Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

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11 March 2009

Shorts (4): Football Team GB – I’ve got a better idea

One of the things that’s truly ‘great’ about football in Britain (by which I actually mean all four nations of the UK, not just England) is the strength of the game at the grassroots. The literally thousands of amateur clubs that are kept going by the dedication of their coaches, the support of family members and the passions of their players; the vast structure of leagues and cup competitions at every level of the game, and for every age and, increasingly, gender. It’s these clubs that keep alive the true spirit of football, which provides a generally friendly way to fight out local rivalries, and a chance for young people to take out their aggression, keep fit and achieve a bit of glory.

The Olympics, too, was originally supposed to embody this spirit of amateur sport. It was supposed to be – and still is to some extent, even in Britain – about individuals who have a dream, and strive through sheer perseverance, skill and hard work to achieve it or at least give their all in the attempt. And it’s about friendly rivalry between nations – pointing the way to a world of peace in the more serious and vital affairs of life as well as in mere play.

All this trouble about a British Olympics football team is essentially because it’s got caught up in the turbulent national-identity politics of the present. Why not just cut through all of that and organise a mammoth all-UK amateur cup competition for the right to compete at the Olympics as ‘Team GB’ – pitching teams from all four corners of the UK against each other: little village sides from Kent journeying up to farthest John O’Groats, if necessary, in order to progress to the next round; with a team from County Antrim slugging it out in Merthyr Tydfil. If the clubs need help with their travelling and other expenses, then they could get support from the same Lotto fund that is being ploughed into the Olympic facilities – given that it’s going towards the same event.

This could be a real amateur sporting affair, in keeping with the original spirit of both football and the Olympics as I’ve described it. This means the top amateur clubs like those in the English Blue Square League, which are in reality semi-professional, would be excluded.

This would give a chance for talented amateur sportsmen and -women from across the UK to go in pursuit of an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to represent not just ‘Great Britain’ but their community, village, town and, yes, nation (whether England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) at the greatest sporting tournament on earth – well, the second after the Football World Cup! This wouldn’t in fact be the British Olympic football team but merely a British football team. I say ‘merely’; but in reality, this would be more truly and profoundly a British team than any meaningless Team GB packed with overpaid professional players for whom the Olympics did not mean much compared with tournaments like the Premier or Champions’ Leagues. This would be something that passionate football enthusiasts from across Britain would have had to fight for.

A team comprising the ‘best’ amateur club (or clubs, including the women’s team) in Britain (or at least the winner of the All-UK Challenge Cup) wouldn’t in any way compromise the status of the four separate national Football Associations. This is precisely because it wouldn’t be a / the ‘national-British’ team, and because the separate national associations would all be engaged in organising the tournament and administering the participation of all ‘their’ affiliated amateur clubs that were interested in taking part. Indeed, the clubs themselves would doubtless regard their clashes with clubs from other national associations as their own small-scale version of full international matches. So this would be an international amateur contest to select one lucky (or two including the women) representative team(s): a team of Britain and not the Britain Team.

And the point of all this is that it would mobilise a huge amount of support and goodwill from what is known as the ‘British public’ – by which is meant the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The level of interest and enthusiasm would potentially be immense as local communities got behind their teams and the English / British love of the underdog was played out to the max. This really would be great and would truly bring to the fore the ‘best of British’ – if not the best British Team. And above all, it would exhibit the long-lost idea of sport: that it’s not about the winning but the taking part.

But the powers that be are interested only in winning: winning medals, winning prestige for ‘Britain’, and winning the fight for a Football Team GB as they see it, whether the people want it or not. But contrast the enthusiastic backing that a ‘Team GB’ selected the way I am proposing would generate to the devastation that could be wrought on the precious game of football by imposing a professional Team GB on us.

Football is, and could be even more, something that unites the different nations of the UK. If the government and the BOA get their way, it could become something that divides us, even to the extent of contributing to the eventual break-up of the UK if that is what is necessary to preserve our national teams and associations – because the demand for separation would surely grow enormously if the footballing heart of our four nations was ripped out and stuck to the badge of Britain, instead of being worn with pride on the shirtsleeves of amateur FCs from throughout our islands.

If you think this is a good idea, let me know – and I’ll suggest it to those said ‘powers that be’. How about the BOA, the (English) FA and 10 Downing Street for starters!

10 November 2008

Home Nations tournament to decide which nation can provide the Olympics Team GB

According to the BBC, David Cameron has suggested there should be a Home Nations football tournament to decide which of the UK’s nations should provide the football Team GB (or should that be Team UK?) at the 2012 Olympics. As the Tory leader said: “Maybe the answer is to have a home tournament, see who wins and that team goes forward, but for the Olympics we’ve got to settle this so there is a representative team”.

Well, Cameron (or at least the BBC report) has got one thing right: it would indeed be a Home Nations tournament – nice to see that expression coming back into currency. However, might I suggest a small but significant modification to Cameron’s idea: it should be the team that loses the tournament that gets to represent Great Britain, not the one that wins it! That’ll really motivate the Scots to beat the Auld Enemy!

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.

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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