"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

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.