Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 August 2009

No England victory parade, as an ashen-faced Brown is forced to say ‘England’ three times

Hard to say which is the greater victory: England beating the Aussies to regain the Ashes or the fact that this victory forced Gorden the Ashen One to at least write – if not speak – the word ‘England’ no fewer than three times! In a report on yesterday’s somewhat more subdued celebrations of England’s triumph at No. 10 than in the days of Tony Blair’s premiership, the Guardian quoted from a letter Brown had written to the England captain Andrew Strauss. It’s worth repeating in full here for its sheer rarity value:

“I wanted to write to congratulate you and the entire England squad on regaining the Ashes. The series has been yet another wonderful showcase for cricket and for all that is great about sport. It has provided high sporting drama throughout the summer that has yet again gripped the entire nation, and to win the Ashes with your magnificent display at the Oval – and coming back from the defeat at Headingley in the fourth test – shows great determination and commitment.

“There have been many outstanding performances this summer on both sides, but throughout the series you have led England from the front, with patience, resolution and courage. The country is extremely proud of what you have achieved this summer. I would like to invite the England squad in to Downing Street for a reception to celebrate your victory [my emphases].”

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you: Brown said England three times! Note, however, that despite the fact that the Ashes win wrung these words out of him, Brown couldn’t resist making mendacious mention of ‘the entire nation’ being gripped by the series (which nation, you liar? Britain or England? Say ‘English nation’ when you mean it!) and invoking the pride of ‘the country’: again, England or Britain? And also note the telling reference to ‘your victory’ at the end: not ‘our victory’, which would evoke true emotional engagement and national identification.

Well, if the whole ‘country’ of Britain is so proud of the English players, you wouldn’t mind them having a victory parade through the English and British capital city, would you – just as, last year, there was no apparent incongruity in your mind in allowing only a victory parade for the whole British Olympic team – not the English medallists only – for the English people to express their pride in ‘their’ athletes? Oh yes, how silly of me: it’s OK for the English to take pride in British achievements, but your talk of the whole of Britain taking pride in English successes is mere rhetoric. So much for your uttering the dreaded ‘E’ word: it’s all just empty talk.

Actually, I’m not really that upset about there not being a victory parade for the England cricket team like the one in 2005; nor that very few if any of the team members will be recommended for inclusion in the New Year’s Honours list, like the flurry of honours that were granted to the whole team last time we won the coveted relics. All of that was a bit OTT and something of a carrot to the English people: like the ancient Roman practice of organising games to appease the people and make them forget they don’t have any real power over their lives. But if it had been a British cricket team, then what a different story it would have been!

Anyway, just as he’s not really an England man, Brown isn’t a cricket man, either; and after his six-week break, he’s far too busy and got far too many important concerns to attend to than the celebration of a national (English) triumph.

On top of which, I’m not sure that, as a true Scot, his sympathies weren’t really with the Aussies. But he’s got plenty of opportunity to pay England back (not monetarily, you understand) through his political actions. England may have got back the Ashes of English cricket; but Brown will make sure she doesn’t rise from the ashes of her abolished nationhood. Now that’s a British victory Brown would drink a dram to, I feel sure.

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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!

27 November 2007

Are England crap at football?

You’d think so to listen to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth there’s been since England were dumped into the outer darkness of non-qualification for Euro 2008! Nothing illustrates better the English character trait of self-deprecation than our chest-beating response to sporting failure. How different the reaction would have been had we held on to the 2-2 score line! Then it would have been a ‘dogged fight back’: the ‘never-say-die Dunkirk spirit’ whereby our ‘under-par side’ had determinedly held on to qualification. Not pretty but professional and effective. A very English defeat that was, then, and a very English victory that wasn’t: overhyped and self-depreciating in equal measure.

