Will Alex Salmond and his opponents seek to gain political capital from the Commonwealth Games? Photo: Getty
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The Commonwealth Games begin: will they be a political spectacle?

The Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow today, and Alex Salmond has promised not to use them for political purposes. Will he keep his word?

The torches are lit, lurid lycra is being donned, Rod Stewart and Lulu are doing some vocally-beneficial gargling and some poor soul is dressing up as a larger-than-life cartoon thistle called Clyde. The 20th Commonwealth Games begin later in Glasgow’s Celtic Park.

But big sports events are never uncomplicated, and we can be sure to see some politics playing out in this year’s spectacle, not least because of its location. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will no doubt be considering how useful the Games could be for his Scottish independence cause, what with the referendum coming up in September.

He’s already bemused Andy Murray and family, as well as all Wimbledon viewers, by waving the saltire in the Royal Box at Centre Court when Murray won Wimbledon last year. He also controversially urged Scots to get behind the “Scolympians” in the Olympic Games in 2012, a name he came up with to describe Scottish competitors rather than “Team GB”.

The BBC’s Today programme this morning asked whether the Games would be a “politics-free” zone, and explored this question with Jim Naughtie visiting the 1990 City of Culture (now it’s known officially just as a “City of Culture”) and asserting that the Games are bound to be about “national feelings” and “questions of identity”. He said the Games would be a significant “backdrop” to the debate the Scots have been having about their role in the UK and the world.

Yesterday, the Independent’s Chris Green asked whether the Scottish referendum would be the “elephant in the stadium”, writing how both sides of the debate will probably be planning how to play their part in the Games with political shrewdness:

For the next fortnight, leaders on either side of the Scottish independence debate will desperately try to avoid being seen to make political capital out of the sporting spectacle unfolding in Glasgow – while privately hoping that their attendance at the Commonwealth Games will do just that.

While Nick Clegg has commented that, “the less politics, particularly politics relating to the referendum campaign, the better. Let’s celebrate the sport, not the politics, at the Commonwealth Games”. And the government’s Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has warned Salmond not to pull another stunt like he did at Wimbledon, saying it would be “exceptionally foolish” and an “enormous mistake and a misjudgement of the mood, especially in Glasgow…

“People in Scotland will react badly to anybody who tries to make political capital from the endeavour of sportsmen and women.”

Salmond himself has promised not to use the Commonwealth Games for political capital, announcing his “self-denying ordnance” over referendum campaigning for the ten-day duration of the event:

I’ve taken a kind of self-denying ordinance to concentrate on the Games over the next 10 days and I think that’s what the people of Scotland want.

However, as the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, Salmond has already gone back on his promise criticising the Chancellor George Osborne for being based in London and arguing that Scottish athletes would “flourish” in an independent Scotland, during a Games press conference.

So, aside from the 6,500 athletes and 17 different sports, a spectacle worth watching will be both sides of the referendum debate trying to gain traction for their causes in the final lap of campaigning.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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