Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

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.

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