Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Steve McCabe.)
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope, for this short debate, which I hope you will find interesting. I want to take you back to 27 May 1972. It may not have been a special day for you, but it was important and significant to the young Master Wishart. It was the day of my Hampden baptism. I remember going along with my dad and some boyhood friends to watch Scotland play England in the old home internationals. That day filled my young boyhood senses. About 100,000 people were crammed into that tight space in Mount Florida, and the Hampden roar reverberated right around the south side of Glasgow. It was a fantastic day—a day that I would want for any of my countrymen and women. It was only slightly marred by the fact that Alan Ball came from absolutely nowhere and scored the only goal and winner for England, but that is what it is like to be a Scotland fan. One is on an incredible emotional rollercoaster, but I would not surrender my ticket for that rollercoaster for anything whatsoever.
I mention all that because the Scotland football team unites our community in a way that nothing else does. We are totally passionate about it. It is a great ambassador for our nation. When we started to re-emerge as a nation in the past 10 or 20 years, it was our international football team that, practically alone, gave us an international profile. What would international football be without the tartan army, those tartan-clad, Jimmy-wigged ambassadors and troubadours who invade foreign soil and turf with such good humour and good nature?
I mention all that because I feel privileged to stand here today to do and say something to try to defend and protect our national football team. That should be the job of all of us as legislators. If we were to take a decision, even inadvertently, that threatened the continuation of our national football team—even if there is only a one in 100 or even one in 1,000 chance—we should be dismissed out of hand. Our position should not be considered; we should be shredded, told to go away.
We should do absolutely nothing that would ever threaten our independent footballing status. We should never give a hint of a precedent that might be used against us in the future. We should give no reason or excuse to those who would question our independent footballing status, and no succour to those who would seek to end the very generous arrangements that we have in the United Kingdom. Our job is to protect our status, and that is what we should be doing.
The Government’s proposals for a Team GB put that all aside. They are establishing the precedent, and giving a reason and excuses to those who would question our separate arrangements. I appeal to them to stop and not do anymore.
First, the proposals are not Government proposals. Secondly, does the hon. Gentleman think that football should be an Olympic sport?
I shall come to that in the course of my speech. The short answer is that I have no problem at all with football being an Olympic sport, but it will not be one of the most glamorous parts of the Olympics. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that the best way to settle international football is through the traditional method: the World cup. That is where we should be determining international football champions, but I have no issue at all with football being a feature of the Olympics.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss sport, football and politics all together. He makes a strong point about the identity of the home nations, but Olympic sports are international championships—that applies to every sport. I do not know of an athlete in Wales who would not be proud to run for Wales in the Commonwealth games, and to wear the UK vest and run for Great Britain and, hopefully, win gold.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. There is not much in it with which I disagree. Yes, have a Team GB for the Olympics, if that is what he wants, but the key issue is whether it is worth it to question the future standing of international football teams, because that is what could happen. I can imagine a future FIFA board saying, “For the 2012 Olympics, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England were able to set aside their national football sides. Why can they not therefore do it for the World cup and the European championship?” Is it worth it? I say to him, not at all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Following on from the last intervention, would he agree that the main problem is that we would have the one Olympic team? In an ideal situation, we would have separate Olympic teams, and this would not be an issue. It is the anachronism of a united Olympic team that is causing the knock-on effect.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and is absolutely right. There is an elegant solution: if the Government are determined to have football in the Olympics, why not have all the international home teams compete in the Olympics? I see nothing wrong with that. I shall come to that important point later in my contribution, but I am grateful to him for raising it.
If what has been suggested is not a Government proposal, it certainly is a Government-supported proposal. I am sure that the Minister will speak about that later.
I just noticed that, and am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing it out. There do not seem to be any other Scottish Members here, which is staggering. I am sure that Hansard will want to ensure that that is noted. They show a lack of interest by not even bothering to get out of bed to come here and discuss the thing that we in Scotland are most passionate about: our international football team. I shall leave that aside, but, looking at the threadbare Labour Benches—again, I shall not bother to comment.
For the first time in 50 years, we are setting aside all our home nations to come together for a team GB. Is it worth it? We talk about participating in the Olympics. I have heard all the figures, and I agree that it would be a great opportunity for all those under-23 young men to have an Olympic experience, but it is not how we settle international football competitions.
Let us look at how the massive sporting events are arranged. Every four years, there is the Olympics, and every four years there is the World cup. There are always two years between them, because they are the two biggest sporting occasions in the world. If we are having football in the Olympics, and the World cup, why do we not have international athletics as a warm-up to the World cup? If we are to go down this road, should we consider that?
The best way to settle the football world championship is the old-fashioned, tried and tested method of the World cup. That is where it is done. We are threatening and questioning our independent status as a footballing nation for a non-event in the Olympics, contested by an under-23 side. It will not even be a best side; the top stars will not be there. It will be a meaningless competition, and I say to the Minister that it will not be worth while.
Perhaps I could suggest a more sinister reason why the proposals have emerged in the past couple of years. I do not think that they are as much about football as about a particular agenda that our Prime Minister has: his Britishness agenda. He has form on the issue. My hon. Friends will remember clearly that when he was asked what his favourite sporting moment was, to try to ingratiate himself with English football fans and promote his Britishness agenda, he said that it was the day that Gazza scored against Scotland in the 1996 European championship. That goal broke Scottish football supporters’ hearts, but it was our Prime Minister’s favourite sporting moment.
We should not sacrifice our independent football team to make our Prime Minister feel that little bit more British. I would prefer that he continue to stick his Union Jacks in his Kirkcaldy home rather than threaten and get involved with the national football team. That may be the real reason behind the proposals, but we will give him no succour.
