Friday 28 March 2014

Scotland's Vote 3: The Argument From Sport

The Argument From Sport has been advanced as a reason for Scotland to remain in the UK, by people who should know better.

In his speech at the Olympic Park in London on 7 February, David Cameron said:

[The] best thing about the Olympics wasn't the winning. It was the red, the white, the blue. It was the summer that patriotism came out of the shadows and into the sun, everyone cheering as one for Team GB.

A more general version comes from the unionist blog Notes From North Britain:

[It] is by voting No that we all get to share in the delights of the success enjoyed by British athletes and sportsmen and women, wherever in these islands they are from.

This isn't much of an argument. British fans can share in the delights (or agonies) of supporting anyone they like. If a British person has a deep affection for Rafael Nadal, Irish rugby or the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team, the constitutional structure of the UK has nothing to do with it.

At best, the Argument From Sport is a metaphor for unity; but the unity itself is based on other factors. I'm not proud to be Canadian because we have an Olympic team; I support the team because I'm proud to be Canadian. A combined Canada-USA team would be a nearly unstoppable force at the Winter Olympics, but I do not regard this as a serious argument for Canada becoming the 51st state.

Even as a metaphor for British unity, the Argument From Sport is uniquely flawed. This is because the UK already has separate teams for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Olympics are the odd one out, being the only major international event with a team directly corresponding to the UK.

It seems Cameron and his allies have not been paying attention for the last 142 years.

The Exceptionally Complicated Truth

Scotland and England have always had separate football teams, ever since they played the first official international match in 1872. There are also separate teams for Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scottish football emblem
Emblem of the Scottish national football team.

In rugby union, once again we have separate teams for Scotland, England, and Wales. Ireland north and south have a combined team, representing both part of the UK and a completely independent country. For some competitions, all four teams unite to make up the British and Irish Lions. Rugby league is largely an English activity but we have separate international teams here as well. England, Scotland, Wales and NI also compete separately in the Commonwealth Games.

As for cricket, I will quote Christopher Brookmyre's novel Country of the Blind:

[The] average attendance at a Scottish cricket match is usually about thirty - and that's including both teams, the umpire, stray dogs and any tramps who happen to be sleeping off the Special Brew in that particular park that day.

For what it's worth, Scotland has a separate cricket team too, although I imagine they are rather lonely.

All this looks peculiar to an outsider. Germany does not feel the need to field a separate football team for Bavaria, even though it was an independent country much more recently than Scotland. It puts the component nations of the UK alongside such anomalies as the Faeroe Islands.

For sporting leagues within the UK, the situation is similar. Scottish Premiership football is separate from the English/Welsh league. In rugby union, England has its own league, while the Pro12 (formerly the Magners League, formerly the Celtic League) comprises teams from Scotland, Wales, Ireland both north and south... and Italy.

The Simple Conclusion

The structure of British sport is old, complicated, and illogical, but it works surprisingly well. It's a typically British arrangement and a great illustration of the fluid and overlapping nature of national identity in these islands.

Separate sporting teams for England and Scotland will do no one any harm. In fact, they have existed for a very long time and everyone seems happy with the situation. If I were the No campaign, I would stay away from sporting arguments; they undermine their cause more than they support it.

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