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No truce please, we're Scottish

WHEN George Osborne turned up to present the medals after the men's Paralympic T38 400m final in London in 2012, booing rang around the stadium.

Trapped, the Chancellor stood grinning and giggling inanely at the centre of the storm. Large numbers of spectators had brought their politics to a sporting event.

Osborne did not look even slightly surprised. Here was a stadium full of disabled people, their friends and families. Here was a Chancellor cutting disability benefits wholesale, with few signs of remorse, making life hard indeed for tens of thousands of individuals, many children among them. Yet he had the brazen nerve to honour those succeeding against the odds?

The issue of sport in politics involves an old, vexed question. It is also, by no coincidence, a question that is almost meaningless. Anyone who claims that one should (or could) be kept separate from the other soon becomes caught in more tangles than a rhythmic gymnast having problems with her ribbons.

Jack McConnell - now Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale - the former first minister, doesn't see things that way. As a prime mover in securing the Commonwealth Games for Glasgow he is, not surprisingly, protective of his legacy. As a Labour peer, meanwhile, he is not exactly lacking a stake in the outcome of September's independence referendum. But he asks, in the voice of sweet reason, for a halt to campaigning in the fortnight spanning the end of July and the beginning of August.

Two questions: how could you do that, and why would you want to do that? McConnell no doubt reckons his demand will have broad appeal. Who needs to be distracted from sport by a horde of politicians stampeding towards the limelight? Who wants their country presented to the world as divided and argumentative? The focus, as the peer declared last week, should surely be on Glasgow and Scotland, not on partisans "exploiting the Games".

You could observe, first, that the determination to keep politics out of sport has had consequences that have sometimes been grisly, sometimes contradictory. Often enough it depends on what you mean by "politics". McConnell calls on both sides in the referendum campaign to observe his "truce". It is hard to doubt, though, that the prospect of Celtic Park and Hampden awash with saltires might be concentrating his mind. Innocent it might be, but that kind of broadcast imagery counts as political in 2014.

For now, polls suggest a majority of those flag-waving fans will vote No in the September referendum. Where football and rugby are concerned, that has long been the way of things. Many of those who sing Flower Of Scotland reckon themselves to be as Scottish as anyone, but politically they count, as Jim Sillars once put it, as "90-minute patriots". This year, another kind of subtext confronts Better Together's strategists: when Scottishness is displayed, Britishness seems absent.

McConnell can't do much about the flags. He would be daft - and he is not - even to try. The peer can attempt, however, to minimise the associations and connections that might be made. If he is lucky, the fluttering saltires in Glasgow might seem no more nationalistic than a show of tartan and flags for the royals. Better still, if that truce could be achieved, the peer might cajole Alex Salmond into silence for a fortnight. McConnell would deserve a medal from Labour for that achievement.

He would have deprived the Yes campaign of momentum for a crucial fortnight. He would have stilled the leading voices among his opponents. And he would have dealt, in part, with the biggest problem presented to Better Together by Glasgow's Games: the symbolism of an event that will project Scottishness, lived and imagined, to the world while the United Kingdom vanishes into the shadows. Unionists insist they are "as Scottish as anyone", enjoying "the best of both worlds". For a fortnight they will be invited to make a choice.

Nationalists of all sorts have had quick retorts for McConnell. They have recalled that Better Together sprinted from the blocks in claiming London's Olympics as a celebration of a shared British heritage. No-one then reprimanded politicians for exploiting sport, or sullying its supposed purity, for the sake of one sort of nationalism. Gordon Brown, former prime minister, used a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2012 to compare Team GB with the "pooling of resources" also evident, he said, in healthcare and defence.

It is strange in any case to claim that some sort of political cordon sanitaire can be put around sport. Vladimir Putin would no doubt be glad of one of McConnell's truces for the sake of Russia's Winter Olympics next month. A Sochi Games without irksome protests over Moscow's acquiescence in the abuse of homosexuals would be congenial to the president. But is that a reasonable attitude towards sport, politics and exploitation?

Half the planet ignored China's abysmal human rights record for the sake of the Beijing summer Games in 2008. No-one was improved morally as a consequence. In 1977, a Scottish football team played in a stadium in Santiago that had been used for mass executions by the Pinochet regime. Who is still proud now that the Scottish Football Association kept politics out of sport for the sake of what was, in black comedy, a friendly game?

These are extreme cases, no doubt. They can be trumped by examples of grand sporting events that have done vastly more good than harm. When Nelson Mandela put on a Springboks jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in South Africa, he made one of those gestures of reconciliation that would be remembered in many obituaries. But Mandela was also using sport to make an explicitly political point. No-one quibbled.

When a nation hosts one of the big tournaments, something is said about the country. That's why the rights are sought so eagerly. You might want to boast of decency, harmony and democracy. You might want to paint a bright face on a filthy regime. The idea of sport for sport's sake, if it ever counted for much, long ago became meaningless. In Glasgow's case the real political point, for or against, is that Scotland will once again host the Commonwealth Games without being a full and equal member of that commonwealth.

McConnell is disingenuous, let's say. Scottish Government ministers have argued only that it is "unrealistic" to attempt to halt proceedings so late in our political games. It would certainly be impractical. In any case, there are plenty of people, on either side, who care more about the referendum than they care about sport. For them, one Labour peer's notion of what counts as proper involves an imposition.

Still, this year we have reached the point in our affairs where even trivia can fascinate. Better Together doesn't fancy the Glasgow Games becoming a touch nationalistic and political - but isn't that customary, even obligatory, for such populist events the world over?

In this one, Scots will be competing against athletes from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, among many others. So, McConnell would be happier if no-one said anything partisan about that? Fans without allegiances: now there's a metaphor.

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