Failing the Tebbit test

Barracking for a sports team has little to do with ‘where you come from’.

Scott Campbell

Topics Politics

In 1990, Britain’s then trade minister Norman Tebbit proposed that a good test of whether someone living in Britain really was British was whether they barracked for Britain – or England – in sporting events, such as cricket matches. And much was made in the 1999 cricket World Cup that thousands of British-passport holders who emigrated from the sub-Continent – and even some who were born in Britain – supported India or Pakistan rather than England.

Some people mumbled under their breath that you shouldn’t be allowed to live in Britain if you failed the Tebbit test. Or, at least, that you were some sort of sporting traitor, and a disappointment to your adopted nation. The left-wing attitude, on the other hand, was that the fact that these people failed the Tebbit test was the fault of white people, who have not been sufficiently welcoming enough to immigrants. No wonder they won’t support England when they’re not made to feel a part of it, went that argument.

In fact, the real fault lies with the Tebbit test itself, which shows a lack of understanding of what it is to be a sports fan. How many people barrack for the team they do because it’s where they come from? If you only follow cricket, and you follow the county and country that you were born in, it’s easy to assume that you follow these teams because they represent where you are from.

But consider football. How many people follow their team because they feel that that’s the area they belong to? I follow Arsenal. But I don’t feel that I belong in north London. I did live in Haringey once for a year, but the rubbish in the streets was enough to put me off considering a long-term future there. Still, that didn’t dim my support for Arsenal.

And, as is well-known, there are tens of thousands of Manchester United fans in Britain (and abroad) who don’t live in Manchester, and never have, and never will. Do they consider Manchester their ‘true’ home in some way? No. You can be a born-and-bred Londoner, who wouldn’t ever dream of calling anywhere else home, and still passionately support Manchester United, or Aston Villa, or Southampton.

I followed Arsenal because they were the first team I saw on TV as a child in Australia. I also followed Richmond, the legendary Australian Rules football club, because my father did. In the local league I followed North Launceston because my father did, even though we lived in another part of town (Riverside) which had a team (Launceston) who were deadly rivals with North Launceston. I considered myself to be – and indeed I was – a born-and-bred Riversider, but I was a fanatical North Launceston supporter nonetheless. And I never stopped supporting North Launceston even when I went to live in different cities, and eventually different countries.

For the same reason, even though I’m growing fonder of the English cricket team, I’ll never stop supporting the Australian cricket team even if I die on the fields of battle defending Britain, because that’s who I grew up supporting. I know an Oxford don who’s a born-and-bred Englishman but who supports Australia in the cricket simply because his famous Aussie Oxford-don dad barracked for them when he was sitting on his dad’s knee.

Barracking for a sports team becomes wired-in after a few years in your youth. It’s not particularly rational, and not subject to much in the way of conscious control (unless you try very, very hard). So the fact that British-born subjects with a sub-continental background barrack for India or Pakistan is no reflection on whether they are good British subjects or not. They may be as British as the Coopers off Goodness Gracious Me. Or they may be buying suspiciously large amounts of agricultural fertiliser. Either way, they’ll find it very hard to stop supporting the team they grew up supporting.

They should no more be hounded out of the country for their allegiance to India or Pakistan than I should be hounded out of Nottingham for supporting Arsenal.

Dr Scott Campbell is a lecturer in the philosophy department, and in the Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society (IGBiS), at the University of Nottingham. He has written for publications including The New Criterion, Partisan Review, The Skeptic, Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, and American Philosophical Quarterly. He created and ran the Skeptics in the Pub night in London, and runs his own opinion page, Blithering Bunny.

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Topics Politics


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