the cricket test

Taking Guard: A Tory Yardstick For Immigrant Integration, Via Cricket

In 1990, Conservative grandee Norman Tebbit suggested immigrants could not be truly loyal to Britain without supporting the England cricket team. His comments have shown remarkable longevity, regardless of their lack of merit.

by Will Magee
07 June 2017, 5:37pm

What do we want from immigrants in Britain? Considering the way that politics has gone over the past decade or so, the answer seems to be: more than we would expect of ourselves. According to YouGov polling ahead of the general election, voters consistently rank immigration as one of the most important issues facing the country, and the evidence suggests it was one of the main factors in Britain voting to leave the European Union. The Conservative manifesto currently includes a pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, this despite evidence that immigrants make a net contribution to our economy, and the fact that the NHS, construction, tech, farming and various other sectors are heavily reliant on immigrant talent and skilled labour, all of which means it could be disastrous to fulfil such a pledge.

One might argue that the Conservatives have no intention of fulfilling their promise on net migration, having spectacularly failed to meet their targets over their last seven years in government. Still, the fact that Conservative policy makers think such a pledge would be popular among voters – an idea which is partly corroborated by polling – says a lot about the prevailing mood towards immigrants today. While it's been suggested that rapid population growth has added to the strain on the housing market and infrastructure over the past decade, it's also true that both housebuilding and infrastructure have been neglected by successive governments, and so we get to the crux of the matter. Since a financial crisis for which nobody has answered and the social malaise which has come about as a result, immigrants have so often been scapegoated where our elected representatives are responsible, blamed for everything from running down our public services to sabotaging the welfare state, overworking the education system and simultaneously failing to integrate.

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On the matter of integration, it is unclear exactly what an immigrant is meant to do to become sufficiently British. While 'British values' are often bandied about as a term by the political establishment, Brits can't seem to decide whether our values are inherently liberal or whether they include stringing up members of the judiciary. We have a citizenship test in this country which encompasses questions about the Domesday Book, the Restoration, Oliver Cromwell and William Shakespeare, British inventions, science and literature, many of which could not be answered by our most ardent nativists, or even a former prime minister for that matter.

Then there is a far cruder test of immigrant Britishness, dreamt up by a Conservative grandee towards the end of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. We are speaking, of course, about Norman Tebbit's infamous 'cricket test', a supposed measure of immigrant loyalties with an unfortunate legacy which persists to this day.

While the figure of Norman Tebbit has, for the most part, been mercifully obscured by the fog of history, he has made several interventions in contemporary politics which help to put his 'cricket test' in context. For anyone without first-hand memories of Thatcherism and his sadistic caricature on Spitting Image, this is the man who suggested that gay marriage legislation could lead to a world in which he might marry his son and where a lesbian queen could conceive by artificial insemination, the implication being that our head of state should be impregnated only via Tebbit-approved missionary position. Though Tebbit has, accordingly, faded into delirious right-wing irrelevance, his 'cricket test' has a more pervasive influence on modern Britain. Despite its total lack of merit, it remains a reference point for the debate on integration, and still says something about the way some Brits perceive immigrants, and the way immigrants believe that British people perceive them.

Tebbit at a press conference with Thatcher in 1983 // PA Images

Then still a prominent member of the Conservative Party and the MP for Chingford – a constituency in which he was succeeded by the detestable Iain Duncan Smith – Tebbit gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times in 1990 in which he addressed the issue of integration, with special attention given to the Asian community. "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test," he said. "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?" While one could charitably term this an unconstructive contribution to societal cohesion in Britain, one could also call it enormously crass. Unsurprisingly, it caused considerable controversy at the time, not that Tebbit was ever deterred from graceless social commentary by the inevitable furore which followed.

The 'cricket test' is perhaps the ultimate example of holding immigrant communities up to a higher standard than Brits, and scorning them when they fail to meet that standard. Not only was it rather parochial to suggest that British identity should be tied to the England cricket team – cricket has a limited appeal in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, after all – the reality is that there are millions of Brits who would struggle to name an England cricketer, let alone remember the result of their last ODI. Football is overwhelmingly the dominant sport in white British communities and that was certainly the case long before 1990, while rugby union and rugby league are often better supported in their regional heartlands than cricket. While many British Asians come from a sporting culture which elevates cricket above all else, Tebbit's comments were inherently selective in that they compared the British Asian community to England cricket fans, with all the inferences about class, background and locality that such a comparison entails.

