How The Tebbit Test Was Hit For Six

Posted on 9 January 2012

I took my Dad to the Oval last summer for the Sunday of the last final England v India test match. Each of us would be supporting the country in which we were born. I had booked the tickets last Christmas, expecting the series to be on a knife-edge. Instead, we England supporters had the strange experience of trying to remember not to gloat like an Australian. This was still cricket, after all.

There were young British Asians in both England and Indian shirts near me, engaging in good natured banter as England’s Ravi Bopara tried to concentrate on his fielding just over the boundary rope. One young Sikh in an India shirt, after a beer or two too many, struggled to get his chorus of “Ravi is an Indian, an Indian, an Indian” to take off. Naturally, my thoughts turned to what Norman Tebbit would have made of it all. I was sixteen when Tebbit famously asked: “Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”.

Yet the launch poll of the new British Future think-tank now reveals that the British people reject the cricket test, and by the surprisingly large margin of 60% to 15%.

My problem in 1990 was that I passed the cricket test. Had cheering for Botham, Gower or Gooch become a question of politics? I carried on supporting England – it was too late to switch now – but was offended at the idea that my Dad could work for the NHS for thirty years and still fail a new loyalty test. For me, it was an example of how demands to integrate can also, if they are too polarising, risk repelling the thing that they want. My Dad carried on contributing – and failing the cricket test more spectacularly than most. “You aren’t really supporting Australia, are you?”, I asked him during the great Ashes summer of 2005. I think he does cheer for us against Pakistan.

The Tebbit test never made much sense if you thought about it for too long. It had to be a cricket test, not a football or rugby test,  as the idea of demanding sporting allegiance for loyal citizenship would seem to mean the break-up of the Union, which has been able to accommodate rival teams since international football was invented with the first ever game between England and Scotland in 1872.  And the cricket test is bad history too. When the King of England (claiming allegiance as Emperor of India too) attended India’s first ever official Test match at Lord’s in 1932, long before Indian independence, he was surely not conceding that argument, while doubtless anticipating that his English and Indian subjects would now cheer their rival teams.

Anyway, the patterns of allegiance of any true lover of sport will always be more complicated than the cricket test allowed. Every cricket fan has both national and internationalist instincts; developing deep affection for the great opposing players of every era. I may have been brought up on the swashbuckling Ian Botham and the elegance of David Gower but I had also I had been thrilled, aged nine, watching on TV as India shocked the world and won the World Cup at Trent Bridge against the mighty West Indies, in the years before.

And how my generation loved Viv Richards’ great West Indian side too. Their “blackwash” tour in which they beat England 5-0 was probably the most one-sided sporting contest since Lions versus Christians in the Roman Colisseum. The idea of telling a 15 year old black British teenager with West Indian parents that they were being treacherously disloyal if they didn’t root for England during that astonishing exhibition of whirlwind cricket seems laughable to me.

Don’t ITV’s biased and jingoistic football commentaries during European football matches always seem to me to miss the point that a large part of the footballing nation will always be cheering for anybody else – whether they are Italians, Germans or Turks – if they are playing against Manchester United or Chelsea? I suspect it was not a sense of cosmopolitan European solidarity, nor a lack of a sense of roots and identity, which meant that people in Madrid and Liverpool had a very clear sense of which side they were on when Barcelona and Manchester United competed for the European Cup.

Now British Future’s poll sees the public hit the cricket test for six. Given that nobody expects the Brits on the Costa del Sol to cheer for Spain, this would seem to be a very British triumph for fair play. My 16 year old self would approve.

So might the Tory modernisers. Conservative party chair Sayeeda Warsi sees no contradiction in donning a Union Jack sari and cheer for Pakistan against England at cricket. Tory rising star Croydon MP Gavin Barwell has argued in a Demos and Runnymede Trust essay that David Cameron’s brand detoxification project should involve a public repudiation of the Tebbit test: that promoting integration matters, but  government ministers don’t want to tell you who to cheer for at cricket.  Perhaps 60% public support will help him to win that argument.

If nobody expects Brits on the Costa del Sol to cheer for Spain, that may seem a very British triumph for fair play.

But, as we banish the cricket test to history, I hope we won’t go too far. The Tebbit demand for assimilation went too far but the pro-integration motive was a good one. The poll shows that most people don’t want to insist that the children of immigrants cheer for British teams either. But I doubt that I am alone in hoping that they will mostly want to do so, no doubt with a soft spot for their parent’s country of origin too.

After all, the sense of a choice also depends on feeling that British teams belong just as much to them as anybody else. And our teams will want to draw on all of the talent in our country. (After all, England’s world-beating cricketers are a team of immigrants – from Ireland, South Africa and beyond – though I didn’t hear too many “they come over here and score our runs complaints” during the Ashes).

There would be certainly be a problem if British-born children didn’t feel they had an equal claim on our national teams to everybody else. Take what Tottenham footballer Benoit Assou-Ekotto, who was French-born to a French mother in 1984, told the Guardian newspaper ahead of the last World Cup about the differences he had seen in identity in Britain and France.

“The country does not want us to be part of this new France. So we identify ourselves more with our roots. Me playing for Cameroon was a natural and normal thing. I have no feeling for the French national team; it just doesn’t exist. When people of my generation in France ask ‘where are you from?’, they will reply Morocco, Algeria, Cameroon or wherever. But what has amazed me in England is that when I ask the same question of people like Lennon and Defoe, they’ll say ‘I’m English’, That’s one of the things that I love about life here.”

Perhaps his amazement is what we would find surprising in modern Britain where, days after taking my Dad to the Test, I saw England’s Twenty20 victory over India at Old Trafford greeted with the Daily Mail headline “Patel and Bopara lead England to victory”.

Now, surely that was something that both Lord Tebbit and I could celebrate.

This article was first published on the Iain Dale blog, www.iaindale.com. View it here.