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!