Let us look at the two teams. What a formidable squad the “no to Team GB” line-up is. It is pitted against the “for Team GB” squad. The “no to Team GB” squad has a strong 4-3-3 formation, led by the Football Associations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has a formidable midfield, comprising the tartan army, all the pundits and commentators in Scotland and former Scotland managers and players. And, let us not forget its defence: the overwhelming majority of Scotland fans. Who is in the “for team GB” squad in Scotland? It has a pretty threadbare 2-1-1 formation, and already many of its members have been red-carded. It is led by the Prime Minister, but we all know that he is much more likely to score an own goal than a goal in the opposition’s net. The midfield consists of the Secretary of State for Scotland, running around like a headless chicken—not the midfield dynamo that you would expect, Mr. Pope. And, in defence—well, there is nobody in defence. I thought that they would at least have been present to say something about the issue, but the defence has gone home. If you were a football fan, Mr. Pope, and passionate about the game in Scotland, whose side would you be on? Would you be on the side of the Prime Minister, or of everybody else, who oppose the proposition? The answer is pretty straightforward, Mr. Pope. I see you laughing, so I think that you know the answer, too.
What do the proponents of this Team GB think about the opposition? Almost arrogantly, they dismiss it; they could not care less. Every single football association other than the English Football Association has rejected the proposal, but still the proponents pursue, support and propose it. Sebastian Coe allegedly used some very colourful language to tell us where we should all go—language that if I were to repeat in this House, Mr. Pope, you would have the Doorkeeper frogmarch me from the estate, and quite rightly. Sebastian Coe ever so politely told all the opposition where they might go. Well, I have a message for him from the fans of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: “We would like to reciprocate your kind offer, and go away and do absolutely nothing that threatens our independent status.”
In fully supporting the hon. Gentleman’s contentions throughout, I must say that I cannot understand the reasoning behind the call for a GB team. All the home nations’ teams are strong sides that can hold their own in international competition, and that is the way it should be. Indeed, I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the Wales rugby sevens side on becoming world champions last weekend.
Absolutely. May I offer those congratulations wholeheartedly to the hon. Gentleman and to the Welsh national side? It was an incredible achievement and, of course, I share his bewilderment at the proposal’s pursuit. It is not just pursued, however; it is arrogantly pursued.
The Paralympics team does not threaten the home nations’ independent status. FIFA and UEFA are not looking at that; they are looking carefully at the decisions that we make about this Team GB today. I have no problem with the Paralympics team; I have a problem with any proposition that will not allow my son or my grandchildren to turn up to Scotland football games. Even if there is just a one in 100, or a one in 1,000 chance of it happening, even inadvertently, we should get rid of the proposal—take it away, not discuss it, just close it down. I wish the Minister would join me in that view. I know that he is a football fan who likes his game and his international football. His football team probably is not threatened by the proposal, but ours is, so I hope that he will take very seriously the fact that everybody in Scotland is against him on this proposal.
My hon. Friend is right: there would be no support for that proposal whatever. We acknowledge that the United Kingdom has generous historical arrangements: all the home nations are members of the FIFA board. In the past five to 10 years, however, a number of new nations have emerged, and many of them look enviously at what we have. Devolved Parliaments throughout the world would like a shot at competing in international competitions, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do, but we should give them nothing—no reason and no excuse to bring up the issue and discuss it.
At the heart of the matter when it comes to such proposals are the assurances that Ministers, Sebastian Coe and others secure and receive when they raise the issue with FIFA. FIFA tells everybody that the proposal will not affect the independent status of the home nation teams—assurances that are not worth the paper that they are not even written on. They are totally and utterly meaningless, and we have the pathetic sight of the Secretary of State for Scotland, wandering back from yet another meeting with FIFA declaring, “Peace in our time,” because we have had yet another assurance, such is his negotiating skill and the clever and complicated way in which he puts his argument. He got the same answer as everybody else: “Yes, of course it won’t affect the international standing of your home nations.” But, even if we accept that that is the FIFA board’s view, and there are big questions about that after Sepp Blatter’s interesting remarks last week, the view is not binding for future FIFA boards; they could quite easily rip it up and have nothing whatever to do with it. So, let us not hear anything about those assurances.
The FIFA board’s view was interesting, too. Last Saturday, Sepp Blatter most certainly let the cat out of the sports bag when he revealed his real reasoning. David Peat, recalling what Sepp Blatter told him in a private meeting, said:
“Mr Blatter told us at an informal function that, if we agreed to be part of Team GB, our position would be in jeopardy. My immediate reaction was one of surprise. I glanced over at the English table and their two guys, Lord Triesman and Sir David Richards, just looked at each other.”
I bet they did, with their hands at their heads, because that is the real position of the FIFA president. At an informal function, when speaking his mind on the issue, he is quite happy to tell us his real view on the matter. Please, I ask the Government, do not insult our intelligence with these meaningless assurances. They are not worth anything. I am sure that, when the Minister responds, he will bear that in mind. The board could not care less.
I see that the Minister has a paper in his hand, and I have a paper in my hand, too. It is a very interesting one, from David Will, the honorary vice-president of FIFA, who should know a little bit about international football and politics. He says:
“People seem to have forgotten that at almost all the FIFA Congresses throughout the 1980s, delegates, mostly from Africa supported by the Caribbean, raised objections to the existence of the four associations.”
There is an ongoing discussion in FIFA and in UEFA, so their assurances are totally and utterly meaningless.
A few people have talked about Members getting politically involved in FIFA issues, and I take very seriously the Scottish Football Association’s concerns about that. I leave it to the SFA, however, to raise those issues with FIFA. Our job, as Members, is to raise the issues with Ministers who strongly support the proposal. As long as they propose it, my job, as a Member who represents thousands of passionate Scotland fans, will be to oppose the Government and their support for this national football team. That is what we are here to do, and I make absolutely no excuse for doing so.
There are solutions, as my hon. Friends have said, however. If we want football teams to participate in the Olympics, what is wrong with all the home teams participating? Absolutely nothing. That is what happened when the Olympics last came to London, in 1908. All four home international sides competed, so, surely, that is how we should proceed. If being a part of the Olympics is such a great experience for young men, we should multiply it fourfold and give that wonderful chance to even more of our young people. The Minister should consider that solution. For goodness’ sake, we are hosting the Olympics; it is not as if we are without influence when it comes to making such decisions. Surely, he could put it to the powers that be.
