A week ago, the Sunday Times revealed Whitehall fears about Argentina using the Olympics as a platform for protest against British control of the Falkland Islands. The paper reported:
Ministers are worried about a possible demonstration by Argentine athletes similar to the one staged at the 1968 Games in Mexico City by African-American athletes at the men’s 200m medal ceremony.
Any symbolic gesture by team members would be broadcast worldwide, fuelling tensions between Britain and Argentina. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are already strained.
Since then, Christina Kirchner, the Argentinian president, has tried to reassure anxious Brits and Olympic officials by telling her athletes not to do anything “stupid”. She said:
We’re not stupid. We don’t need to use sport to stand up for our rights. We’ll defend our rights in appropriate forums, like the UN.
Well, just in case the athletes didn’t get the message, Jeremy Browne, the foreign office minister for South America, has put further pressure on the Argentinians. In an interview with the FT, he made it clear the British government would see such a protest as a serious escalation of hostilities (emphasis mine):
I hope that all the countries that participate in the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics come here and participate in the spirit with which the games are intended to exist, which is that it’s a great celebration of sport.
But it’s a great celebration of our common humanity and opportunity for people to compete on an equal footing with each other, regardless of different cultures or different political systems.
If the Argentinians were minded to use the Olympics as a platform to try and make wider political points, or to sort of air, in an inappropriate way, their disagreements with Britain, I think that would be a mistake. I think it would be regrettable.
I think they appear to realise that at a political level. I don’t think their athletes ever saw it any differently. I think they want to compete; they want to enjoy what will be the pinnacle of their athletics careers.
We are very much hoping that Argentina and everybody else enjoys the Olympics as the magnificent spectacle that it is.
Browne also had an uncompromising message for those on both sides of the coalition who have spent the last few days stressing coalition tensions in the hope of shoring up the support of their core voters. Browne is known of one of the most right-wing Lib Dems around, and is an enthusiastic backer of the coalition. He said:
There is a sort of central dynamic which pulls it apart unless the principal participants make a conscious effort to bind it.
I think the early spirit of the coalition, that two parties working together could be more than the sum of their parts, is in danger of receding. The two parties shouldn’t have too much of a sort of contractual relationship where they advertise their differences to the detriment of the government as a whole.
The reference to “contractual relationship” is obviously a shot across the bows of some in Nick Clegg’s team, who have used exactly that term to describe how they see the coalition working in the second half of the parliament.
It is also a warning to David Cameron and other senior Tories, though, who have spent the last week talking about issues that particularly matter to Conservatives, including cutting benefits, bringing back O-Levels and holding a referendum on the EU.
When asked if this was a message to the PM, Browne replied:
The danger of explaining to their own base what the party would be… is that there are quite a lot of people with very strong political preconceptions and allegiances who instinctively look to pull the coalition apart.
I think the principal figures in the coalition benefit from when the coalition has a common purpose, but also ambitious ideas of what it can achieve.