Rising Now and Being Four Nations Again!

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment is Free, June 24th 2011

The Olympics are coming to London and apparently it has been decreed by the high-heiduns of the British Olympic Association (BOA) that there will be a ‘Team GB’ taking to the football field. They insist this has absolutely nothing to do with their 1.7 million unsold tickets which went on sale this morning, mostly for football, or the losses they think they can cover with ‘Team GB’ replica strips.

The Olympics aren’t really about football, so you could say does any of this really matter? Sport at the Olympics is about athletes at the peak of their talents competing against the best in the world. Except in football! I mean David Beckham, and the odd Scot and Welshman don’t really set the heather afire.

This could lead to people thinking that the ‘Team GB’ venture doesn’t matter that much one way or the other. But it does, for it is about much more than football.

The British Olympic Association (BOA) just thought they could announce it and so it would come to pass. Their ‘historic agreement’ with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish turned out to be a sham, immediately exposed by the joint statement of the three national associations.

Then there is the story of English exceptionalism. They still choose to believe the platitudes and promises from FIFA that a ‘Team GB’ will not have any impact on the four nations independence. This despite of all that Sepp Blatter and his FIFA cronies have done to humiliate England and the game of football. To the world of FIFA the four nations of the United Kingdom has always been an anomaly, one to live with for the time being, but if the opportunity were to offer itself, rectify and rationalise.

The English have curiously failed to recognise that the existence of a ‘Team GB’ isn’t just a threat to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish and their place on the global stage of world football (including the occasional presence at World Cup and European Championship finals). But the English too. This could be a threat to all of us, our separate histories, traditions and teams, and for what?

Such a set of events could not be more planned to get the dander up of the Tartan Army north of the border. I am against anti-English prejudice on the football field, terraces or anywhere, and yet the ‘Team GB’ episode invites a Scottish ‘restless natives’ response. It poses in some form an existential threat to one of the great emotional railing cries of Scots national identity: the national football team. This to some Scots is even more serious than Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax!

More seriously, the ‘Team GB’ project is one without tradition, pride or purpose. The story of the four associations of the UK is an unique one, the story of the first national associations in the world, of the people who invented ‘association football’, the Scots and English, and our parallel, inter-connected histories. There is nothing in the barren world of ‘Team GB’ comparable: no English highs of 1966 or the lows of failing to qualify in 1974 and 1978 for the World Cup, or for the Scots and the Archie Gemmell 1978 goal or Dave Narey’s ‘toe poke’ against Brazil in 1982 (that was Jimmy Hill’s memorable description!).

The Northern Irish and the Welsh have their stories too. And what is totally irrelevant is some mixture of arrogance and rationalism on the part of some English football fans which points out that the days of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish qualifying for major tournaments is long gone. And that they would all be better competing under ‘the Team GB’ banner. Football fans care too much for an approach which denies the emotions and romance of their team.

Then there is what all this says about the United Kingdom and England. The British authorities actually want to suffocate and silence England as a cultural, national and political entity. For them the UK is all about the ‘Great British power project’ – the post-imperial story of Britain which talks about its influence, reach and unique role at the heart of several circles: Anglo-America, the Commonwealth and Europe. The expression of a late Britishness national purpose in this is getting more difficult by the day. Not only are the Scots rebelling, but the Welsh and Northern Irish have ideas of their own! It is crucial to stop England dreaming, creating and becoming a living, vibrant, vocal entity, or the whole undemocratic project, could collapse around their heads.

This entails the British political classes, from Blair and Brown to the Cameroon Conservatives, preventing national occasions, celebrations and events from the Olympics to Royal Wedding being seen as English or even having an English dimension. Still to this day the British political establishment seem to get nervous and anxious about the St. George’s Cross.

The union which once took great care and understood the traditions and histories of difference and four nations, has instead begun to be about a kind of assimilation, standardisation and centralisation, misunderstanding the nature of the union. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have become forgotten, far away entities to the political centre, but the most misunderstood part is England: the last part of the UK which is denied recognition, let alone the chance to find its own democratic expression. Everything about the balance between Englishness and Britishness, which used to be part of the strength of the union and Tory unionism, has now become a minefield to be negotiated.

The ‘Team GB’ story is a farce, comedy and yet one which tells us some revealing things about the state of the nations and the state. It shows the growing ineptitude of the British establishment to stitch things up and keep the ‘Great British’ project on the road. For that we should be grateful, celebrate and learn to have the confidence to tell the stories of the four very different, but connected nations of these isles. And ‘Team GB’ should be left in the dustbin where it belongs!