When I filled out the census a few weeks ago, I put my nationality as ‘British’. So too will have millions of other people, many of them choosing not to also select English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish.
Even excluding those who are happy to have two national identities, the British are the fifth nation of the United Kingdom. And one of the vexations of being a Brit is the dearth of opportunities to cheer on one’s national team at sport.
After all, what options have we? Mercifully, we still compete as TeamGB at the Olympics, although it cannot be long before some devocrat reformer suggests fielding four separate teams as a way to ‘strengthen the Union’ and even here we cannot usually muster a football team.
Then there’s the quadrennial Lions tour, which ministers hope will help to stir up fellow-feeling amongst the people of Britain. After that, we must fumble for more esoteric options – and, patriotic though I am, I don’t think it befits a grown man to get too enthusiastic about the national Quidditch team.
Nor is this lack of a British dimension confined to international fixtures. Even domestically there seem to be few competitions organised on a British basis. Even the British Home Championship, which saw the four national football sides compete against each other, was scrapped in 1984.
Which is why I was so delighted by reports that, in the aftermath of the European Super League fiasco, there might be a push to create a ‘British Super League’ by inviting Rangers and Celtic to compete in the Premier League.
To someone like me who isn’t much of a football fan – not for lack of trying on my family’s part – this move seems to make perfect sense. After all, several Welsh clubs already compete in the Football League and the FA Cup, and there is little doubt that the Old Firm have what it takes to do the same – and that they would greatly benefit from doing so.
Ministers should give this proposal their full support, and use their influence to try and ensure that any restructuring creates a broader pathway from the Scottish leagues to what will become the pinnacle of British football, as opposed to the team-by-team ad hoc arrangements that currently exist for the likes of Cardiff City and Swansea.
But why should the Government get involved? Why should politicos who aren’t heavily invested in football take a view either way? Because this is just one example of the hundreds of battles we need to win if we’re to fortify that sense of British nationhood which is so essential to preserving the United Kingdom.
Obviously in itself this would only be a small expansion of football’s horizons. And there are plenty inclined to scoff at the idea that the fight for the Union can be won in the small things. Never mind putting Union Jacks on British investments or sponsoring more Lions tours (and don’t they know a small percentage of the population that supports the Lions is outside the UK?). Focus on the hunt for a big-bang solution. More powers! A federal Britain!
But they’re wrong. Not just because the quest for a decisive institutional ‘fix’ for separatism has been a two-decade disaster, but because they underestimate the power of the fine details of life in shaping people’s understanding of who they are.
The other side don’t. You will never see a Scottish Nationalist scorning the small print. That’s why the SNP rebranded the Scottish Executive as the ‘Scottish Government’, replaced its coat of arms with a Saltire, and make sure everything has a .scot domain name. That’s why the national rail franchise is called ‘ScotRail’ and they are trying, in the teeth of ferocious opposition from officers, to abolish the British Transport Police.
To understand why this is, we need only look at a true British sporting success: the Olympic cycling team. They turned themselves into a medal-winning powerhouse by adopting the doctrine of ‘marginal gains’, which basically means wringing tiny improvements out of every tiny part of the process and delivering a big result.
Cultural policies are the same. No, there is no policy which is going to single-handedly revive a stronger sense of British identity overnight (just as there are no institutional reforms which are going to ‘solve’ the separatist challenge either).
But that’s not the point. The point is to find little ways of lending a slightly more British shape to people’s lives – and then find a lot more of them, and give them time to work. Making sure the British state is able to make a visible difference on the issues that matter most to voters, via means such as the UK Internal Market Act, is part of this. Breaking down national silos, whether in sport or anywhere else, is another.
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