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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

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