GLASGOW, UK – The Commonwealth Games have started and I am here in a surprisingly warm and gorgeous Glasgow for the Opening Ceremony.
After London 2012 the pressure is on for Scotland: 6500 athletes from 53 countries, 71 if you include other territories, competing in 17 sports over 11 days as part of one massive celebration of the shared history, friendship and future vision of the Commonwealth.
Watched by nearly 40,000 in the stadium and an estimated one billion on television, the opening ceremony was delightful, if not a little messy and a touch clichéd. It attempted to showcase all Scotland has to offer from kilts and Ceilidhs to tartan and tires via the Loch Ness monster and John Barrowman sticking a metaphorical two fingers up at the forty-two Commonwealth nations where homosexuality is still criminalised by planting a kiss on the mouth of his male “bride” at a fictional Gretna Green, a message I missed from the stadium heights but that has, rightly, stolen the Games’ headlines since.
Scotland’s achievements flashed up for the world to see on Europe’s largest LED screen; for such a small country, quashed by the unrelenting English freedom-deniers, Scotland has produced some brilliant inventions including the telephone, the television and Tunnock’s teacakes, although I am not entirely sure how they support claims to have “invented” economics, horse power or, indeed, the planet Neptune.
Performances by Rod Stewart, Amy MacDonald and Susan Boyle were followed by the entrance and seating of the athletes, a process that overran by 45 minutes due to a series of selfies and probably caused rather a headache for those in charge of the country-by-country seating plan.
The politics of sport are as interesting as ever: a veritable sea of Australians; just two athletes from Brunei Darussalam, a country that may soon start stoning gay men to death; beautiful turbans from the Indian team; an impressively-sized delegation (who received an almighty cheer) from the Falklands and, if I’m honest, a few countries I hadn’t actually heard of (Nauru? Niue? Norfolk Island?) coming together to take part.
Unlike with most international sporting events, the host country of the Commonwealth Games is able to choose seven of the 17 sports to run alongside the ten core sports; amusingly, Scotland has chosen to include the caber toss, a traditional athletic event where competitors toss a large tapered wooden pole. It seems that for the first time Alex Salmond will have competition to be the greatest “tosser” in the land.
The greatest cheer of the evening was, of course for Her Majesty the Queen. For a country that has been heckling for independence to the point it may well choose to break away come September, there was a heartwarming display of love for our Queen as the 40,000 seater stadium rose to its feet to salute the entrance of the head of the Commonwealth.
The Queen’s Baton was presented and it’s message read, having travelled across seven continents for 288 days, covering 118,000 miles on its journey to the Celtic Park stadium in one of Glasgow’s less glamorous neighbourhoods. As always, the Queen thanked all and wished the athletes luck, calling on them to “strengthen the bonds that unite us” for over half of the citizens of the Commonwealth are under 25 years of age; quite a cross for the young to carry but an important and inspiring message nonetheless.
Given its roots in the empire, the monarchy and colonialism – red rags to the bulls of the British Left – the celebration of the Commonwealth is a surprisingly non-controversial issue in British politics. That said, our links to these countries with which we share much in terms of history, culture, language, law, values and ambitions, are often ignored in favour of political union with the rest of Europe – with which we share far less.
This morning, the International Monetary Fund has raised its forecast for Britain’s economic growth rate for the second time this year. India remains the only big emerging economy to maintain its high growth target. Australia’s economy grows and is set to surge following PM Tony Abbott’s repeal of Australia’s “useless, destructive” Carbon Tax, not to mention their huge mineral resources and those of other Commonwealth countries including Canada. Meanwhile, forecasts for Italy and France were cut and EU wide growth is anaemic at best, supported by the stronger economies of Britain and Germany.
Economics aside, the Commonwealth remains popular with its citizens in a way that the EU does not; far from the murky corridors of Brussels that disregard democracy, demand ever more in taxes and dismiss the desires of member states – whether they be to retain their freedoms or their fishing stocks – the Commonwealth is a fine example of the voluntary union of likeminded countries to share their histories and their future.
Yes, it is not perfect, as the hateful, homophobic legislations of Brunei Darussalam, Uganda and Cameroon exhibit all too clearly, and perhaps there should be mechanisms by which we can expel member states whose regimes contradict so thoroughly our values, but it is a far more natural grouping of nations than the EU and one that should be fostered and treasured by the British government.
If we break free of the EU, we will have the power once again to write our own laws and our own trade agreements. We will be free to change our immigration laws from those that currently discriminate against people from countries whose history and values we share in favour of those with whom we share very little, and we would be free to build stronger trading relationships with the economies of today and tomorrow, not the past century, without the shackles of the EU preventing us from doing so.
The Queen’s message at this, the 20th Commonwealth Games, was simple; young people make up half of the Commonwealth and it is to them that we entrust our values and our future. So, let us build this future with our friends and our family of the Commonwealth and entrust our future to them, not to the floundering European Union, the values of which – of higher taxes and shrinking democracy – we share so very little.