Testing the Tebbit Test

by Harry on April 16, 2021

You can still listen to Testing the Tebbit Test on BBC Radio 4 Extra in which Rajan Datar documents how many English people with ancestors who migrated from Asia, and maybe even from the Caribbean find the test deeply hurtful and offensive. This response is entirely apt — Tebbit must have known that it was hurtful and offensive, indeed that seems to have been the point.

I used to be flippant about the Tebbit test. It goes against the Englishness I was raised into. When I started watching cricket seriously, in 1974, India and Pakistan were the underdogs. I supported them against England, and, however naïve it sounds now, I assumed that everyone else in England did too. Supporting the underdog is what English people do (unless, possibly, the underdog is Australia, a contingency that hasn’t really arisen during my cricket-loving life). Quite independently I was taught that authentic celebration and enjoyment of the other side’s performance is intrinsic to both Englishness and the spirit of cricket. So, even in the cases, increasingly common as I grew older, in which England was the underdog and it was, therefore, consistent with my national identity to support England, that support had to be quite unenthusiastic.

In 1976 England’s captain Tony Grieg threw another consideration into the mix. I don’t believe Grieg was racist, or even bad (and, in retrospect, the Packer revolution was great for the sport), but when he said of the West Indies, in an accent which, at that point, I’d only ever heard from supporters of apartheid, that “we’re going to make them grovel”, he made it impossible to want England to win. Throughout the subsequent decade or so in which that extraordinary West Indies team dominated world cricket, I could never support England, even as underdogs, against them and, again, I didn’t see how any self-respecting English person could. (My dad took me to the day of the Oval test in which Richards made that magnificent double century, and cheered every boundary with delight). Yes, I longed for England to play well; but every WI victory was a small poke in the eye for the racists. Again, naïve it may have been, but racism, to me, seemed not only wicked, but also a betrayal of the kind of Englishness I’d been raised to.

The Tebbit test, then, seemed to condemn English people of Pakistani and Indian origin for behaving in exactly the way that any other self-respecting English person, wherever their ancestors came, from would (even if too few did). It was incoherent.

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