We could kill this proposal today. We could end it today. All is needed is for the Minister to say, “We no longer support this. We take on board the clear opposition. We will not arrogantly try to pursue it against the wishes of all the other football associations.” He could easily do that today. If all Scottish Members of Parliament came together on an early-day motion, that would also kill the proposal. We could unite on that. I would even be prepared to sign an early-day motion put together by Government Members who are not in the Chamber, as long as it was trying to achieve that objective. That is something that we could do.
Everybody is against this proposal. There is no support for it in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If there is support for it, perhaps the Minister would say who is for it other than the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland and a few Labour MPs. Even Labour in Scotland is beginning to crack. There are Members of the Scottish Parliament who get it, understand the issues, see the threat and are now against it. Support for this proposal lies only in this House. It exists nowhere else. There is no serious, credible pundit, commentator or former official in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who believes that this proposal is a good thing.
Our job is to ensure that ordinary football fans are given a voice in the House. I do not know how many of my constituents I have spoken to about this issue who are concerned about all this. We have to give no precedent whatever, no reason and no excuse. Our job is to defend our national football side. I make no excuse for trying to do that today.
As I said, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate, which gives us the opportunity to talk about football and the Olympics—two things that dominated my life when I was young, and still do.
The hon. Gentleman says that nobody in Wales supports the proposal that we are debating, but I suggest that he join me on a Saturday afternoon watching my local team and talk to the parents of young players and young children. I accept that when I raise the matter it divides opinion, but the hon. Gentleman does not have a monopoly to speak for the football-loving people of Wales on this issue. I accept that there are establishments—the football associations—that strongly oppose the proposal, and I share some of their fears, but it is utterly wrong to suggest that nobody else in the footballing world of Wales supports it.
I will develop my argument, but I repeat what I have said. I have been speaking to people in the stands of my local football team while watching games and talking to parents and I think that they would believe that what I have said is so, with certain caveats and assurances, which we must have in every sport—football is no different. Other teams have certain concerns about the identity of their national sport when asked to have an Olympic team. I am sure that the Minister will highlight that in his winding-up speech.
Like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I have a passion for football. I remember, as a young man in the 1970s, watching Wales play Northern Ireland at Goodison Park, my favourite football team’s stadium. I recall going to Hampden and watching Wales lose, draw and win against Scotland on occasions. As a football supporter from north-west Wales, even to go to a home game—having to travel to Cardiff—was a journey in itself. I have also supported the Welsh national football team across the world. I have been to international games in many countries and supported that team and will continue to do so.
I also support grass-roots football and the game at premier level—the Welsh premier league and the Football Association premier league—so I do not see any divisions based on boundaries. I enjoy football per se. That is why I will support the idea, with the assurances that I have mentioned, that a United Kingdom team give the opportunity for Welsh young people to look at Welsh participation in an Olympic team.
The hon. Gentleman says that he does not support any boundaries in football, but I have been listening to his account of his support for the Welsh football team over the years and I wonder whether any Portuguese Members of Parliament are looking for unification with Spain for an Iberian team. I would not think so. He talks about the idea of football without boundaries and says that is why he would support a United Kingdom team, but, extending his argument logically, would he support a European Union football team? I certainly would not, but the logic of his argument indicates that he would.
I am certainly not going to allow the hon. Gentleman to put words in my mouth. I was saying that I believe in football first—football as a game—to inspire young people to come into sport. That is my first and foremost viewpoint.
I remember, as a young man, watching the Olympic games every four years and seeing Olympians from the four home nations winning gold medals. My earliest memory is of Lynn Davies winning the long jump for Wales and Great Britain in Tokyo. I remember David Hemery, the great hurdler in the Mexico Olympics, winning for England and the United Kingdom and Great Britain. I also remember Mary Peters, the great Northern Ireland athlete, winning in Munich in 1972 for Northern Ireland and for Britain. Of course, I remember Alan Wells, in the Moscow Olympics, winning for Scotland and the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman places great stress on the fact that people can represent both the UK or GB and the home nation, but was it not the case that in Beijing a choice had to be made, because the Chinese authorities would not allow Scottish and Welsh flags to be displayed, owing to the Tibetan problems, and that people have to choose whether they want to be in GB/UK or in Scotland/Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing the emotive issue of flags with what I am talking about. I do not think that Chris Hoy, the great Scottish Olympian, worried about wearing a Great Britain vest. That is my point: he and many athletes in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are proud to be Scottish, Welsh, English, Northern Irish and British. That argument needs to be brought to this debate and that is what I intend to do.
Although the 2008 Olympics brought great gold tallies to the United Kingdom, my favourite moment was when the Welsh cyclist, Nicole Cooke, whose enthusiasm inspired so many athletes across the United Kingdom crossed the line, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” and won the first medal for Britain. She did it for British sport. She will inspire people to get on their bikes and ride for Britain and for Wales. That is how sport can inspire people.
I will develop this argument, but I repeat that many athletes and many people in Wales can be proud to be both Welsh and British—and that principle applies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. That is no boundary for them. Artificial boundaries are put in place by many people, including the Scottish National party.
Yes, European. People are proud to represent the British Lions and Ireland by putting on those shirts: it does not make them any less Irish, and the proposal we are talking about does not make people any less Welsh, English or Scottish. That is my point. The ethos of sport and competing is more important than narrow nationalistic views.
The hon. Gentleman may or may not be right, but does he not share my concern and fears about his national football side if we were to come together as team GB? That is what this debate is about. Has he any fears about the future existence of his beloved Welsh side if we come together as Team GB?
I am trying to be generous in giving way to broaden this debate from the idea of being Scottish or British and from losing identity to one of greater participation in sport by people from the home nations.
