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GB Football Team (Olympics)

March 11, 2009

GB Football Team (Olympics)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this important debate, which he introduced in his usual idiosyncratic style. I am aware that despite this debate being broadly good-natured, I may be intruding on private grief between his party and the Labour party north and west of the English border. I confess that I have considerable sympathy with elements of his political argument, although I would have couched them more tactfully.

The Prime Minister’s risible Britishness agenda disguises the fact that his Government’s ill thought through devolution a decade ago has destroyed British people’s—English, Scottish and Welsh—understanding of Britain as it has existed since 1707. We are at an interim stage. There is no going back from a Scottish Parliament. We have an asymmetrical feeling of devolution throughout the UK, which means equal powers. Heaven only knows how that will be worked through. It is a mess at the moment, and to go on about Britishness risibly attempts to disguise the fact that Mr. Brown is a Scot. He represents or is from a country of 4.5 million people out of 60 million. That will be very evident as time goes on. I would not have wished to make that argument before 1997, but his Government have brought it on themselves. It will resonate loudly during the next general election campaign—very regrettably, in my view.

I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has to say—I suspect that I will be at odds with those on my Front Bench on this matter—because I think that the essence of spectator sport is competition and rivalry. Sport also, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, brings people together. I confess that I scribbled my notes for the debate at the beginning of the weekend and I referred to sport as “war by other means”. The terrible events of the past 72 hours in one part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland—I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) would point out that it is part of the United Kingdom, rather than part of Great Britain—put those comments in context.

However, spectacles such as the World cup and the Olympic games have a global appeal. The first ever international soccer match took place 137 years ago, between Scotland and England in Glasgow. It was a goalless draw, which I suspect reflected not a lack of endeavour, but a determination on both sides to avoid defeat. It is the oldest international in the football fixture list. The notion of a GB team runs counter to the rich history of that rivalry, but it would also set some potentially worrying and unintended precedents, on which I shall focus.

Let us say that there was a GB team for the Olympics. Almost inevitably, despite what the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) had to say, demand would grow for a GB team for all competitions. It might lead to the end of the Scottish league. There has been a great deal of talk for some years now that the two Glasgow teams—Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers—might join the premiership, although I suspect that the ease of passage for them into the champions league means that it is more attractive to play north of the border than to venture south.

We have seen—the Minister will be well aware of this—the joint hosting of football championships. That started at the 2002 World cup, hosted by Japan and South Korea. In 2008, the European championships were hosted by Austria and Switzerland. There was talk until recently of a joint bid for the 2016 European championships by Scotland and Wales. That idea has been dropped, ostensibly for economic reasons. We have seen the great rise of the African footballing powers.

Albert Owen: My understanding is that the joint bid for the European championships was supported by many Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. They felt that the Celtic nations could indeed host the championships. Would that pose the same threats to the national identities of those teams?

Mr. Field: I accept that that may have been the thought in the Scottish Parliament. I think that there would have been a risk.

Let me move on to a more general point. We are talking now of a World cup of 32 nations, whereas 20 or so years ago there were only 16 nations in the World cup finals. The European championships will involve 24 nations next time, partly for the reasons that have been pointed out. We have seen the emergence of eight or nine sovereign nations from the former Yugoslavia and we have seen something similar with the former USSR, with a number of those states playing their part. There are now 195 nations in the UN, and football is ever more important as the global game.

I think that a GB team would set a precedent. There would at some point be more and more pressure for either a GB or a United Kingdom team to represent all our nations in world and European championships. The danger—this goes back to the concern about the passion that people have for sport—is this: who would support such an entity—a Great Britain football team—and how would it be run? We can all envisage the appalling problems that there would be in trying to be politically correct and ensuring that there were two Northern Ireland players and two Welsh players as an absolute minimum. Particularly if a match was being played at the Millennium stadium, would the best 11 players necessarily be playing? All sorts of politics would play a part.

Mr. Sutcliffe: In the Beijing Olympics, there was a Team GB—a Paralympic team—for a number of different sports, including football. That team was run by the English FA with the support of the other home nations. It can be done.

Mr. Field: I can accept that. The Minister has made a valid point about the Paralympics. We are in the early stages of the Paralympics as a sporting movement and I pay tribute to the Government of which he is a member, who have played a very important role in the past decade in ensuring that sport for the disabled has such a high profile. However, I suspect that in 20 or 30 years’ time there will be much more demand, not only in the footballing world but in other areas, for a breaking down of the team into national teams and that the competition and rivalry that is seen in able-bodied sport will also play its part in sport for the disabled.

I appreciate that other hon. Members want to say a few words. I shall end with a slightly more parochial point.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has clearly stated that he does not support the concept of Team GB, but he has not outlined his alternative.

Mr. Field: I shall leave it to the Front Benchers to go into that in detail. It may well be thought that only one nation’s team—perhaps an English, a Scottish or a Welsh team—will emerge from this. I suspect that in an ideal world we would like all the nations to have an opportunity to put teams up.

As I said, I shall end with a slightly more parochial thought, because I am a keen football fan and have been all my life. I remember that there was great revulsion in my home town of Reading at the suggestion in 1983 that that team—Reading were then in the fourth tier of professional football—should merge with Oxford United to form the Thames Valley Royals under the late and not much lamented Robert Maxwell, who owned the club at the time. It is interesting how the two clubs developed over the 20 years after that. Oxford United were promoted into the top flight of football. I remember watching them quite avidly when I was an undergraduate. Then they went into a downward spiral. They had a spanking new out-of-town stadium, which has been a financial millstone around their neck, and they also lost their league status in 2006 and are not likely to regain it any time soon.

By contrast, Reading went from strength to strength. They made it into the premiership in 2006. They now routinely have crowds of 20,000. I remember being one of 3,000 or 4,000 at the rather ramshackle old Elm Park ground. No one would have envisaged that 25 years ago, not least because of the rivalry and competition among the fans in that area. What I am trying to say is that there would be many unintended consequences from any mergers that might take place. We need to think through those complications at the outset, rather than giving wholehearted support to something that might lead us down a path that we would all find undesirable.