“Plastic Brits” — and the Mail’s struggle to decide who isn’t British

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

Manufique! That was the Daily Mail's back-page headline celebrating England's rugby victory in Paris, as Tuilagi's "sensational" try ignited a performance that "put the pride back" in the nation's rugby.

Contrast that with the inside pages, where the paper's chief sportswriter, Martin Samuel, railed against "a front row of Manu Tuilagi brick-outhouse types, imported almost to order", in a column billed as defending the paper's campaign against "plastic Brits" from charges of hypocrisy.

The fierce polemics of the Mail's sportswriters against some of the foreign-born athletes who have qualified to compete for Britain have demonstrated a comical inability to agree among themselves over whose British identity to challenge as fake.

Friday's back page declared that "It could have been Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis but, incredibly, our athletes are being led by a plastic Brit" to complain about the athletics team captaincy of Tiffany Porter, an American-born runner who has had held dual US and British nationality since birth, but had declined to sing the national anthem when challenged by the paper's reporter at a press conference on Thursday.

By Saturday morning, as Mail headlines hailed Ennis as a "True Brit" for her dignity in pentathlon defeat, the columnist Des Kelly was questioning Farah's British credentials, too: "That the Somalian-born runner who lives in Portland, Oregon, was on hand to refute the accusations that Porter was not 'British' enough . . . proves the British do irony better than any other nation," he wrote, in what seemed a dramatic, off-message extension of the net of plastic suspicion.

Even as Kelly argued an analogy between Farah and Porter, the veteran Olympic reporter Neil Wilson was still contrasting those athletes. He would cheer for Porter's foreign opponents, hoping to keep the "plastic Brit" off the podium, but was excited by Farah's medal chances, because his arrival in the UK aged eight to join his British father had nothing to do with athletic opportunity.

What's the story?

Wilson had no problem with Yamilé Aldama, who has been another of the primary "plastic" targets of Martin Samuel.

Aldama spoke emotionally after winning gold on Saturday about the "plastic" gibes. "Of course I am British. I have lived in this country for 11 years. My children are British. Sixty per cent of my friends are British. This is definitely my home."

Aldama has had an extraordinary journey to British citizenship. Nobody doubts her eligibility for citizenship, but Samuel has written that "it doesn't feel right" that she should represent a third nation at the Olympics.

Another of the first "plastic" targets has been Shara Proctor, a British citizen from the overseas dependent territory of Anguilla, which has no Olympic committee or team. The Mail's Olympics correspondent Jonathan McAvoy declares he has no objection, given that Anguilla is a British territory. Samuel is softening here, arguing today for Britain to lobby for Anguila to get Olympic status, and "if that fails, we'll see". (His logic would imply that a Falklands athlete could be a "plastic Brit", too, because the island also has a Commonwealth Games team.)

Why can't the Mail agree on who it wants to declare to be un-British?

The Plastic Brits campaign conflates a legitimate issue of scrutiny of breaking or bending the immigration and citizenship rules to qualify an athlete with making a range of subjective (and inconsistent) challenges to athletes who do qualify under the rules.

Samuel wrote that "the point of international eligibility is that every case is different", dismissing as "paper-thin" the charges of hypocrisy over the Daily Mail's crusade for Zola Budd in 1984.

"I can pick up this phone and get her a passport in two days," David English, the Daily Mail's editor, told colleagues then. He exaggerated. It took him two weeks to bully a reluctant cabinet into fast-tracking Budd into the Olympic team, with unhappy results.

This time, the Mail supports the government's policy of no special treatment. So it could celebrate with a "No passports for plastic Brits" headline to celebrate that the Ukrainian-born weightlifters Yana Stadnik and Olga Butlkevych were refused citizenship despite having lived in Britain for five years.

The Mail has also argued in favour of barring anyone for whom sporting opportunity was a motive to change nations. But Britain's more open sporting tradition gave Basil D'Oliveira and Allan Lamb the chance to compete at Test level, and stretches right back to the great Indian Ranjitsinhji's centuries for England in 1896 and the contribution to Scotland's football victories of 1881 by black, Guinean-born Andrew Watson.

Recruitment bottlenecks

Shara Proctor's case directly resembles not just the Falklands' sole gold medallist, Louis Baillon, a member of the British hockey team for London 1908, but also that of the great sprinter McDonald Bailey, favourite of the Wembley crowds in 1948 and 100m bronze medallist in 1952, who accepted Britain's invitation to run because it was not yet clear if Trinidad would send a team.

There is a legitimate argument about the need for governing bodies to concentrate on developing British talent and not to push at the boundaries of the recruitment rules. That, however, could also be an argument for British-heritage basketball players from the NBA to play for us.

But where the Mail campaign breaks a core tradition of British citizenship is by continuing the argument about whom to recruit after the people have donned British colours.

We can legitimately debate whom to let in to join our community. But once an invitation is extended and accepted, we treat citizens as equals. We should do so with our athletes, too.

The Mail seems to worry that modern Britain won't recognise itself in its Olympic team. Des Kelly wrote on Saturday that, "out of 550 members of Team GB, approximately 50 will be foreign-born athletes with dual nationality". He believes this means that a team meeting "will resemble Heathrow Airport's Terminal Three during a baggage handlers' strike".

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

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.

So, don't be surprised if the crowds at the Olympic stadium next summer cheer for every athlete representing Team GB.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future.

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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage