Alex Massie: Glasgow Games can be uniting force

Clyde the Thistle, the mascot for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, leads a fun run in the city. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Clyde the Thistle, the mascot for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, leads a fun run in the city. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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GLASGOW will be miles better than Edinburgh. There is no doubt about that. Few people recall the 1986 Commonwealth Games, held in Edinburgh, with any great fondness. Glasgow can – and will – do better than that.

This time there is no reason why the Games, which open a year tomorrow, should not be a splendid success.

The 1986 Commonwealth Games were, in the end, fairly shambolic. Farcical financial shenanigans were one thing; the consequences of an African boycott quite another. Only 28 nations competed in Edinburgh as almost all African and Caribbean countries boycotted the Games in protest at the British government’s links to and attitudes towards apartheid South Africa.

As a consequence of the boycott, the Edinburgh Games were largely a monochrome – that is to say, all-white – affair, making an already anachronistic event seem even more out of place and out of touch with the modern world.

And yet, anachronistic as they may be, the Commonwealth Games have become an unheralded success story that reflects the surprising continued relevance of the Commonwealth itself. Who, 25 years ago, would have imagined that countries never even colonised by the British would ask to join the Commonwealth club? Yet that has been the case with both Mozambique and Rwanda asking to be included, even though neither was ever part of the British Empire. Like the House of Lords and the NHS and the BBC, the Commonwealth has become an institution that defies logic but remains surprisingly durable.

Of course, in many respects the Commonwealth struggles to even rise to the status of talking shop. Nevertheless, as the examples of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Fiji demonstrate, it retains an ability to make a stand on some issues. Being suspended from the Commonwealth may have few immediate consequences, but it is a kind of moral sanction that sends a signal of censure. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was not found wanting by the United Kingdom; it was judged – and found guilty – by a jury of its African peers.

Closer to home and however much we might wish it otherwise, there is precious little chance of escaping the political dimension of Glasgow 2014. The Games will, of course, be a sporting occasion but their proximity to the independence referendum ensures that politics, as ever, will muscle in on the action.

It was the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood that first backed Glasgow’s bid to host the Games for the first time, but holding the event in Scotland has become a useful tool for Alex Salmond’s nationalist administration.

A successful Games replete with Scottish sporting prowess is something to be celebrated for its own sake, but we can be confident that it will also be exploited by the nationalists. So be it. The SNP’s “narrative” is attractively simple. The Commonwealth Games, they will argue, demonstrate how Scotland can make its own, independent, mark on the sporting world.

We will be reminded, too, that almost all of the countries competing in Glasgow have declared independence from the United Kingdom and that none has ever admitted to regretting that independence. Why should Scotland be any different? The Games will be presented or portrayed as an example of what Scotland could be if only she were independent. Why limit ourselves to independent representation at the Commonwealth Games when we could one day enjoy a separate Scottish team at the Olympics too? We should dare to dream.

This story is attractive and beguiling, even though it rests upon the dubious premise that Scotland’s situation is comparable to the United Kingdom’s former colonies. But Scotland is not a Kenya or a Barbados, no matter how much some nationalists enjoy the notion that Scotland was the “victim” of some form of “internal colonisation”.

Nevertheless, the Games – and indeed the Commonwealth itself – will also be used to support the Nationalists’ notion that independence will not make Scotland and England foreigners to one another. On the contrary, they will show how the two countries can live in friendly harmony and rivalry while remaining partners in the same club.

Be that as it may, if the Nationalist narrative is semi-coherent so is its Unionist rival. The surprising endurance of the Commonwealth and indeed of the Commonwealth Games demonstrates how Scots can have it all. They can be Scottish when it suits, and British when it suits, and there is little obvious need to choose between these two states of identity.