There is an opportunity to bring my love of football and the Olympics together in the United Kingdom by having a United Kingdom team. That is important. That does not go against my strong support for a Welsh football or rugby team or any Welsh team. When Wales plays England, I have a passion for seeing Wales beating England equal to that of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire; equally, however, when I see a Welsh athlete in a British shirt representing Great Britain, I want them to succeed. I want people watching them to be inspired and to come into sport. That does happen and it will happen in the next Olympics.
If one of the amazing young crop of Welsh football stars thought that putting on a British vest in a British football team would endanger the future of a Welsh national football side and, therefore, their chance to compete for Wales in the World cup in the future, what does the hon. Gentleman think they would do?
I do not think they should be put in that position, and I shall come to that. [Interruption.] There is no exactly, and no blueprint, I am sorry to say. I am equally keen on rugby, and when a Welsh athlete plays for the British Lions, they are not put in that position because they have assurances from their national and international bodies. That is the point that I shall come to. I shall make a counter-argument against some of the issues that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire raised.
I am suggesting that passion for sport comes first, and I dispute the suggestion that no one in Wales or Scotland likes the idea. The establishment, the Scottish media, the pundits and others are taking the “no” lead, but football in 2012 will be hosted in the greatest stadium in the United Kingdom—the Millennium stadium. Imagine the irony if young people from all over Wales, the United Kingdom and the world were watching football at that great stadium with not a single Welsh player representing a United Kingdom team. That would be a missed opportunity for football, but it would happen if a UK team had only English players. Imagine the irony of the Welsh passion in that stadium supporting an English team against a Portuguese or Brazilian team if young Welsh stars were denied the opportunity to play on that great occasion. The Olympic games is the greatest sporting occasion in the world.
I do not think that was clever. I have travelled with the Football Association of Wales to away games when there were not many supporters. In fact, there were more people wearing blazers—officials of the association—than supporters. I declare an interest, and I think there is some protectionism.
I accept what the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) says. Of course, I do not want Welsh players to risk losing their Welsh status, but I want them to have the opportunity in 2012 to represent the United Kingdom. I do not use the phrase “Team GB” because it will be a UK team from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I want to see a UK team, not a GB team, represented.
Order. This is a good-natured debate, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has been generous with his time, but there are too many sedentary interventions. If hon. Members want to intervene, they should make proper interventions, but we cannot have heckling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be able to make his points if he catches your eye, Mr. Pope.
I understand how the Scottish Football Association, the Football Association of Wales and the Irish Football Association feel when there is such a strong negative campaign, and when private meetings have been held but assurances and private conversations have been leaked to the press. I understand that FIFA’s executive met in Tokyo and gave assurances that national identities would not be eroded. There may be debates outside that, but FIFA said that this one-off opportunity for the United Kingdom football team at the 2012 Olympics would not harm the status of the four individual nations. That is important. [Interruption.] I will not give way again, because I have done so several times and other hon. Members want to speak.
Those assurances should be accepted. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said that only the under-23s would be affected. Only young people? Many young players go on beyond that, but many are at their prime at 21 and they will have the opportunity to excel on the national stage at the showcase that is the Olympics and at stadiums such as the millennium stadium in Cardiff and Wembley stadium. The millennium stadium attracted great passion last year when Cardiff City played in the FA cup. Many Welsh people were happy to support Cardiff City and its international players, including Aaron Ramsey; I am sure that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr will agree that he is a likely contender for the first team of any UK team. The Arsenal player, who is a talented young man and would play a great role, will be 22 in 2012, so he could be an under-23 player. He would inspire many girls and boys in Wales and the United Kingdom. That is why football would be the winner if there were a UK team.
Many nationalist politicians in Wales go further and instead of making a pro-football or a pro-sport argument, they use this as an anti-Britain agenda. I have heard Welsh politicians who want to do away with the British Lions. Imagine a British Lions team without the likes of Gareth Edwards and Barry John if we followed the logic of allowing them to play only for Wales. The British Lions tour to South Africa in the summer will be more than just peppered with Welsh talent as they represent Great Britain and Ireland on the international rugby stage. That would not harm Wales if they subsequently went for another grand slam.
There is an agenda—the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is right—and it is narrow and nationalist. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) says that I can do better. I could go on, but I am trying to speak about the subject of the debate. I believe that the British Lions are richer for having Welsh participation, and a GB football team would be richer for having Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish representatives. One can be proud to be Welsh, proud to be Scottish, proud to be English, proud to be Northern Irish and proud to be British. Putting on a GB football shirt in 2012 would enhance sport in Britain and the home countries. In Beijing, British people from all the home countries came home to celebrations in their individual capital cities.
I want British football to be seen from the terraces of the millennium stadium with Welsh representatives playing alongside people from other countries. I would like the team to be fully Welsh if it was selected on merit, but British sport has a role to play at national level. The assurances that have been given must be taken seriously. The football associations may have their own way and there may be just an English team with no participation from other players, and FIFA might still argue that national teams should merge. That debate will not go away, and it is wrong to use it nationalistically, as supporters of nationalist parties and nationalist politicians have done.
The beautiful game, merged with the Olympics, will enhance sport and football. I support a 2012 UK team with the assurances that that will not be detrimental to national identity.
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—Celtic and 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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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 that 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.
I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) for the unexpected but nevertheless welcome support for our position from Cities of London and Westminster. I also thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for his impassioned defence of the independence of Scottish and Welsh football. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), it was not our parties that decided to make football a political football. It was the Prime Minister who did so in advancing, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, his Britishness agenda.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. This argument goes back four or five years before our Prime Minister came to that office. It is something that the British Olympic Association brought forward as an idea, so that host nations would not have to qualify. That is the origin of the argument, so I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says that the Prime Minister, with his enthusiasm for a Great Britain team, was the start of the debate; he was not.