Add to this the fact that most would admit that the England cricket team was cack in 1990 – they would fail to win the Ashes even once that decade, this at a time when Pakistan, India and the West Indies were intermittently the best in the world – and the idea that immigrant cricket fans should support Graham Gooch and co. in the name of some arbitrary standard of assimilation seems doubly ridiculous. Nonetheless, the premise of the 'cricket test' seems to have stuck, with first and second-generation immigrants and ethnic minorities citing it with surprising regularity. Last year, the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish community in Britain said that "in a nutshell minorities need to pass the Norman Tebbit test," while in an antithetical and extremely pertinent article in The Nation British and Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna wrote about the 'cricket test' in relation to her own complex national identity, saying: " The nature of the discussion has changed somewhat since Tebbit, but what's remarkable is how little so. We're still locked in the same debate regarding who belongs and on what terms."

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The 'cricket test' certainly plays on tensions regarding loyalty and patriotism, and with immigrants under constant scrutiny in Britain it is little wonder that Tebbit's crude criterion endures as a cause of discomfort and anxiety. The same sort of logic is present in much of our sporting culture, not least in the world of football. Take Wilfried Zaha's recent decision to represent the Ivory Coast over England, for instance, and the parochial reaction this elicited from many. It was suggested that he was "taking the easy option" by playing the country of his birth, as opposed to showing the "fight" required to make it under Gareth Southgate. The scornful tone of the criticism was indicative of our self-absorbed view of the England national team – twice champions in the Africa Cup of Nations, the Ivory Coast are more likely to win major silverware than the England team are anytime soon – but also telling in that they revealed a certain disdain for immigrants who fail to adhere to their strict new national identity, and show their loyalties to Britain above all.

The reality is that there are many people in Britain, both those who have been here for generations and those who have arrived more recently, who have a complicated national and ethnic identity. An individual's relationship with class, wealth, privilege and family is often intricate if not downright confusing, and this is not necessarily a problem until – in the manner of the 'cricket test' – someone attempts to turn one allegiance against another. Likewise, there are immigrants who take time to understand aspects of British culture, which is understandable considering that Brits themselves diverge wildly on the meaning of 'British values'. They are still confronted with intense pressure to show their efforts to integrate, much in the manner of the 'cricket test'. So, to use another sporting example, erstwhile Watford manager Walter Mazzarri was labelled "an insult to the Premier League" for failing to learn English during his time at the club, regardless of the fact that most Brits would struggle to learn fluent Italian over the course of the football season.

In a broad reflection of the complex national affinities which run through British society at this point, there are footballers at all levels of the English league pyramid who – despite having been born in Britain – represent the country of their family's origin on the international stage. In a decisive blow to Tebbit's attempt to define British identity, there have been numerous cricketers who have played for the England team who hold mixed loyalties to other countries, while Kevin Pietersen, born in Pietermaritzburg, even considered switching his allegiances back to South Africa after he was sacked by England in 2014. What is an England cricketer in the modern day, then? Well, often an immigrant, and one who might not even pass Tebbit's 'cricket test'. That complicates even his supposedly straightforward criterion, and makes it seem even more obsolete.

In criticising sportsmen and women for picking one country over another at international level, or football managers for failing to learn English at the requisite pace, we are essentially applying our own arbitrary standards of integration to people whose loyalties we are unfamiliar with. Just as Tebbit barrelled into the British Asian community with no heed to the complexities of nationality, identity and indeed sports culture, so too are sportspeople often bowled over by some shallow judgement of whether or not they are doing Britishness properly. Just as the 'cricket test' was an unhelpful social intervention on the part of an overbearing Conservative politician, so too are our judgements of identity in sport often deeply reductive. The same could be said of the national discourse on immigration, which now seems focused on a futile attempt to measure and conserve Britishness, as opposed to recognising that Britishness is a mutable, disparate and sometimes even contradictory idea.

@W_F_Magee