reaffirm and orchestrate English people’s identification with Britain as ‘the country’, in our leader’s favourite phrase. As usual, however, this technically misses out Northern Ireland, as the PM is wont to do. In this instance, he’s got official ‘permission’ to do so in that ‘the country’ is indeed referred to as ‘Great Britain’ in the Games, not as the UK. This is one of those historical anomalies. Apparently, people from Northern Ireland can opt to represent the Republic of Ireland, if they wish, so it is in fact only fully a Great British team; plus ‘Great Britain’ (initials GBR) was the name adopted for the UK team by the International Olympics Committee for the 1908 Games. However, clearly, calling the team ‘Great Britain’ facilitates all those stirrings of patriotic emotion, as one calls to mind the ‘greatness’ of the Empire. In addition, ‘Britain’ carries the overtones of nationhood; while ‘the UK’ reminds us that ‘the country’ is merely a state, not a nation.

The ultimate political agenda really converges on the 2012 Olympics: will the country still be represented by Team GB (possibly, for the last time); or will these be the first Games where there will be separate teams for Scotland and – what? – the United Kingdom (of England, Wales and Northern Ireland)? Or, if you follow the rationale for calling the present UK team ‘Great Britain’ (i.e. it diplomatically leaves the dual allegiances of Northern Irish people out of play), would this be a ‘Team England & Wales’, or even separate English and Welsh teams (whether for sporting reasons only or because England and Wales had separated politically, too)? Let’s just hope that they wouldn’t try to continue calling an England / Wales team ‘Great Britain’ – I wouldn’t put it past them! More importantly, if Scotland has gained its independence by then, the London Olympics will not be the British Games at all; but the – yes – English Games (as are, let us remember, half the sports involved – English inventions, that is).

Heaven forbid! Such a possibility must be ruled out and prevented at all costs! Billions of pounds of costs, in fact, in hosting the 2012 Games. Just as the 2008 Games are China’s chance to present a modernised, benign image to the world – forgetting about the would-be independent regions of Tibet and Xinjiang – so the London Olympics are the UK government’s lifeline for holding on to at least the idea of a unified Britain beyond the likely Scottish referendum dates of 2010 or 2011. ‘If we can just use the present Games to rekindle pride in Great Britain’, you can hear the politicians say, ‘then we might be able to get “the whole country” to rally round the task of putting on the “best Games ever” in London 2012; and then, who knows, we might have succeeded in whipping up so much renewed pride in being British, that the Union might just survive’.

The bet is on. Will the 2012 Olympics be ‘Britain’s showcase’ or its swansong? You can bet your life, however, that the politicians will do their utmost to prevent ‘Great Britain’ from breaking up before 2012! After all, if we want to finish fourth in the medals table that year, we couldn’t do so as just England, could we? I wouldn’t bet on that not happening, though!

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