“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.

Getty
Show Hide image

What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era