"Plastic Brits": are some Olympians more worthy of a cheer than others?

Screaming about "plastic Brits" may be a rare example of the <em>Mail</em> getting its own readers wrong.

You could almost sense the weariness from UK athletics head coach Charles van Commenee last week when asked to comment on whether his athletes would know all the words to the national anthem in time for the London Olympics.

“They know the words, or they will,” said Van Commenee. “If they don't, somebody will make an issue of it.”

Van Commenee, himself from the Netherlands, has faced repeated sneers and whines over the authenticity of his squad ahead of the 2012 games. He is too polite to say out loud who that "somebody" is. But I’m here to remind you, if you hadn’t guessed already, that you need look no further than the usual suspects.

The Daily Mail has featured no fewer than 208 articles about "plastic Brits" in the run-up to the games. As Sunder Katwala wrote for the New Statesman earlier this year, it smacks of a strange attempt to decide who is and who isn’t British enough to be supported.

One typically klaxonic "plastic Brit" Mail article was published in March, after US-born Tiffany Porter was named captain of the women’s indoor athletics team, with the headline "NOW THE PLASTIC BRITS ARE TAKING OVER!" The appointment was described as "controversial", though no-one was quoted disagreeing with it.

There have been some comparisons to Zola Budd, the South African runner who speedily received a British passport in time to run in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But Budd’s lightning conversion to Britishness was a different story: this was a runner who couldn’t compete for the land of their birth due to the sporting embargo on South Africa, so chose Britain instead, with a little help from some hastily-cut red tape.

There were no such qualms at the time of Porter’s appointment about the men’s captain, Somali-born Mo Farah. The long-distance runner has made the opposite journey across the Atlantic to Porter, and is now living in the United States with his family to prepare for the Olympics. Is he more or less "British" than Porter because of that? Or do they both have equal claims to wear the Team GB colours in London?

Farah arrived as a refugee from his war-ravaged birthplace in Britain aged eight, just knowing three phrases in English: “Excuse me”, “Where is the toilet?” and “C’mon then!” but has become of the best-loved stars of Team GB, winning gold and silver medals at the Daegu World Athletics Championships last year.

He’s just one of a huge number of foreign-born sports stars to have gained huge success in Britain. England’s cricket captain, Andrew Strauss, lived in South Africa until he came to Britain aged six – his predecessor, Kevin Pietersen, also came to Britain from South Africa, aged 17. The England cricket team has a long and often successful history of nurturing talent from across the globe and making them wear three lions on their shirts.

So what’s different about Porter and the other "plastic Brits"? Like Van Commenee, perhaps it’s just a case of some newspapers attempting to press the outrage buttons of their readers by questioning "immigrants coming over here, taking our Olympic places" just as they have previously screamed about Polish plumbers or Slovakian single mums.

National identity is a complex thing, though. Lancastrian Mark Lawrenson, a Republic of Ireland international, even questioned whether Lukas Podolski was an echt [real] German during football commentary the other night. When Lewis Hamilton won the Canadian Grand Prix at the weekend, he grabbed a Union Jack in celebration – and later added that seeing Grenadian flags (his grandfather came to Britain from the Caribbean island) had inspired him too.

Maybe it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, or where you’re going to, or what national anthem you know all the words to, but where you feel is home. "Plastic Brit" is a fairly odious term that aims to regard some Brits as being more worthy of a flag-wave or a cheer than others. Does that really represent how even Mail readers feel about Team GB? I suspect this could be one rare occasion where they have got their own readers wrong.
 

Plastic Brit? Mo Farah after winning a race in Oregon earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

Anoosh Chakelian
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A view from Brexitland: Boston, the town that voted strongest to leave the EU

This little pocket of Lincolnshire is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard.

It’s market day in Boston. Stall owners are setting up, chattering and squinting in the crisp morning sunshine. Trade yawns into life amid the stands of fruit, squat pots of begonias, secondhand comics and pet supplies, as it does every Saturday.

But this isn’t every Saturday. The little Lincolnshire town is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard. It has returned the highest Brexit vote in Britain, with 75.6 per cent voting to leave the European Union. An aim that has boiled beneath its quiet, quaint surface for years.

Described by the Mail three years ago as “the town that’s had enough”, Boston is home to the highest concentration of EU migrants after London. In the period between 2004 and 2014, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent. Of the 64,000 people now living in the borough (some officials believe the real figure could be 10,000 more), about 12 per cent were born in EU countries.

This is a monumental demographic change for a sleepy farming town that was almost entirely classed as “white British” in 2001 (the constituency of Boston & Skegness is now 86 per cent white British, and 10.8 per cent “white other”).


West Street, Boston. Photos: Anoosh Chakelian

The new Bostonians are chiefly Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian – I also hear smatterings of Russian as I wander around. The market square is filled with elderly English people, gossiping and enjoying cooked breakfasts in the sun, young men excited about the Poland v Switzerland match that afternoon, and families of all backgrounds. It’s a mix, but anxiety about people speaking different languages is voiced by nearly every born-and-bred Bostonian I meet.

“If you close your eyes, you can sometimes only hear eastern European voices, and that can be scary,” remarks Paul, a 59-year-old engineer perusing the fruit stands. “Because of the language barrier, they all stay together, almost like a ghetto. People are people wherever they come from, and we wouldn’t have a maternity unit without them, but it’s been too fast. Integration takes time; you can’t do it instantly.”

“People joke here that you can walk through the town and not hear a single English person,” adds Chrissie Redford, a chief reporter at the Boston Standard, during a coffee break from reporting. “And that’s happened to me. My concern is now so many people have voted, whether that rift will get deeper.”

