"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
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”