Scotland could make much more of its sporting identity on international stage

The national obsession: But do we make the most of it? Alasdair Middleton, CC BY-SA

After the Scottish National Party had a bad result at the 1992 general election, deputy leader Jim Sillars famously accused the Scots of being “90-minute patriots”. His point, to paraphrase wildly, was that Scots are only lovers of their country when football internationals are taking place. The rest of the time they were too unfussed by London rule to come out for his party.

Times have changed as Scotland prepares for an independence referendum that looks set to attract a large proportion of yes voters. Sport has not featured heavily during campaigning so far, though that may well change when the Commonwealth Games comes to Glasgow in July.

Either way, Scotland’s reliance on the sports field for its sense of self is undiminished. Scotland took part in the world’s first football international with England in 1872, and remains deeply passionate about the game despite the failure to qualify for the World Cup once again.

It has a great claim to being the world home of golf, even though the Dutch and Chinese might disagree. Less open to dispute are bowls, shinty, Highland games; and of course curling, as demonstrated in Sochi earlier in the year.

The diplomatic power of sport

This points to an excellent opportunity. In 2009 Victor Cha, the former director of Asian affairs for the White House, provided one of the few inside accounts of sporting diplomacy.

He argued that sport matters because it can provide opportunities for interventions; can help countries to win friends; and can be less aloof than some forms of diplomacy.

The UN has recognised that this is not just a question of self-interest. In the 20 years between October 1993 and November 2013 the UN General Assembly passed 23 resolutions advocating a greater role for sport within international development and peacekeeping efforts.

As part of this, it designated April 6 as the official international day of sport for development and peace. When the assembly made the announcement back in August 2013, it encouraged member states to recognise the role of sport in peace-building and conflict resolution.

For these reasons, numerous countries have made international sport a high priority. One good example is Norway. The Norway Cup has taken place every year since 1972 and is one of the world’s largest football tournaments for children aged 12 to 19. There are around 30,000 participants, 52 nations, 1200 volunteers and in 2012 3800 matches across 62 pitches.

The aim of the tournament is to create bonds between children and nations – and win friends for Norway through sport. The Norwegian minister of international development has talked of the role this project plays in promoting internationalism and co-operation between Norway and for example, Brazil, Kenya and Palestine.

Norway also funds sport and development scholarships for international students to attend Norwegian universities where you can learn about sports policy, management and international development.

Chinese assistance

In the same context, China demonstrated its support for Africa in the build-up to the 2010 football world cup in South Africa by providing additional resources, knowledge and capability around infrastructure projects.

Equally the episodic cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan demonstrates how a shared common interest in cricket has from time to time helped to cool relations despite decades of bitterness.

India and Pakistan work out some of their mutual dislike on the cricket field. Senthil PrabuS, CC BY-SA

Many countries have set targets for the percentage of GDP that they are prepared to spend on overseas development assistance. Canada has set it at 0.7% and is suggesting that 1% of this money should be allocated to international development work through sport.

So what about Scotland and the UK? There is certainly some recognition of the merits of such approaches on these shores. The House of Lords report, Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, published earlier this year supports a similar line of thinking:

Sport has an almost universal appeal that crosses languages and cultural barriers, which makes it in the British Council’s eyes, ‘the most accessible and exportable of the UK’s soft powers’.

The UK has had its moments, notably the International Inspiration Programme, which invested in sports development projects in over 100 countries on the back of the 2012 Olympics. This was a laudable effort, but it happened on the back of one major sporting event. This is not in the same category as making a chunk of the international development budget permanently available to sport.

The Scottish lag

Scotland has not even got that far yet. It held a sports development conference last year in Glasgow as part of the offering it had promised in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. There are individual events that have some diplomatic merit, such as the annual Strathconna Cup where the Scots take on Canada at curling, but not much more besides.

It is hard not to conclude that the UK is relatively poor when it comes to capitalising on the soft power of sport, while Scotland is even further down the international league table. – almost in inverse proportion to the national sporting obsession.

We have much to learn from the likes of the Norwegians and the Chinese in this regard. There are also plenty of good opportunities to do something about it. Former first minister Henry McLeish is carrying out a review of Scottish sport, which needs to address such matters specifically and not simply be an inward looking set of recommendations.

At the same time, the Commonwealth Games is around the corner. This should give both sides in the referendum campaign the ideal chance to begin putting the learning of other nations into practice.

Sport is part of the art of persuasion in the modern world. We should use it to both persuade and win friends.

Grant Jarvie is speaking at the Understanding Scottish Identity conference in Edinburgh today.