"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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.