Alan White's Olympic diary: Modern, multicultural Britain took to the Olympic stage - and the world liked what it saw

A collective notion of Britishness is strong enough to accommodate cultural discrepancies without emphasising them.

Mo Farah was nine years old when he moved to Britain from Djibouti. He’d learned a couple of phrases: one was “Where is the toilet,” and another was “Come on,” which he’d not realised could be construed as a provocation. He said it to another boy, and there was a fight. It wasn’t to be the last time he’d get in trouble at school.

Two days ago he was asked by a journalist if he’d have preferred to run in the Games as a Somali. He responded indignantly: “Look mate, this is my country,” and added: "This is where I grew up; this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud.”

When did Farah cross that arbitrary line in the sand and become one of us? From day one? After all, he had British citizenship at birth, because his father was born here. Or was it the moment he mastered the English language? Was it when he hooked up with Alan Watkinson, the teacher at Feltham Community School who nurtured his talent (Watkinson has admitted the Somali community within which Farah lived couldn’t “get involved” like he did)? Was it when he began to idolise the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram? Was it when Paula Radcliffe began paying for his driving lessons?

Whatever we think, at some point, this country took a misfit, and turned him into a national hero. Sporting fans have long been pragmatic about these issues. Knowing there’ll never be a definitive answer, “If they’re good enough, they’re British enough,” has been the usual refrain. Two days ago the cricketer Kevin Pietersen (who moved here from South Africa aged 17) flayed his former homeland’s bowling around Headingley, to a rousing, tongue-in-cheek chorus of “He’s ours not yours”.

What sport fans have long known is that their pastime brings questions of nationality into too crude a relief for serious analysis. It’s now 22 years since Norman Tebbit suggested that those immigrants who support their native countries rather than Great Britain in sports might not be sufficiently loyal to their new country.  

The problem with such critiques is that they don’t acknowledge the multifariousness of human experience. The deployment of sport as a yardstick is a blunt instrument: is it really impossible to support Nigerian athletes while simultaneously signing up to all sorts of other signifiers of Britishness? It’s not just true of sport. The exact nature of the “multicultural crap” that enraged Aiden Burley MP was, apparently, the appearance of Dizzee Rascal. But he’s a grime artist (a British genre), whose lyrics blend, among other things, West Indian patois with East End rhyming slang. It’s British, but not as Burley knows it.

In recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world.  It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances (look how they struggle with our linguistic tics!)

And the two main concerns about multiculturalism are very clear  - first that it allows any criticism of negative foreign practices to be decried as racist and thereby ignored, and second that it fails to posit a definitive set of British values to which the country can subscribe: rather than culture, we instead end up with different communities.

It was the former worry that was preoccupying David Cameron when he gave his "muscular liberalism" speech in Munich last year. Offering an answer goes rather beyond the purview of an Olympic diary. But still: only a few days ago the parents of Shafilea Ahmed were jailed for murdering their daughter. They were caught by British authorities and sentenced by British law. The checks and balances we apply to all our citizens must be robust enough to cover the evils that spring from any community. In this case they were: whether they are or not generally is a question for another day.

It’s on the second issue – British values - that we can turn back to sport. Britain isn’t like, say, America, which came box-fresh, its virtues ready-codified in its constitution. If there’s any official definition of Britishness, it’s been drawn up over years of compromise and elusion, a tendency that could almost be a national characteristic in its own right. When we don’t even know for sure what our value set is, is it any wonder we worry that it’s about to be subsumed by those of others?

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, come the athletes  Not only are they good; what really matters is the manner of their success: magnanimous in victory, gracious in defeat, hard-working, quick to support their team mates – these are all things we would previously have placed under the nebulous umbrella of British virtues. And yet they hail from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds.

How devastating a response this is to the Daily Mail’s take on the opening ceremony. Maybe, just maybe, this was the moment that Britishness stopped being a question of anything other than how one acts; the moment we finally acknowledged one could be brought up by Nigerian parents in Stratford, or a mixed race couple in Sheffield, or by Somalis in West London, that this happens all the time, and not only do people turn out alright – some of them end up being a role model for the next generation.

Maybe this was the moment we realised that the collective notion of Britishness – one to which most immigrants subscribe - is strong enough to accommodate cultural discrepancies without emphasising them. Maybe now we feel being tolerant while fighting intolerance is challenging, but not impossible.

I don’t use sport as a cultural correlative lightly. I’ve seen it done too often, and with too much misplaced optimism. The long-term legacy of these games – economic, sporting, cultural – is far from certain. Will the success of Ennis, Farah and others merely provide short-term succour to people from migrant backgrounds?

If change is coming, it won’t happen overnight. Cultural shifts are by their nature slow and insidious. But this question of Britishness; it was always a question of confidence. And this weekend Britain presented a quite unexpected face to the world: one not just multicultural, but unperturbed by that fact. Odd that a cruddy advertising slogan should end up carrying such emotional charge. This weekend, modern Britain took the stage, and the audience liked what it saw.

Odds and Ends

 

Seb Coe’s moment of the Olympics thus far. This is very moving.

A long read on Alberto Salazar, Mo Farah’s coach - well worth bookmarking (via @LDNcalling).

.What do the world’s fastest men eat before a race?

Some news you might have missed.

Woman falls over in the 100m hurdles - note the name.

For Stan Collymore, this picture defines the Olympic legacy.

Wonderful Olympics pics (via @susborne).

A shocking breach of BBC impartiality as Mo brings home gold.

Jessica Ennis’s performances, in three minutes (via @timlusher).

The Olympic Park, seven years ago.

A very pleasingly-aligned photo.

 

Mo Farah of Great Britain celebrates winning gold in the men's 10,000m. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder