I love a soccer tournament. I take childish pleasure in sticking an England flag on my car and catching the sniffly looks of some of my Hampstead neighbors as contrasted with smiles and thumbs-up signs down the road in more multiracial Hackney.
Like clockwork, each tournament sparks a debate about good or bad nationalism and the re-emergence of the English under the suffocating British canopy. But whatever happens tonight, the team’s success has taken us a step closer to normalizing that English national identity, especially in places like Hackney.
I’ve always supported English teams in all sports, even when a card-carrying progressive scared my little kids off the sofa at big games with roars of approval or disappointment. It is clear that moderate national sentiment is a force for good, fostering a shared identity and mutual commitment across classes and regions and generations, a shared home that transcends bank balance or race.
And if England are represented by a disproportionate number of young blacks in football or young South Asians in cricket, what better symbol could there be for the recent waves of immigration that are literally strengthening the national team? The inclusive civic British identification versus the exclusive ethnic English identification has always seemed an artificial dichotomy, and it is now dissolving in part thanks to the electric feats of the multi-ethnic football team.
“Many first-generation Commonwealth migrants, like my father from India, felt proud to be British, but few felt invited to become English too,” writes Sunder Katwala of the British Future Think Tank. It continued for the second and third generation. According to a survey by British Future, 77 percent of whites say English is open to all, and almost 70 percent of people from minority ethnic groups agree. Only about 10 percent of whites have a racially exclusive view of Englishness.
That’s a big change in a short amount of time. And it comes at a defining moment for England and Englishness after a narrow Brexit vote, pushed by England against the perceived interests of a majority in Scotland and both parts of Ireland (and many in England itself), reinforcing an already strong sense of the disenfranchisement north of the border.
And notwithstanding a new benevolent English sentiment at home, there remain the uncomfortable realities of demographic and historical dominance that make the mere fact of England a threat to some of the outsiders, particularly in the other nations of these islands.
As decentralization within the UK has created a new sense of English identity and interests that were once downplayed in the interest of the Union, how can the country, which represents 85 per cent of the British population, express those interests Without harming the interests of smaller nations was seldom confronted. Commentators in Ireland and Scotland often describe England as the elephant in the bed and reckon it should keep quiet, but elephants have rights too.
Values and interests do not really differ widely on these islands, but England’s decision to leave the EU against the wishes of the smaller nations, apart from Wales, has created an unprecedented challenge. It was exacerbated by the post-devolution settlement, after the Good Friday Agreement, which has called on all other nations to partially reinvent their institutions and rethink themselves, but not England.
This is why our English sports teams, especially football, carry such a burden. “Sport has to carry too much weight to project inclusive Englishness,” says John Denham, former Secretary of Labor and English scholar.
There are still no English national political institutions, not even an English national anthem. The Tories may have an Anglocentric understanding of Britishness, but despite their political dominance in England they don’t talk about it much, Labor even less. And, as Denham says, the staff of Britain’s most influential institutions – public service, academia, media – are emphasizing a British, not an English, identity.
No wonder football tournaments evoke such a burst of emotions for this nation, at once so undefined and yet so sharply real. And fortunately, the 26 young men in the England squad, along with their circumspect manager Gareth Southgate, are a worthy receptacle for those emotions.
Southgate spoke at the 2018 World Cup about how England were “a bit lost, which is their modern identity”, and this time he has penned an acclaimed “Letter to England” about how his squad, without the club cliques of the past, represents a united, tolerant Country. And one who, thanks to social media, feels closer to his fans than in the past.
It’s not just about the ethnic diversity of the English metropolis – 11 members of the squad are either black or multiracial – but also the predominantly white, working-class cities from which many key players hail.
There have been minor political skirmishes surrounding the Black Lives Matter-inspired knee destruction and Southgate’s apparent “alertness”. Some liberal commentators contrast Southgate’s humility and decency with Boris Johnson’s bombastic Brexit nationalism. Will Hutton, the former editor of the Observer, even blamed the booing of other teams’ anthems on Brexit boorishness, although this had been happening since the 1970s.
However, it is equally ludicrous to suggest that the team’s success was inspired by Brexit. It has more to do with the fact that this generation of players doesn’t bear the scars of past failures like other post-1966 generations did. This also has something to do with the quality of the Premier League, which used to squeeze out young English players but has recently seen the proportion of English players at the start rise to around 40 per cent.
Boris Johnson’s government should also benefit from an EM feel-good factor if the team fails recently. Sporting success creates intense national feelings – even more so after 18 months of pandemic restrictions and the rending divisions of Brexit – albeit rarely with lasting political impact.
For most of the English, celebrating victory or mourning defeat tonight, their England is a special but not superior place, an ‘incredible’ nation as Southgate puts it, but not a triumphant nation as our smaller neighbors still are see often. The only triumph in Hampsteaders David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s legendary “Three Lions” anthem is that of hope over experience. But when I watch her wonderful video 25 years later, I am struck by the sense of nostalgia and resignation of mid-1990s England. Doesn’t being English today and the football team feel more open and confident?
I’m just old enough to remember 1966 and 55 years of pain are burned into me. I was in Germany in 1990 watching with German friends and in 1996 at Wembley stadium the second defeat in the semi-final on penalties against Germany. I remember the absolute silence on the crowded subway car home and my fear for the safety of the same German friends who were with me.
There’s always going to be a few weirdos making headlines, and in the past we’ve had more than our share. They are a waning band. We may once have been a warrior nation, and our national history will never be straightforward. But I hope that elite England, and its progressive wing in particular, will eventually follow the lead of ethnic minority England and realize that it is now safe to come out uncompromisingly as English. Even in Hampstead.
David Goodhart works at Policy Exchange. His latest book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century is now available in Paperback (Penguin)
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2021/07/11/long-last-even-progressives-learning-embrace-english-identity/ Now even progressives should embrace an English identity