i'm tribal about sport, not patriotic about britain

göteborgs-posten, 12 august 2012

How times change. There I was sitting in the Olympic stadium with my daughter. She had red, white and blue braids in her hair and was enthusiastically waving a Union Jack. When I was her age I would far rather have burned the flag than waved it. The Union Jack was then the property of jingoists and Empire loyalists, on the one hand, and of neo-fascists on the other. If I saw a pub or a housing estate with Union Jacks flying, it signaled to me ‘enemy territory’.

Not only would I not wave the flag, I would not, in those days, have passed Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ either. Growing up in a Britain that was viciously racist, and tried to deny me the right to belong, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. Whether in cricket, football, rugby or tiddlywinks it was a case of ‘anyone but England’.

Thirty years on, it is very different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness has changed too, no longer rooted in race and Empire, but seemingly defined as much by its diversity as by its jingoism, as exuberantly expressed in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. And as for me, I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Ashes victories. And on that magical first Saturday night in the Olympic stadium, when Britain won three golds in under an hour, I like everyone else cheered on Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, and Mo Farah. From the velodrome to the Serpentine, from Eton Dorney to Greenwich Park, I have enjoyed the flourish of British medals. And yet I have not, and will not, wrap myself in the flag. I am tribal about sport but I am not patriotic about Britain.

Tribalism is an intimate part of sport. Certainly, sport is about skill, prowess, strength and determination. It is about Federer’s sublime forehand, Ali’s dancing feet, Messi’s mesmerizing runs, Bolt’s lightning speed. But it is also about rivalries and conflicts, both individual and team. Federer vs Nadal, Ali vs Frazier, Barcelona vs Real Madrid, Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees, the Wallabies vs the All Blacks: these are what gives sport its heart, its soul and its drama, encasing individual achievement within a wider story, a story that belongs as much to the spectator as to the athlete.

But being tribal about sport – even tribal about the national team – is not the same as being patriotic. The success of Team GB has led many to insist that we should be ‘proud to be British’. But why? There is certainly lots to admire and be proud of in the feats of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, of Bradley Wiggins and Vicky Pendleton, of Nicola Adams and Jade Jones. But why patriotic pride?

There has in recent years been a major debate about the fragmentation of British society, a growing fear of the erosion of social cohesion, a gnawing sense of the emptiness of national identity. Such fragmentation and uncertainty stands in contrast to the togetherness of the Olympic crowds. Little wonder that many have sought to capture the essence of those crowds and bottle it as Britishness.

‘Togetherness’ comes through people binding themselves into a common project or goal. For the duration of Olympics, ‘Britishness’ has found meaning in the project of winning medals. Outside of the bubble of the Games, however, it is an idea that remains as vacuous as ever. If all it took were a few gold medals to infuse meaning into national identity, then there would be no anguished debate about Britishness in the first place.

Many attribute social fragmentation to the ‘multicultural’ character of Britain. By this they mean that immigration, and the social diversity it has brought, has made more difficult the task of creating a common culture. In fact, the real problem, as I have long argued, is not diversity, which can be a good, but multicultural policies which seek to manage such diversity by putting people into particular ethnic, cultural and faith boxes. In so doing, they erase differences, conflicts, and struggles within particular ethnic, cultural or faith groups and create instead the myth of homogenous communities.

The same, ironically, is true of the arguments for patriotism. Patriots create a mythical Britain with which all Britons are supposed to identify, a mythical nation from which the reality of conflict and struggle has been photoshopped. Britain becomes transformed into that crowd in the Olympic stadium. Far from being the answer to multiculturalism, patriotism is in fact simply the other side of the multicultural coin. It is no more meaningful for me to say ‘I’m proud to be British’ than to say ‘I’m proud to be Asian’.

What is the Britain in which we are supposed to have pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity, a diversity celebrated in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and that has resulted in the gold medals of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Nicola Adams and countless others? Or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians continually seek to limit it and to preserve ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain that went all out to stage one of the best Olympic Games in recent memory? Or the Britain of austerity and public spending cuts? The Britain of the Levellers, the Pankhursts and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?

There are many aspects of British life that I admire. There are many that I despise. There are many British traditions that resonate with me. There are many I find abhorrent. There are many moments of British history that bring a lump to my throat. There are many that make me shudder. And there are many non-British traditions that have helped shape my views, my values, my ideals. To erase this complexity in the myths of patriotism is to diminish the very meaning of common values.

Tribalism in sport is irrational. That’s the point of it.  Patriotism is not merely irrational, it can be dangerous. Unquestioning sporting loyalty is in most cases harmless. Unquestioning loyalty to a nation can lead to the acceptance of ideas and policies that are perilous.

So, yes, I was ecstatic when Mo Farah won two gold medals for Britain at the 5000m and 10000m. I will be delighted if England beat South Africa next week in that most English of international sports, cricket. And I hope that England’s footballers are able to defeat Poland, Ukraine, Montenegro, Moldova and San Marino in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. But don’t ask me to wrap myself in the flag.