I should say that, as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, I’m used to making excuses for footballing under-achievement! But was England’s failure as abject as people are making out? Let’s look at the facts: we were without our two most influential and experienced defenders, including the captain John Terry. We were also without two world-class, match-winning strikers, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. This absence of key team members was compounded by the coach’s error in dropping the goalkeeper Paul Robinson in favour of Scott Carson, who’d never played a full international, let alone one as crucial as this one. This created extra uncertainty in defence, with a group of defenders not used to playing with each other joined by a new keeper lacking the confidence to boss his area. I’m sure that had Robinson played, the first goal would never have happened; and had Terry and Ferdinand been on the pitch, the striker who ghosted in for the second would have been picked up and blocked.

This lack of leadership also translated itself to midfield. Why did McLaren insist on playing both Gerrard and Lampard, when they hardly ever work well together, and seem to cramp each other’s style and natural tendency to impose their stamp on midfield? Gerrard should have been played on his own (and substituted by Lampard if it wasn’t working out) with someone like Owen Hargreaves in the anchor role, where he displayed such flair in another crucial game: in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in 2006. And then to change the formation to 3-5-1-1 – or whatever it was they played – rather than stick with predictable old 4-4-2, which at least was working, is absolutely daft for such a big match.

All of which must give the impression that I do think the performance was inept. Yes, mistakes were made; but there was also not a little misfortune. There aren’t many teams missing four of their top players who would have been unaffected by their absence, something which was largely unremarked upon amid the orgy of self-castigation. I’m sure the Croatians would have been greatly encouraged by the fact their names were missing from the team sheet.

And what about the Croatians? Sure, they’re not Brazil, although they had a Brazilian playing for them! But there’s a rather arrogant assumption being made that it was especially humiliating that England’s defeat should come at the hands of such a small, ‘insignificant’ nation with a population about 8% that of England’s. What have the Croatians ever done in football, people say? Well, Croatia has existed as an independent country for only 16 years, and in that time, they’ve been regular qualifiers for the World Cup and the European Championship; they even reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1998, beating Germany in the process. The former Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part, was also quite a footballing force and reached the final of the European Nations Cup twice in the 1960s, which is more than England have done.

In other words, you could compare Croatia in football terms to a country like Holland: small but with a distinguished tradition and elevated skill level. The latter was certainly in evidence last Wednesday as they gave the highly paid English stars a run for their money. But what was most impressive, I thought, was the level of commitment and energy they brought into winning a game where they didn’t even need a draw, doubtless spurred on by the roars of their 4,000-odd supporters who conspicuously out-shouted their normally more vocal English counterparts. Here’s a country only recently set free from the shackles of a larger state where they were dominated by their age-old neighbours and rivals, the Serbs; and the players seemed to really inject their game with patriotic pride and a will to win.

Now, what does that remind us of? ‘Scotland the Brave’, goes out the cry from north of the border! Maybe the rejuvenation of the Scottish football team also owes not a little to the boost to Scotland’s national pride that has been provided by the establishment of limited self-government and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that Scotland now actually has a meaningful official status as a distinct nation – which England does not. But Scotland also went out of the tournament, admittedly in the face of sterner opposition than England (both world champions Italy and France being in their group). However, for Scotland, their team’s unlucky last-minute downfall to the Italians was a heroic defeat. A similar loss by England would have been viewed by the media as farcical and inadequate just as was last Wednesday’s rude lesson administered at the hands of the Croatians. Deservedly so, one might well say: the Croatians are to the English what the Scots are to the Italians, in both population and footballing terms. But if you’re going to adopt that argument, then you’d have to say that it was to be expected that England should be pipped to the post by the much more numerous Russians – except that, on the balance of the two games between them, England got the better of the Russians. And you’d fancy both Croatia and England to beat Scotland more times than not; and Croatia also beat Italy at the 2002 World Cup group stage.

The point of all this is that the size of the population has nothing to do with it. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s still a case of 11 players on each side (or 21 players in each squad). A team is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Croatian team were fired up by their patriotic pride and will to win to achieve a little bit of greatness that belies the size of their country. It’s this above all that’s lacking from the England team and the organisation of the national side in general. There are many reasons for this: the much greater priority that is placed on the club game than on the national team; the fact that it’s the clubs predominantly that pay the players’ exorbitant wages and offer footballers at that level their most realistic chance of winning trophies – so they don’t want to go and get injured playing for England; and the fact that so many Premier League clubs prefer the short cut to success of bringing in imported talent for less cost than English players (see Blame Gordon Brown for England’s defeat) rather than making the longer-term investments in home-grown football skills. In this, football is a bit of a metaphor for modern Britain itself: commercial interests and selfish ambition dominate at the expense of opportunities for working-class people from our own country; and English football, in the guise of the Premier League, is offered up as a lucrative media product to a global market. So world superstars are what have to be served up to the paying public; not working-class lads being given a chance to make it for their local team.

