The Commonwealth arose out of the old British empire. Countries that were once ruled by Britain are now, mostly, independent, but the Commonwealth acknowledges that there have been close ties and that ties remain to a greater or lesser extent.
The Commonwealth Games are held every four years, two years away from the Olympic Games. There are fewer sports than for the Olympics and some seemingly random additional sports are thrown in for good measure – squash and lawn bowls, for instance.
The other quirk of the Commonwealth Games from Great Britain’s perspective is that there’s no Team GB. Instead, there’s Team England, Team Scotland, Team Wales, Team Northern Ireland, Team Isle of Man… You get the idea.
In July/August this year, the Commonwealth Games were held in Glasgow and the stage was set for Scotland to present itself – across the Commonwealth and across any other part of the world watching the games – as a country in its own right.
I have a strong suspicion that Alex Salmond had at least half an eye to the timing of the Commonwealth Games when considering when the Scottish Referendum should be held. I assume David Cameron and his advisers hadn’t made the connection.
As I’ve said in another blog entry, there’s nothing like a successful sporting event to generate strong emotions; they can carry a country for months. And the Glasgow games were successful and they provided a focal point and opportunity to express Scottish identity in a way that little else could have done.
I watched the first night of the athletics from Hampden Park (usually the home of the Scottish national football team) and it was clear within minutes that there was a cauldron of emotion, ready to support and shout for Scotland. Sitting at home in London, it was clear that the Scottish Referendum was – therefore – now going to be far tighter than many people had expected.
If you’re in any doubt of this, remember the belief in the country engendered by the 2012 London Olympics: there was a vehicle to celebrate winners and crown “our” new heroes and stars. Translate that to Scotland in the run-up to the Referendum vote.….
Now, I’m certainly not saying that this was a key factor in the Referendum or even in the opinion polls that showed a strong surge of support for the Yes vote during September. What I am saying is that the Scottish-specific focus of the Glasgow games, the national pride and the national support helped to stoke the emotion – the heart over the head – that many commentators observed as a feature of the Yes campaign.
And if we are heading for a referendum on whether the UK (as we still are) should remain in or leave the European Union, what sporting event could possibly help or hinder one side or the other in that debate?