The British Olympic Association may have been there at the kick-off, but the Prime Minister ran with the ball. There is a bigger political question here, because in this United Kingdom we have one very large nation and three smaller nations and sensitivity needs to be shown to the interests of the three small nations. When the football associations and the majority of football supporters in those countries say, “Hang on a minute. There’s something very important here that we hold dear and that we feel could be imperilled by this decision,” the Government should listen. The hon. Gentleman is a Unionist; he believes in the United Kingdom. The only way in which this United Kingdom can work is if the interests of the small countries are listened to by the large country. That is all we are asking for.
I am slightly concerned to hear that the Prime Minister is running with the ball when we are talking about football rather than rugby. However, I put it to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister that whatever our views on Team GB—we have different ones here—we should address the absurdity of the Team GB football team singing “God Save the Queen”, which is, wrongly, still the English football national anthem. When will we address that and stop having this identity confusion? When England compete as England, they should have an English national anthem so that when a British team plays, we do not ask its Scottish and Welsh members to stand and sing what they perceive as an English anthem, which is absurd.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point, and I certainly support it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire likened being a Scottish football supporter to being on a rollercoaster, but Welsh supporters have also had their fair share of highs and lows. In the 1958 World cup quarter-final, a young Brazilian by the name of Pele came on and scored his first goal in international football to put us out. In the quarter-finals of the 1976 European championships, we lost to the former Yugoslavia. I also have to mention a certain handball in 1978, which introduced an element of disagreement between Scotland and Wales. Scotland also put us out in 1986, but I will pass over that.
Wales now has a crop of young players. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned Aaron Ramsey, and we also have Joe Ledley, David Edwards and Jack Collison, whose combined ages would be about 80. This crop of young players has a real prospect of getting Wales into a major championship again, and we do not want to put that at risk. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that in his heart of hearts.
The position in FIFA has changed, and there have already been two votes on the membership issue. FIFA vice-president Jack Warner from Trinidad and Tobago is a leading opponent of independence for the four home nations. He has recently said that he has an open mind about the effects of Team GB on our membership of FIFA, and the issue will come back on the agenda if we take up the proposals.
In several cases recently, FIFA has taken a much more conservative line than it has in the past. It has more members than the United Nations because its criteria for membership were much broader in the past, but that has changed. Greenland made an application for membership in 2005, but it was turned down. Catalonia has also made an application. Similarly, UEFA has tightened up its rules, and new members must be members of the United Nations to qualify as members. Things are therefore changing, and if we move down the proposed path, there is a real danger that we will lose our independent membership.
Such a development will have a knock-on effect on Welsh clubs. At the moment, teams from the Welsh premiership can compete in the champions league and the UEFA cup. A few years ago, Barry Town beat Porto, which went on to win the champions league a few years later. Such games are important opportunities for young Welsh players, and we need to defend their ability to play in them.
The hon. Gentleman talked about artificial boundaries. In a sense, identity is artificial because it is a cultural construct—it is something we believe in. We believe passionately in our Welsh identity, partly for reasons of history, but it is real to us. There is a distinction to be made. Originally, the Olympic movement was about not national sides, but individual athletes competing against each other—the national element came in only later. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying: in a sense, the Olympian movement is about individuals, and its motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”. However, the national dimension of team sport is absolutely central—it is part of the passion of the game to see two national sides pitting the best talent that they have against each other. Surely we would not want to lose that.
I want political independence for my country and I make no apology for that. The hon. Gentleman has every right to disagree with me, but it is a laudable ambition to want one’s country to have self-determination. Historically, the arrangement in these islands has been that we respect the fact that four different nations make up our state and that we allow expressions of national identity within that, and sporting identity is an important element of that.
The Football Association of Wales is the third oldest football association in the world. We were a founding member of UEFA. Along with the other home nations, we are also on the FIFA board, which decides the rules and which has only eight members.
The hon. Gentleman has made several references to Welshness and identity, but someone who supports Welsh independence is no more Welsh than Welsh patriots who want to be part of the United Kingdom. That is the important point: there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism. However, he also talked about the Olympic ethos, and is not being part of a team also part of that? When Team GB came back from Beijing, members from the individual home countries did not feel any less Scottish or Welsh for being part of it.
I say to the hon. Gentleman in all honesty and sincerity that identity is personal and subjective. I accept that he has a British identity alongside a Welsh one, but that British identity is not one that I share. That is my personal, subjective view. I am prepared to allow him his identity if he will allow me mine. An important part of my identity is the continuation of an independent Welsh national side. I have no problem with the current arrangement, under which we have a UK Olympics team, and we have to accept that the Olympics authorities perhaps take a different view from FIFA or UEFA, although that is a matter of some dispute. If the hon. Gentleman wants his identity, that is fine, but will he please allow me to have mine and to express it in sporting terms by continuing to support a Welsh national football side?
I will wind up now, however, because I am very interested to hear what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has to say.
One reason why I am interested in this issue is that I am a member of the Celtic diaspora who was born in Wembley. My earliest memories include being let out of St. Joseph’s school in Wembley early to see an international on a Wednesday afternoon—there were no floodlights for soccer matches at Wembley in those days. I also remember kith and kin coming down from Scotland on the overnight coach to see Scotland beat England. The issue is very interesting. I am a soccer enthusiast and I certainly like the international game.
It is laudable for Ministers to say that it would perhaps be nice to have a United Kingdom team. Indeed, let me say for the record—in case what we say is distorted elsewhere—that I support that objective as a soccer enthusiast. However, my point, which I think is new, is that the Government should back off. There is a point at which these things are no longer Government business, but a matter for the four football associations, and it is dangerous for the Government to try to push the issue.
I note that the Minister intervened to pray in aid the Paralympics. He said that the English FA organised the football team with the support of the other football associations, but that is precisely the point: the initiative had the support of the other associations. However, that support does not exist now. Then, there was acquiescence, full knowledge and full consent, which is fine. It was a grave matter, and the associations decided that they would support the UK Paralympics team. However, they have now decided—they are entitled to do so—that they will not support such a team in the 2012 Olympics. The Government should bear that in mind.
