A contrast between division and national unity

England flags are put up on the Kirby Estate as residents watch the group G soccer match between England and Belgium. Photo: David Mirzoff/PA via AP
England flags are put up on the Kirby Estate as residents watch the group G soccer match between England and Belgium. Photo: David Mirzoff/PA via AP

Over the last few days in London I was particularly struck by the divisiveness of politics (currently dominated by the BREXIT debacle) and the unifying capacity of sport (on this occasion football/soccer). In the former, the “national interest” has been so easily squandered while, in the latter, there is no doubt.

Last weekend at her country retreat Chequers Prime Minister Teresa May attempted to lock her cabinet into a UK negotiating position on BREXIT. This is just over two years after the referendum vote in June 2016, and only about nine months left to the exit deadline. This was a last ditch effort to unify a divided government, but before a EU response, and what will inevitably be, ultimately, a difficult parliamentary process.

The claimed “unity” soon evaporated as BREXIT Secretary David Davis, and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, and others resigned, forcing a Cabinet reshuffle, and raising even more doubts about May’s capacity to survive. The only thing saving her and the Government is recognition that they would probably lose another election.

The whole BREXIT issue is a classic case of UK Conservatives doing themselves “gratuitous harm”. In response to internal party pressure, then PM Cameron called for an unnecessary referendum, expecting a vote to “Remain”. When the vote was lost, Cameron had to resign, Then enter May, who with some sort of “rush of blood to the head” called an early election, notionally to get at least a 100 seat majority, to put her in a very strong position to negotiate with the EU. But, the result was a minority government, and a particularly weak negotiating position.

At this point, the division is considerable and vindictive – some want another referendum, although some doubt the result would be different; others want a “soft exit” keeping some form of “open trade”; others still want a pure, hardline exit; and innumerable nuances in between. It’s a very complex exercise, with no obvious path forward.

By comparison, the young and inexperienced, England football team reaching the World Cup semi- finals for the first time since 1990, and not having won the Cup since 1966, has had an enormously unifying influence right across the UK, being seen as “inspiring “ a new generation. The mounting enthusiasm is even breaking down some traditions. For example, even the very staid Wimbledon has, for the first time, allowed mobile phones to be referenced during matches. Justin Timberlake has offered to cover the game on a big screen during his concert, so we “can watch it together”. The pubs are gearing up to serve millions and millions of additional beers.

As if this wasn’t providing sufficient “colour and movement”, the Wimbledon finals are offering the possibility of Serena Williams making a successful comeback to take the title, with the top ten Women’s seeds eliminated, and the Men’s finals still including Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. In addition, there has been the 70th anniversary of the NHS, and the centenary of the RAF, with a massive fly over of London. 

 And then there is divisive Trump. En route to a NATO meeting, and a “Summit” with Putin, and then a limited visit to the UK, mostly out of London, he makes some knowingly inflammatory off-the cuff comments, including that Britain is in “turmoil” (a deliberate shot at May), while speaking favourably of, and wanting to meet with, his “friend” Boris. London’s Lord Mayor has approved a giant “baby Trump” balloon (in a nappy) that will fly over Parliament Square during a planned protest. It’s all happening.

- John Hewson