Stuart Pearce’s defence of the Team GB Olympic football team in yesterday’s Guardian exemplifies what I term an ‘England-plus’ way of thinking about Britain. That is to say, Pearce, like many English people, thinks of (Great) Britain or the UK as essentially England + the other home nations. This is not quite the same thing as the traditional ‘Greater England’ conception of the UK – in which ‘England’ and ‘Great Britain’ were regarded as synonymous – but it is the heir to this way of thinking.
Pearce clearly recognises the distinction between England and Great Britain, although he expresses this in somewhat professional terms: “Pearce also insisted that the Team GB role will not detract from managing the England Under-21 team. ‘It won’t affect my focus – [it] is my day-to-day job’, he said”. But he also clearly views the GB team he will be managing as basically an England team plus the best eligible players from the other UK nations: “‘What if Ryan [Giggs] had been English and available to play for England'”. In other words, Team GB is like an England team enhanced by the best non-English British players: England-plus.
In reality, Team GB looks as though it will be an ‘England-plus-Wales’ team, rather than England-plus-the home nations, despite the fact that Pearce says he “will be picking from all four nations”. The only non-English players that have been mentioned in connection with Team GB – both in the Guardian article and generally – are Welsh: Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ryan Giggs. So it’s pretty meaningless for Pearce to imply he’ll be picking Scottish and Northern Irish players, as none have signalled their interest (and none would be good enough? – dig, dig), and any players that did accept the poisoned Team GB chalice could well end up being banned from playing from their national sides or, worse still, never forgiven by the fans.
But Pearce is not in fact going to pick any Scottish or Northern Irish players for perhaps another reason: that they haven’t crossed his mental radar. The pool of players Pearce is drawing from comprises those of the English Premier League, which is the main career avenue for Welsh players, and which now also includes a Welsh club (Swansea) and could include another Welsh club (Cardiff) if they were promoted. So Team GB is not a genuine UK-wide team seeking to draw upon and give an opportunity to the best young talent from each of the home nations; but it is in fact a ‘Best of British from the English Premier League’ outfit that just happens not to involve any Scottish or Northern Irish players right now. And that’s partly because young players from those countries are developed through their own national club system and youth academies, which Pearce is not involved with.
The fact that Pearce can still talk of Team GB as a genuine British team exemplifies the ‘England-plus’ mentality in general: Britain / the UK is thought of as basically England plus the other UK nations. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘included’; indeed, that is the reason why ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ is what is said, rather than ‘England’: in order to be inclusive towards the other nations. But ‘the country’ that is in English people’s minds when they say ‘Britain’ in this sort of inclusive context is essentially England. I don’t mean this in a logical or factual sense, but in terms of the feeling, the passion, and the mental and cultural associations that are evoked when English people project their sense of nationhood across the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’. For example, Scottish associations are unlikely to be foremost in an English person’s mind when they’re thinking of typically British things: they won’t naturally think of Edinburgh, kilts or haggis but might think of London, Laura Ashley or that other animal-bladder by-product, the football. When an English person says ‘Britain’ or ‘UK’, they might mean what they say, but they’re imagining England.
This England-plus conception – in which the mental landscape behind ‘Britain’ is essentially that of England, though it nominally includes the other three countries – is in contrast to the Union establishment’s present ‘Britain-minus’ conception of England: England is thought of as the UK / Britain minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is the ‘Lesser Britain’ resulting from devolution that I have previously written about, which is in reality England only (i.e. the territory and jurisdiction), but which the establishment refuses to verbalise as England but persists in calling ‘Britain’ or ‘the country’. As a consequence of the establishment of Team GB, a Britain-minus team is what we could end up with instead of our present four home nation sides: FIFA could use Team GB as a precedent and impose on us a single ‘British’ team. But Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players would be strongly encouraged by their presumably disbanding associations to have nothing to do with a Britain team. In other words, such a team would effectively be an England team, but one that is officially designated as the Britain team, though it is minus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland players: Britain-minus.
Such a team would be a fitting symbol for an establishment Britain that has become even more devoid of real meaning and inclusiveness than the England-plus understanding of ‘the nation’ of many English people, including Stuart Pearce. In contrast to Team GB, the FIFA-imposed ‘Britain’ team would not only be a Britain without Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a Britain without England – Britain-minus.
Forget about the controversy over the home nations’ sides not being allowed by FIFA to wear poppies embroidered in their shirts this weekend, important though this issue is. Such a controversy would pale into insignificance compared with a FIFA ban on English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players from even wearing their nations’ shirts to begin with, because the only ‘national’ team they’re allowed to play for is the ‘Britain’ team.
On one level, this would be a perfect outcome for the British establishment: perhaps the most potent present-day symbolism of the English nation – its football team – would be consigned to the history books where England belongs, as far as the establishment is concerned. But a permanent ‘Team Britain’ would represent only a pyrrhic victory for the Union. A British national football team would illustrate the vacuity of the establishment’s Little-Britain, Britain-minus thinking: not only effectively excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but failing to capture the identification and engage the passion of English fans. It would be a ‘Britain-minus-England/Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland’ team; ‘Britain one – home nations nil’.
In short, under a permanent Britain team, the UK would have won the match but lost its claim to the title: the title, that is, of a consensual Union of proud nations. It would in essence be a ‘minus state’: a state, and a team, without any national core or meaning. And such a minus state could not endure: as space abhors a vacuum, a Team Britain not worthy of the name would be swept away as the nations reasserted themselves, quite possibly politically as well as on the football field.
There’s one corner of a football field that will be for ever England. And no England-plus Team GB or Britain-minus UK team will ever take that away.