I am desperately angry about the obsession with calling the team Team GB. That shows how stupid—I deliberately use that word—the people who run the Olympics in this country are. This is the United Kingdom, and that is the official short term—that is what is in front of the United Nations. Everyone understands that. The team should be Team UK. That is not a small point or a meaningless difference, because this country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Even at this late stage, the name should be corrected. Ministers should be particularly sensitive about that, because they are the custodians of the political identity of the United Kingdom. They should correct such things at every stage.
All this comes down to modalities and the statutes of FIFA and the Olympic movement. One reason why the Government should not trespass there is that it would draw the Olympic movement into United Kingdom domestic politics. As I understand the statutes, the team must be a member of FIFA. There is not a United Kingdom football association affiliated to FIFA. It does not exist. If there were acquiescence from the other three associations things would be fine, but there is not, and the matter should be dead in the water. To take up a point that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made, where would it end if England’s FA were to claim to be the United Kingdom team, and the Government were to buttress that claim and support it? It would trespass into a political dimension. It is another increment that threatens the Union—the very Union that the Government say they want to maintain. We should not go there. It would put FIFA and the Olympic movement in a difficult position.
I urge the Minister to reflect on the fact that there is a line over which the Government should not trespass. There would be debates about and frustration over the method of selection, anyway. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) seemed to assume, because he is a patriot, that there would be a Welsh player. I would hope that there would be Welsh players, but one cannot be sure, because the essence of the Olympic movement is that a person would be selected on merit. Therefore, in conclusion, I counsel the Government to back off and be much more sensible than they have been about the soccer competition. Secondly, because it is a directly related matter, they should start to get their political terms correct, and insist that the team from the United Kingdom should be called Team UK.
It gives me great pleasure to participate in this colourful, heartfelt and passionate debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing it. All that was missing was the Mel Gibson-style face paint I expected the hon. Gentleman to arrive with this morning. He has built from the foundations, brick by brick, and laying the mortar on very thick, ably supported by his colleagues’ urgent and pleading interventions, a huge Aunt Sally to demolish. He did it quite successfully, and for good measure he threw in a conspiracy theory involving the Prime Minister. I understand his reasons for choosing to do that, but with the limited time available to us he might have considered as an alternative a debate on the Olympic legacy in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are significant issues to consider in that context, whether on matters of infrastructure or access to contracts for businesses. That would have been an interesting debate.
Of course, this has been a wonderful opportunity for us all to reminisce about our football experiences. I can reminisce about a match I attended in 1976, I think, between Leeds and Bayern Munich. We were living in France, and the match was in Paris. I am afraid that the Leeds fans tore the stadium apart and fought battles in the streets with the French police. I can reminisce too about a surreal football match that I attended when I went on a school trip to Russia. I think it was Odessa versus Kiev, in 1975. The match was played in complete silence. The only thing we could hear in the crowd was the crunching of sunflower seeds, because that is what the spectators ate during the game. When we left the stadium the aisles were littered inches deep with sunflower seed husks.
That is enough reminiscing. We have little time for the debate, so I will focus on the meat of the matter. The British Olympic Association has decided that the UK—both men’s and women’s teams—will take up the free ticket to the football games. It understands, as I think does everyone in the Chamber, the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire and others about the potential for that to affect the home nation teams. However, the hon. Gentleman did not respond to the point that the potential would exist irrespective of whether we hosted the Olympics in 2012. There is always the potential for FIFA to examine at some point the arrangements for nations, and to come up with a decision that he, others and I would be unhappy with, for example in relation to the World cup.
In support of his arguments, the hon. Gentleman deployed some quotations from Sepp Blatter, although I understand that we have received assurances that they were taken out of context; I considered writing to him but I understand that he has had so many letters on the issue that he would be unhappy to receive a further one from me.
I wish that the hon. Gentleman had listened more to his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland), who was on steadier ground. Is he speaking for the Scottish Liberals in this matter? Do they support Team GB? Are they in opposition to all other opinion in Scotland in this matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I confirm that I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) who speaks on Scottish issues. I am also happy to confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware, Ross Finnie MSP is on record supporting the need for assurances from FIFA. That is exactly the point that I am making and that other hon. Members have made. We need assurances from FIFA. If the Minister goes away from the debate with one thing, it will be the knowledge that we are collectively asking him to secure a much more solid assurance than we have so far received. Rather than writing to Sepp Blatter individually, the right way forward would be for us all collectively, with the Minister, to sign a letter seeking those assurances.
I regret one thing about the debate, which is that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire and other hon. Members did not focus enough on the potential for increasing participation in women’s football and Paralympic football. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that if we have a Team UK, that should be its name, not Team GB. Such a team, with players who could be Welsh, Scottish—for all we know it could be a completely Scottish team—or English or from Northern Ireland, and from men’s, women’s and Paralympic football, would kick-start those sports and give players from all those nations an opportunity to play at the highest level. That must be good for sport. I regret that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire did not pick up that point, because it leaves an impression, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) was saying, that the argument is a nationalist one. It should in fact be about how to maximise participation in sport and get the most for our men’s, women’s and Paralympic teams.
The debate has been challenging. The Minister has been given clear guidance by all the hon. Members who have spoken about what he needs to do. Perhaps he can get assurances from FIFA that what happens at the Olympics in 2012 will not create any risk to future World cups.
I am afraid not; I am concluding.
If assurances could be obtained I should be comfortable about supporting a Team UK. I am sure that my Scottish and Welsh colleagues here and in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales would also be happy to support it.
