The Mail's odd campaign against "plastic Brit" Olympic athletes

Is everyone born abroad somehow not really British?

The Daily Mail's campaign against some of the Olympic athletes who will compete for Team GB - lambasting them as "plastic Brits" -  has always struggled for consistency. Partly, it was that the Daily Mail brought about the most egregious "passport of convenience" case with Zola Budd in 1984, by campaigning on her behalf. Mostly, it was a refusal to define the terms, so that different Mail writers attacked the British credentials of some athletes whom their colleagues praised.

I've written before about this, noting:

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found. They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

One thing that was stressed for the defence was that this was not a pejorative attempt to attack all foreign-born athletes as "Plastic". But it transpires that the Mail has run a news story defining and counting the Plastic Brits: declaring there are 61 plastic Brits in Team GB, once the Mail defines a plastic Brit as "any citizen who was born abroad". It seems that both Mo Farah and Belgian-born Bradley Wiggins are "plastic" after all. And poor Prince Phillip is a Plastic Brit too.

I have written to Mail editor Paul Dacre suggesting that Friday's opening ceremony would be a good moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce (see below).

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain. If the Mail can bring itself to wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain, then they could count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.


Dear Mr Dacre,

The next fortnight will see the country rally around Team GB in the hope that they will write another golden chapter in the proud history of British sport.

The Daily Mail’s sports pages have sparked a lively and controversial debate in challenging some of the Olympic athletes selected to compete for Britain as “plastic Brits”, where they are naturalised citizens, or have qualified for the Olympic team through parental connections to Britain. The Mail has also praised the pride and contribution of many foreign-born Brits, such as Mo Farah, who arrived here as an 11-year old from war-torn Somalia to become a world-beating athlete.

No Team GB member has been able to jump the citizenship and immigration queue, nor bend the rules of their sport, though this has also been a debate about how best to reflect the spirit of international sport.

This “plastic Brits” debate has sparked passion from all sides.  But might the opening ceremony provide an ideal moment to adopt the tradition of an Olympic truce?

Once the torch is lit in Stratford, it should be time to set aside the “plastic Brits” controversy for a fortnight, and to instead join the London crowds in their desire to get behind every Olympian invited to compete for Britain.

The London Olympics will be an experience that many of us hope we and our children will remember for a lifetime. So let’s wave the Union Jack for all of the Olympic athletes chosen to compete for Britain – and count all of the medals that they win for Team GB in the medal table too.

Best wishes,

Sunder Katwala

Director, British Future

Bradley Wiggins: born in Belgium. Photo: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage