Britishness was supposed to be finished, its last flickering embers to be snuffed out by Alex Salmond when he holds his 2014 referendum on breaking up the Union. The London Olympics, the Nationalists claimed, would be the last at which the Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish would be teammates. The Scots, supposedly on the brink of a nationalist awakening, would cheer on their countrymen but feel no more pride in an English win then they would a French one. Pete Wishart, an SNP MP, served notice that ‘Scotland has absolutely no interest in Team GB’.
But as the Games draw to a close, the SNP will have learned a lot about Scotland and its interests. From Exeter to Edinburgh, from Islington to Inverurie, viewers in their millions roared in support of Jessica Ennis and the rest of Team GB as they sped up the medal table. The Union flag, so derided by the Nationalists, has been ubiquitous.
It is unlikely that there will be any political winner of the 2012 Games — except perhaps Boris Johnson — but already it is clear that Salmond and his SNP are the losers. To the First Minister, sports and politics have long been fused together. His referendum will be a question of identity: do you regard yourself as British? Would you like to remain so? The feeling of national pride, of seeing your ‘team’ win, is — for Salmond — a crucial ingredient in a battle that is as much about belonging as it is about economics.
It was Andy Murray’s Olympics victory that gave Scottish Nationalists the perfect lesson in how it is possible to be both proudly Scottish and British. As a young player, Murray once got himself into trouble by saying that he would support anyone but England when it came to the football World Cup. At Wimbledon last weekend, he redeemed himself in style. After taking gold with a straight-sets victory over Roger Federer, he wrapped himself in the Union flag, not the Saltire, and sang the British national anthem. Only a handful of political obsessives would have resented his doing so.
Interviewed afterwards, Murray said he didn’t want to get involved in political controversy but he made clear that, like most Scots, he is not torn by an identity crisis. ‘In tennis we represent Great Britain and I have done it now for 15 years, through every single age group,’ he said. ‘I’ve always been proud of representing my country, but still remember my roots. I love Scotland, I have all of my family there and I love going back and seeing everybody, but I don’t get wrapped up in all of that stuff any more. I just enjoy competing for my country and I hope I did a good job of that.’ There was no doubt which country he was referring to.
To consider the careers of the Scottish Olympians who have performed so brilliantly is to see the point of Britain. Sir Chris Hoy, now the most successful Olympic British athlete of all time, is a Scot who lives in Manchester in order to train at the National Cycling Centre. After the Beijing 2008 Olympics, he called the SNP’s idea of a separate Scottish Olympic team ‘ridiculous’. He would not have the medals hanging around his neck, he said, without access to such superb British training facilities. ‘I’m a Scottish athlete in a British team,’ he said, ‘and I’m proud to be a British athlete.’
Michael Jamieson, the young Glaswegian swimmer who won silver in the 200m breaststroke, was hot-housed at the University of Bath Intensive Training Centre. When Heather Stanning won her rowing gold last week, the SNP hailed her as a Highland ‘quine’. It’s hard to see why. She was born in Yeovil to Royal Navy officers who sent her to board at Gordonstoun (in the same house as another Olympic medalist, Zara Phillips). She won a military scholarship to Bath University before earning a commission from Sandhurst four years ago. Hers is a very British upbringing.
It’s not that the Scots or the English couldn’t do it alone; they just do it so much better working together. It’s a principle that extends way beyond sport. Charlie Whelan, the Brownite former spin doctor who has taken with gusto to a life of shooting and fishing in the Highlands, put it well after watching another Scot win in British colours: Salmond, he said, would be ‘crying into his whisky’. This is not quite true. Salmond is more a Montrachet and claret man, and anyway he will have taken a measured view. He realised the Olympics were trouble when London first thought of bidding for the Games, ordering his five MPs to vote against the legislation needed to fund the bid. ‘If London wants the Olympics, London should pay for them itself,’ Wishart told the Commons (even then, polls showed that the idea of a London Olympics was more popular in Scotland than in England).
When the Olympic torch arrived in Scotland, with a proliferation of Union flags, Salmond’s government spent taxpayers’ money distributing mini-Saltires to the crowds to wave in Stirling and Edinburgh. When it was announced that Sir Chris would lead Team GB at the Olympic opening ceremony, Salmond issued a press release congratulating the cyclist for being chosen as an ‘Olympic flagbearer’, while managing to avoid mentioning the country whose flag he would be bearing. On the eve of the Olympics, the SNP government in Edinburgh produced a video in which various devolved ministers sent good wishes to the Scots taking part. There was no acknowledgment that the athletes were competing as part of Team GB — or, indeed, any admission that the rest of Britain existed.
Struggling to insert their separatist agenda into a festival of national unity, the First Minister’s advisers even coined a new word to single out the Scots taking part: ‘Scolympians.’ The term made Sir Chris and his fellow Scots sound like members of an ancient cult or drinkers devoted to Skol, a popular Seventies lager. Adding to the ridiculousness of the SNP’s performance, an early version of the press release issued by the Nationalists added an extra ‘o’, turning the Scottish Olympians into an unpronounceable ‘Scolymopians’.
As the British medals piled up, even some in the SNP seemed to realise that their party was in danger of sounding bitter as well as twisted. The Scottish sports minister, Shona Robison, is now sensibly referring to Team GB and conceding that ‘London 2012 is a huge opportunity to showcase Scotland to the world.’
What makes British success so problematic for Salmond is that it conflicts with his script. The Nationalist creed, which portrays Britishness as backward and narrow-minded, is not remotely credible when it is up against the reality of a British team which included Mo Farah, who took gold in the 10,000 metres. This great man came to Britain from Somalia aged eight. Asked if he would rather have represented the land of his birth, Farah had this to say: ‘This is my country... This is where I started life, where I went to uni… when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud, very proud, that’s my country.’ This self-confident, generous, open-minded vision of British achievement and patriotism could not strike a greater contrast to the peevish parochialism of the Nationalists.
This matters because, for years, the strongest case for the Union — about identity, kinship and country — has not been properly advanced by Scotland’s unionist parties. Their collective failure allowed Salmond to win an absolute majority in last year’s Holyrood elections, which led to the resignation of all three of his main rivals. Only when he decided to call an independence referendum for 2014 did his fortunes begin to turn.
One veteran Scottish politician, who is playing a significant role in the battle for the Union, says that Salmond can suddenly see the argument is slipping away from him. ‘For 80 years the Nationalists have been trying to divide Scotland and England,’ he told me. ‘I don’t think they ever expected to get to this point where the question could be put. Now they find themselves here and they’re losing it.’
Even now, support for independence has yet to expand beyond the third or so of Scottish voters who have backed it for decades. Some polls suggest the SNP support is going backwards. Salmond may even look for a way out, contriving a court case which enables him to walk away — and blaming Westminster for trying to dictate the precise wording of the referendum question rather than letting it be decided by the Scottish parliament (i.e. him). The SNP could then haughtily cancel a referendum, and campaign in subsequent elections for the right to set the independence question.
Salmond is finding out that not all SNP voters want independence. The worsening euro crisis means Scots are starting to take a keen interest in some of the practical economic questions associated with separation. Salmond’s answer is that an independent Scotland would keep the pound for a while (again, as with the monarchy, he doesn’t specify for how long). Then it might join the imploding single currency. As a pitch for votes, this has only a limited appeal.
Rare though it may be to see Salmond on the back foot, unionists should not get carried away. When politicians try to lay claim to sportsmen or celebrities, disaster normally ensues. Athletes will probably resent being co-opted by either side. Team GB’s achievements speak eloquently for themselves. Salmond is also hoping that the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 will lead to a rush of saltire-waving just before his referendum — but as he will know, there’s more to it than sport. Voters can usually distinguish between athletics and what they do in the polling booth.
However, as an example of what England and Scotland, together with Wales and Northern Ireland, can achieve, the Games have been unbeatable. They have made it possible to glimpse a better future for the UK beyond the grimness of austerity. The Olympics have perhaps heralded a shift in national culture: more and more Britons are proud to be publicly patriotic. There are more races left to run, and Salmond is a formidable competitor. But in London, unionists have struck gold.