As is customary, I too start by congratulating the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate on the GB football team at the London 2012 Olympics. I hope that he will not mind my saying, however, that despite the evident good humour with which he spoke, as a sports fan I have not approached the debate with great enthusiasm. I do not think that it reflects particularly well on the management of the issue thus far that the selection of sportsmen and women, both able-bodied and Paralympic, to represent their country at a home Olympics, has become a matter of such entrenched political debate. It would have been much better if we could all have resisted temptation and left the issue to be resolved by sport, not politics.
When considering such matters, it is often instructive to look to history for a precedent. I am not sure that it is relevant in this case, but for the record—no one has yet mentioned this—Great Britain has won three gold medals at football. The first was in 1900; the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be delighted to know that Upton Park football club represented this country and won. In 1908 the English national amateur team won, and the last medal was won in 1912.
GB went on to compete, perfectly happily, in 1920, 1936, 1948—the London games—1952, 1956 and, for the last time, in Rome in 1960. GB participated in the qualifying rounds in 1972, but failed to qualify. I have been unable to verify whether we lost on penalties to Germany. However, the removal of the distinction between professional and amateur teams by the Football Association in 1974 meant the end of our participation in the Olympics.
As the Minister said, we fielded two teams at the Paralympic games in Beijing—a seven-a-side cerebral palsy team and a five-a-side blind football team. Inevitably, in view of this morning’s debate, the cerebral palsy team contained footballers from Scotland, but the FA managed the team without controversy on behalf of GB. That rather backs up my view that these issues are controversial only when politicians become involved.
As far as the specifics of this morning’s debate are concerned, I wish to make three points. First—this is a personal view, and I doubt whether it will be popular with the Minister—I sometimes wonder whether football is a natural fit with the rest of the Olympic games. I fully realise that it is a decision solely for the International Olympic Committee, and not one for national Governments; indeed, I endorsed London’s bid for the 2012 games even though football was always a key part of our offer. None the less, I believe that the Olympics should contain only those sports in which it is the peak of an athlete’s career to win a gold medal.
For many male footballers—indeed, perhaps the majority—winning the premier league, the Scottish league, la Liga, the Serie A, the Bundesliga, the European cup, the World cup or the European championships will always be more prestigious than winning an Olympic gold medal. I realise that football brings a new audience to the Olympics, with its associated broadcasting and revenue opportunities, but as a traditionalist I believe that anyone winning an Olympic gold medal should feel that they had reached the absolute pinnacle of their sport. I am not convinced that is the case for many male footballers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I shall continue.
The situation is different for the women’s game. Being part of the Olympics opens up unprecedented coverage to the UK’s fastest growing participation sport, and it would be the pinnacle of any female footballer’s career. After the failed attempt to field a women’s team in Beijing, women’s football would receive a huge boost if it was able to participate before home crowds in 2012. However, despite my personal misgivings about the male game, football will be a key part of London 2012 in some way, shape or form. The challenge is to make it work as well as possible.
That brings me to my second point. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock that it is a great shame that the issue has become so politically contentious. The whole question of having a football team at London 2012 has become part of a wider debate about devolution and independence. I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that both the main protagonists are at fault in that regard. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have used the issue to make wider points about the Union and, unsurprisingly, the Scottish National party has reacted.
No, I do not. As chairman of the organising committee, Lord Coe has to take his lead from the Government. The Government are responsible for the overall strategic direction of the 2012 Olympics, and the Prime Minister gave a lead. Lord Coe had to follow. He did not have the option.
My third and final point is that given that we are where we are, the key thing is what to do next. The British Olympic Association, which is responsible for selecting Team GB, has assured me absolutely that FIFA’s executive committee confirmed in December 2008 that participation in the London 2012 tournament will not affect the status of the home nations. However—I say this before everybody jumps to their feet—FIFA also recognises the concern within the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations that that may not be the case. I am happy to make public the fact that FIFA has received letters from all three associations stating that they will not support, or enter discussions about entering, a GB football team in 2012. Sport is a devolved issue. It is therefore ultimately for the individual home country football associations to decide what course to take.
It would be wrong—perhaps, like the hon. Member for Thurrock, my Celtic influences are coming into play—for the Government, the FA or London 2012 to do anything that would impinge on the independence of those football associations. Ultimately, I see no option but to leave them to make their own decision.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the individual associations should confirm that they have considered the question of women’s and Paralympic football, and the potential to increase participation, before deciding whether to engage in discussions on the subject?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is two out of two. I shall continue.
On a personal basis, I absolutely respect the decision, but I regret that things have come to this. As a result, both able-bodied and Paralympic athletes will miss out. A fantastic opportunity to showcase the women’s and Paralympic games, with all the benefits for increased participation, will be lost. Broadcasting exposure and commercial revenue will be forfeited. All those things will happen because politics has got in the way.
Unless a solution can be found, through a pre-qualification tournament or some other form of compromise, the BOA will enter a GB team, but it will contain only English players. I presume that Irish, Scottish and Welsh players will be invited to put their names forward, but that they will face possible sanctions from their home country associations if they play.
As an aside, and in case anyone else was thinking of doing so, I mention that the last two high-profile athletes to defy the Government over an Olympics political issue—Sebastian Coe and Colin Moynihan—are now chairman of the London organising committee and chairman of the national Olympic committee respectively.
I do not understand why, but the hon. Gentleman said that the British Olympic Association will probably submit a team. My point is about modalities; it is technical. A team cannot be submitted without an association, and we do not have a United Kingdom association. Many people are being foolish and fudging the issue. The BOA cannot do it. There has to be an association, but it does not exist.
I asked the British Olympic Association that question yesterday, and I think that the hon. Gentleman may not necessarily be correct. In Beijing, a home nation committee took over in many sports; it then morphed into a UK body—or a Team GB body. In this case, I guess that the BOA will invite the home nations to put forward players but that the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh will refuse because they believe that it will compromise their independence. As a result, the team will go forward under a Team GB banner, but will contain only English players.