Three Latvian men in their thirties are sharing a beer in the nearby churchyard. Boston’s tall, distinctive medieval church tower, known affectionately as the Stump, looms over them. “What happens now?” asks Vitels, who is rolling a cigarette. He has been working factory shifts here. “I can’t go back to Latvia, there are big problems there. Romania, Bulgaria, everywhere there has been war. Nobody wants to live like that. [Brexit] makes me feel bad. People think I’m difficult, because I’m foreign.”

“The economy in Latvia is not good, but in Britain it’s very good,” frowns Gatis, who is self-employed. “Why are we here? Because we live much better here. It’s nicer.”

The English agree, which is part of the problem. “It’s a really good way of life in this area, and that is why it went so heavily for Out,” Mike Cooper, the tweed-clad owner of a local car museum, and Tory borough councillor, tells me, as we weave between the market stalls. “People feel that the massive influx is eroding their way of life. We’re not being racially intolerant; we’re living with it day to day.”

Cooper voted to leave, but there is no spring in his step. The local politicians and farm and factory owners know that this town relies on migration. Eastern Europeans settle in Boston because there is such a demand for agricultural labour, and for food manufacturing workers. Most of the vegetables we buy in our supermarkets are grown in Lincolnshire.

The perception persists among some I meet that migrants are “taking jobs from our own people”, but unemployment here is comfortably below the national average. The council estimates that around 20,000 economic migrants work in the Boston area, whereas the current number of people claiming unemployment benefits was just 630 on the last count, according to Office of National Statistics figures from May.


Boston voted for Brexit by 75.6 per cent.

But such a large low-paid workforce does cause difficulties. The average wage here has been forced down (£9.13 an hour, compared with the £13.33 national average) by employment agencies hiring cheap, flexible labourers. Similarly, rents have been driven up disproportionately by landlords taking advantage of the newcomers’ willingness to live ten to a house.

But migrants complain that they receive the blame for this, rather than those abusing their vulnerability. “It’s quite sad, because it looks like [politicians] aren’t interested in these things,” says a 40-year-old construction worker, Zee Barbaks, who campaigns against exploitative gangmasters. He and his wife, both Latvian, arrived in Boston 11 years ago. Before their two young children were of school age, they alternated factory shifts in order to look after them, “swapping them over in the car park”. I sit on a park bench with him while his son scampers around the playground.

“Agencies keep people out of holiday money and sick pay, they make them pay their wages on accommodation,” Barbaks says. “When women get pregnant they don’t give them work. Sometimes they use three people for one job – so those people are getting nothing.”

He is saddened by the huge local Brexit vote: “Ten years ago, Boston was empty. Before, every second shop was closed on West Street,” he says. “If you look now, there are loads of changes in a good way, eastern Europeans starting businesses. But now, if they stay out of Europe, in ten years’ time, it’s going to be like it was ten years ago. They’ve just done ten steps back.

“I understand that it is loads of people who have moved in, but if the agencies were sorted out, there would probably be less people here. This is what the government should be looking at.”

But it’s a perceived cultural divide, rather than material concern, which has driven Boston so strongly towards Brexit. Even the Ukip deputy leader of Boston Borough Council, Jonathan Noble, concedes that West Street was a ghost street when recession hit before the migrants set up shop (“so they have done some good here”).


Councillor Noble thanks Boston for voting Leave.

Although people worry about pressure on public services – difficulty getting school places and GP appointments, in particular – the local economy is healthy. The message they have sent to Westminster is a plea for identity.

“We’re British,” shrugs Mike, a 66-year-old retired lorry driver sitting outside a café. “I don’t care if prices go up; at least we’ll be running ourselves. We’re top of the league for wanting them [migrants] out. Some of the Polish people are nice, but there are too many.

“Barack Obama, flipping David Beckham, Bob Geldof, Cameron saying it’s good to have them here – that made me more determined, I got fed up with it. All the money is down in London, it’s disgusting. [Immigration’s] gone too far anyway, I doubt much will change. We should’ve listened to Enoch Powell. Good old Enoch,” he chuckles. His wife gives him a stern look.

“I’ve heard there’s a sign on a shop in West Street that says ‘No English’,” adds his friend Fred. “I might want to buy a Polish cake. But they don’t want to mix with us.”

Walking up and down West Street – where there are numerous eastern European restaurants, Baltic food stores, a Latvian bakery and Polish pub, and roars of “Polska!” from football fans – I can’t find that ‘No English’ sign. I doubt it exists. But it’s the perception that’s telling. English locals are the ones who feel unwelcome, far more so than their European neighbours (those I speak to are overwhelmingly positive about their hometown). They also feel their views are unwelcome in Westminster.

“We’re the ones living it,” says Chris Pain, who has owned a number of businesses in Boston and sits as an independent on Lincolnshire County Council. “When in London they say ‘we need more people’, we know that’s not true. They like it [immigration] because they can eat in nice restaurants and have people from abroad doing their menial work.”

There is hope for integration in a post-Brexit Boston, however. Young people I speak to are far more positive about their foreign neighbours. “I’ve grown up with knowing the EU,” says Kirsty, a 21-year-old graduate training to become a teacher. “I have no problem with the other communities. I’ve worked in McDonald’s and cafés around here with people from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and they’re absolutely wonderful. People need to learn to understand each other more – actually communicate. And they don’t; that’s why there’s a misunderstanding.”

Also hinting at a more harmonious future is Sylvia Giza, 38, who has lived in Boston for 12 years. She works behind the counter of a Polish butcher’s off West Street. “We pay tax, we are educated, we buy a house. We’re not scary. I have three children, they go to school and learn English, and now they are speaking in English to me at home! So I take the book and try working and reading,” she grins, turning to her next customer – an English woman surveying the array of Polish sausages.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.