Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Jubilympics: How British do you feel?

The London Olympic games have come to a conclusion and, along with the obvious success of Team GB athletes, and their Scottish colleagues in particular, a good deal of politics has been associated with the games. This has played out as a sort of pastiche of the real independence debate, but shares many of the same characteristics.

To begim with, the opening ceremony, while spectacular in parts as a piece of theatre, was conspicuously English and Metropolitan. This was understandable, perhaps, given the location of the games but was hardly likely to inspire a feeling of togetherness and common endeavour among those unfortunate enough to live outwith the home counties.

Danny Boyle's choice of the NHS as a highlight of Britishness must surely have been ironic, given the current state of, and prospects for, the English NHS as it suffers 49% privatisation on top of death by PFI.

Nonetheless, the spectacle seemed inspire many unionists to respond both during and immediately after the ceremony, screaming that the SNP's dreams of independence were effectively dead. Even the Senior Press officer for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games felt the need to break her professional neutrality and tweet that the ceremony was a 'poke in the eye' for Alex Salmond. It seemed to many unionistas that the YES campaign had been brought to its knees by the sight of Kenneth Branner in a stove pipe hat. “Surely no-one wouldn't want to be part of THAT Britain,” tweeted one union twit.

The first week of the games of the XXXth Olympiad were beset by problems and concerns. The failure of G4S to provide the promised security workers led to the last-minute mobilisation of police officers and troops as replacements. Large sections of seating were conspicuously empty, angering those who had tried and failed to buy tickets through the 'lottery'. And, worst of all, few medals were being claimed by promising Team GB athletes, with Great Britain falling to 22nd place in the medal rankings. The unionists became strangely quiet.

Only the unremarkable but indigestible Alan Cochrane seemed driven to comment during this hiatus and even he seemed more than usually out of his depth. He complained of border guards and immigration checks and claimed that the SNP was English-hating and anti-Team GB. His attitudes and arguments, like his Telegraph thumbnail portrait, seemed to be straight out of the 1970s. Still, the level of pure green bile oozing from his daily rants was an indication of what was to come later in the games.

The red tops were first to follow the Telegraph with their righteous indignation over the refusal of two Scottish players the Women's Football team to sing along with 'God Save the Queen'. Kim Little, in particular, was singled out for having the temerity to say she chose not to mouth the de facto English National Anthem “because she was Scottish”. Facebook pages were launched and cleverly captioned images went viral. The politicisation of the games had begun.

Then came Super Saturday. The promised medals began to appear in spectacular fashion and the unionist front found its voice again. Both the mainstream and social media erupted in a plume of British National red white and blue (but not too much blue as that is a bit Scottish and leads to complaints).

Every successful athlete was photographed in front of, or draped in, the union flag and the BBC and ITV commentators reminded us at every opportunity just exactly how Great it is to be British. It appeared that the budget for the NO campaign had just been increased by around £24 billion, from its previous Jubilee level of a mere £12 billion.

There seemed to be three distinct arguments being put forward in favour of Britishness and I will attempt to summarise them here:

A Team Scotland would win far fewer medals than Team GB, giving Scots less to be proud of”. This assertion, which I will label the “too wee” argument is based on a number of assumptions.

Firstly, it assumes that Independent Scots would somehow cease to be proud of the achievements of English and Welsh athletes, just because we field a national team. Secondly, that being associated with a larger, more successful 'superteam' trumps having your own national team to support. Thirdly, that the sole purpose of the team structure is to maximise the number of medals won.

The fact that, after almost a century of independence, we all still root for Irish athletes, and take pleasure and pride in their successes, gives the lie to the first. As to the second, imagine the pride we will feel in 2014 if the Scots team does well. Will that really be trumped by having our athletes wear the same jerseys as their neighbours?

If the purpose of team structure is to maximise the medals won, then we should be competing with the Chinese and Americans by forming a Team EU. That would give us a similar population to the USA and the total medals won this year by all EU members would easily outstrip the USA and China together, allowing us to claim first place for the European national team. Imagine how bursting with pride we would all be then.
Scots athletes would not be so successful outside team GB as the best training facilities are in England”. I will label this assertion the “too poor” argument. If there were ever a fact which was the very antithesis of a union benefit, then surely this is it.

