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 Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.