Or promising talent being given a chance to make it through the national team . . .. Maybe the way to counteract the lack of motivation to play for one’s country for its own sake is to build an England team from the kind of young, raw talent that is not being given so much of a chance to make it in the club game. Perhaps the next England manager should bypass the egos and agents that exploit the national team as a form of self-promotion and product placement, and with whom the commercial managers at the FA are blandly complicit. The new coach should get together a group of talented youngsters who can be motivated to see the England side as the primary avenue through which they can strive for greatness and success in football, rather than the club game. There are plenty of gifted young footballers at Premier League or Championship clubs who are not being given the opportunity to establish themselves as first-team regulars and who are unlikely to ever win anything in the era of the dominance of the Top Four along with a few also-rans. Well, perhaps they should be given the chance to establish themselves as England regulars, and let’s forget about the superstars whose loyalty lies with their clubs. In this way, a true team can be developed: players who grow up together and get used to playing – and who want to play – for each other and for England. The England team and set up could become something along the lines of what top football clubs used to be: places where young English talent can be nurtured, trained and built into a winning combination that is greater than the sum of its parts.

England needs a football team whose players want to win for England more than for themselves and their clubs – just like the Croatians last week. That, together with official nation status that will eventually come from an English parliament or independence, could provide the injection of pride that England needs to achieve success at international football. Indeed, can there be success at international level unless we truly wish to achieve greatness and succeed as a nation?

9 November 2007

Scotland gets the ‘our country’ treatment: Glasgow wins the Commonwealth Games for Britain!

Did you hear GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] words of congratulations to Glasgow for winning the right to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games? He started off by saying it would be a ‘great sporting decade for our country’. As you do, I wondered for a second which country GB was referring to: ‘does he actually mean Scotland, for once, and is owning up to the fact that his country really is Scotland – just using the royal “we”?’.

But then he clarified that he meant Britain, with words to the effect that the Commonwealth Games would come on top of the 2012 Olympics, while England [yes, I’m sure my ears didn’t deceive me and he actually said the word!] was bidding for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and England [YES!! Am I hallucinating but did he say the ‘E’ word twice in succession?!] was also bidding for the 2018 Football World Cup.

Then the really hilarious bit came at the end (I think I’m quoting reasonably accurately): “What better sporting decade could there be for our country – the whole of Great Britain?”. Obviously aware that he’d lumped a sporting triumph for Scotland in with a UK Olympics and two potential World Cups in England under the same ‘our country’, he felt he had to remove the confusion and spell out that by ‘our country’ he meant ‘Great Britain’. [It’s actually the UK, GB.] The contortions the man had to go through almost made me feel sorry for him, for just a moment. Until the laughter took over!

Sorry, Scotland, but your success is really a triumph for ‘our country’: Great Britain. Now you know what it feels like! How much more straightforward and unambiguous was Alex Salmond’s use of the phrase ‘our country’ in the wake of Glasgow’s success: “We will make these games the greatest sporting event our country has ever seen. . . . The schools across our country have been watching this and I think that it will be a moment of inspiration for that generation that looks forward to the 2014 Games”. No doubt about which country the First Minister is referring to when he says ‘our country’. Not so the Prime Minister who couldn’t even own up to feeling a bit of patriotic pride at his country’s – Scotland’s – success by speaking his country’s name. At least, he had the decency this time to utter the ‘E’ word – twice – when referring to our World Cup bids. Perhaps the message is finally beginning to get through? We can but hope.

By the way, congratulations Scotland; you deserve it and I’m sure it’ll be a great Games. So you’re planning on sticking around in the Commonwealth till at least 2014 then?

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