The lack of facilities in Scotland will only be remedied by the government and the sports authorities in Scotland having the power to divert spending to fill the gaps in provision which exist here. Otherwise, spending will always be concentrated in what is viewed by the UK as the centre, which is normally the south eastern corner of England, with occasional magnanimous gestures to 'the North' or 'the Midlands'.

Inequalities in resource allocation aside, the trend today is for nations to share such resources and for athletes (and national teams) to follow the facilities. Many of the Team GB athletes study and/or train in other countries and the bulk of the GB athletics team just spent a couple of months in Portugal preparing for the games. Teenage Andy Murray, limited by poor provision for tennis in his homeland, headed for Spain as the Spanish youth circuit offered the best facilities and opponents to support his development.

Scottish sports authorities would not have the expertise or experience of their British counterparts”. This assertion has been particularly made in reference to the hugely successful cycling team and I will label it the “too stupid” argument.

This argument is premised upon the assumption that Scottish institutions are intrinsically inferior to English ones. This is an example either of English arrogance or of Scottish cringe, depending on the source. Clearly Scotland's ability to compete at the highest international level depends on our decisions regarding national goals and resource allocation. We could take of the might of English cycling team if we wished to make it a priority, and we may well do so.

Additionally, there are many small countries who do very well in those sports which they prioritise. The Jamaicans and sprinting, the Ethiopians (and now the Kenyans) in middle distance running, the Australians in swimming. There is no reason to suppose that Scotland could not excel in those sports it chose to prioritise, and much evidence, football aside, to suggest we would.

We have also seen, as so often before, a conflation of Britishness and Englishness to the extent that each of the three main broadcasters, BBC, ITV and Sky, have been guilty on numerous occasions of referring to Team GB as England, or 'England's women'.

This demonstrates an Anglocentric bias in the largely Metropolitan media which should surprise no-one, but is indicative of the differing attitudes on both sides of the border. Unionist Scots see themselves as a valuable part of a greater whole, while many in England see Scotland as a small part of Greater England, a minor county whose inhabitants tend to be a little chippy and ungrateful.

It's all, of course, a matter of the UK's hugely uneven distribution of population, property, pounds and political power.

Alongside the “too wee, too poor, too stupid” arguments described above, a couple of other phenomena have occurred in the media, both of which are quite illuminating in their own way.

Before the competition began, LOCOG announced that Scottish Saltires, along with the Welsh and Cornish flags, would be banned from the games, including the Saltire permanently flying above Hampden. The Hampden ban was soon overturned after huge protests from Scots, who seem to have also disregarded the general ban as many Saltires were evident in the crowds, including the one proudly waved by Chris Hoy's English dad.

On Tuesday, the BBC repeated hourly a piece which stated that Yorkshire, had it been a country in it's own right, would be sitting at no 11 in the medal tables. No mention was made of Scotland, which is a country in its own right, and would have occupied position number 6 on the same day. The latter comparison would never have been countenanced on the Beeb, even though it had already appeared in some of the Scottish press.

On Wednesday, the BBC commentary team were discussing the Black Panther protests of the 60's and concluded that they were a very good thing to have done, but could never happen today. No mention was made of Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke refusing to sing the English national anthem, nor of the Welsh members of the men's football team doing the same. Presumably the former protest was safely long ago in another place, and the latter rather too close to home. Oh the irony.

However, even though all these arguments are a mirror of the independence debate, they have little to do with it in reality. The purpose of Scottish independence is political and economic self-determination, not to show how fast your citizens can run, or decide what colour of kit they wear to do so. The statements being made at present that doing well in the Olympics is an argument against a Scottish Parliament are facile at best, and consciously disingenuous at worst.

The games and the jubilee are simply not relevant to the referendum. To base an argument in favour of continuation of the union on such frippery is to misunderstand the groundswell of Scottish opinion which favours (or demands) political change.

If there turns out to be an enhanced feeling of Britishness among Scots as a consequence of this Summer, it will soon be forgotten and, in any case, will be balanced by the Commonwealth Games and others taking place in 2014, just before the referendum, when Scottish identity will be to the fore.

As we approach the end of this last great Hurrah of British Nationalism, the polls are showing the highest ever support for the SNP and have independence more popular than either devo max or the status quo in a three way fight, and independence almost as popular as No change in a bilateral contest.

That's not a bad place for the YES campaign to be with two full years to go.

Bob Duncan

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