As I said at the beginning, I very much regret that this has become such a contentious public matter, and the way that it has been handled by the Governments in London and Edinburgh has made a difficult situation worse. However, whatever my personal feelings, I acknowledge that the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh FAs are entirely within their rights to refuse to release their players, with the result that as of today the GB team selected by the BOA will contain only English players—the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock. We are still more than three years from London 2012, so there is ample time for a compromise to be reached, if the will exists to find one. However, after this morning’s debate I suspect that is probably a vain hope.
The really sad part of all of this is that as things stand the athletes affected will be denied a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in front of their home crowd at the world’s largest sporting event. Whatever one’s view, that is a great shame.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. This has been an interesting debate in terms of the emotions engendered by the argument. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on raising the issue, even though I may disagree with everything that he said. However, it gives us an opportunity to air some important issues.
I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) as I, too, am sad that we have reached this position, because at the end of the day it is the athletes who will suffer, which as sports Minister I regret. The whole ethos of sport is to bring people together and to ensure that we all value sport and our passion for it, whether for individual athletes or teams. Sport can and should gel us all together. We saw that in Beijing and with the merging of Olympians and Paralympians during the successful parade through London, when the whole UK celebrated their success. I do not want to lose the passion of those athletes.
It is not arrogant for the Government to say, “This is what’s going to happen.” As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, the situation has arisen because we are hosting the Olympic games in 2012. A fantastic event—the world’s leading sporting event—will be in London in 2012, and we want the whole UK to benefit, in the same way that we want it to benefit from the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014. Furthermore, during the coming decade of sport, we want to ensure that international events are held all over the UK, so that we can inspire future generations, and teach them the value of sport and what it can mean to individuals.
Those considerations, and not some narrow, nationalistic worry about the potential for the home nations to lose their identities, should be the driving force behind our decisions. I have not heard anything in this debate to suggest that the home nations will lose their identity. In fact, we have heard to the contrary, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said. We have received written assurances and minutes of meetings from FIFA stating that a Great Britain football team will not affect the individuality of the three home nations.
I know that the Minister is coming on to those assurances—we will hear them all once again—but why does he think that the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh football associations, as well as pundits, commentators and former executives of FIFA and UEFA are all against the proposal? It is not a nationalist agenda, but a footballing agenda. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, people believe that thoroughly. Why are they wrong, and the Minister right?
I am not saying that they are all wrong. They are seeking assurances that the individuality of the home nations will not be affected, which I understand and respect. It is their right to respond to the situation. However, I am concerned—that is why I intervened earlier—because there has always been, and will continue to be, a threat to that individuality, given the way that FIFA is evolving, with new nations coming in. That threat will always be there.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; in this instance, the role of the sports Minister is to ensure that the UK Olympic games are the most successful ever and to get the mass participation in sport of everybody in the UK. I assume that we all agree on the power of sport.
The argument boils down to this: the British Olympic Association, not the Government, proposed a Team GB, as was its right. We are the host nations and we can have a Great Britain football team in the men’s and women’s games and in the Paralympic games. That is our right as the host nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, it will be the biggest football occasion in this country since 1966 when we hosted the World cup. More than 2 million people attended the Beijing games. The 2012 football games will be played throughout the UK, and it would be a farce for qualification games to be played in Wales and Scotland without British participation.
That could have been the argument had it been proposed earlier, but the situation has moved on. The International Olympic Committee, which runs the games, has awarded them to London—we now have an organising committee—and has given us an opportunity that we should not turn down, for the reasons we have given.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said that he feels that football in the Olympics is devalued and not taken seriously. That is not true, judging from participation at Beijing, where leading players from Argentina and Brazil played. They believed that football had value, as do I. The Olympics are the greatest sporting event on earth, which is why a number of sports are applying to join.
The kernel of the argument is that we want assurances from FIFA, the IOC and other bodies to ensure that we do not do anything to damage the current situation. I accept that, and that is what we are trying to do. We have held meetings with Sepp Blatter and FIFA, and have correspondence stating that the proposal will not affect the individuality of the home nations. However, the home nations have not helped themselves by writing to the BOA stating that they do not think that football should be part of the Olympic games. That in itself will threaten the individuality of the home nations.
I urge caution in resolving the issues with the IOC, the BOA and FIFA. FIFA considers its sport an integral part of the Olympic games and their legacy. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, we will do everything possible to ensure that the assurances we have received are worth while.
Returning to the original point, we do not want the athletes to suffer, which is what will happen if we continue on our current course.
Will the Minister clear up a narrow, technical point? This country is committed to a GB football team in 2012. As I understand it, the BOA will invite all home nations to put forward players for that team. If any home nation feels that its independence is under threat—whether that is right or wrong—and decides, therefore, not to put forward players, will we field a GB football team in 2012 containing players only from home nation associations happy to put forward players? In other words, might the GB team consist only of English players?
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), would it help if the letters that the Minister has received from FIFA were made public so that we can see a written submission from FIFA with cast-iron guarantees that a one-off tournament will not threaten the identity of the national football associations? Can my hon. Friend envisage a compromise if the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland associations do not proceed? For example, what if no sanctions were to be taken against individual players?
That is an excellent point. We attempted just such a compromise. We said, “We understand the position of the home nations, but do not take sanctions against players who want to play,” but we could not get that assurance. We need to find a way through that intransigence. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent said, the reality is that there will be a team—the BOA, not the Government, has said that—and we want it to be as representative of the UK as possible. We will work with home associations, whose right it is to respond independently and as they want.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn was quite right about protection. The Football Association has tried to modernise our approach. I do not want to lay blame or attack individual associations, but we should consider the point raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington about the impact on the women’s game and disabled people, and on greater inclusion.
I said that it is the right of those bodies to do the things that they are doing; I just happen to think that they are wrong. As UK sports Minister, I regularly meet Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland sports Ministers. It is important that we do not allow sport to become a political football and that we listen. However, we must deal with the facts as they are, and the fact is that there will be a team in 2012. I hope that we can have a team that represents the whole UK. That would be the best way forward, but if it cannot be achieved—