Thursday 17 June 2010

Can England be more than a 90 minute nation?

England is the only one of the 32 nations playing football in South Africa without a state to its name. Few did more for international football than the English, and now it is football which returns the favour by doing more than anything else to provide an occasion for the expression of English identity.

Yet James MacIntyre of the New Statesman wishes to flag us offside, withholding his support until Britain take the World Cup field. His abolition of our footballing nation isn't going to happen, of course, primarily for the simple reason that very few people in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would want it. FIFA have little reason to demand an end to this long-standing accomodation of the "home nations" who did so much to spread the modern game.

And the English presence at the World Cup could, in fact, help to clear up and explode two common misperceptions in our debates about identity, both English and British.

Some believers in Britishness fear that any expression of English, Scottish or Welsh identity must inevitably threaten to eclipse and end it. It is a view mirrored by hopeful English patriots who believe that the growing saience of a "true" national identity must ultimately ursurp and dissolve an ersatz British construct whose time has passed. Our World Cup patriotism could help us to realise that both of these either/or propositions are false, as long as we continue to want them to be so.

MacIntyre's objection is rooted in an imagined threat to the Union, along with a fear of a retreat to the "racial brand" of Britain's blood nations.

Yet the demand that Football Unionism would make us more securely British is daft. The Union has somehow managed to survive the century and a half since England played Scotland in the first ever international football match in 1872, the golden age of Welsh rugby and so much else in our separate, linked and shared British sporting histories. MacIntyre proposes to abolish (all?) of this, bringing uniformity in the name of "300 years of cultural integration". Does he really cheer for our British athletes at the Olympics, then refuse to do so when some of them don English colours at the Commonwealth Games? Will he watch Rugby League internationals and boycott Rugby Union? Our sporting identities are plural, overlapping and context-specific. We have an England and Wales cricket board. Ulstermen support the all-Irish Rugby Union team, and UKIP supporters in the golf clubs probably don't complain too much about the loss of sovereignty when Europe takes on the United States in the Ryder Cup. I support England but, in club football, I am happy to extend the "anybody but Chelsea" principle to Bayern Munich as well as Barcelona.

Norman Tebbit never extended his "cricket test", aimed at those descended from the South Asian sub-continent, to other ball games precisely because insisting that sporting allegiance must map citizenship would have provided a Tory argument for the break-up of the Union, while insisting always on British assimilation on the sporting field would present a threat to, rather than a glue for, our shared, multinational civic identity.

The broader lesson is that to seek to suppress English identity in Britain's name is both wrong-headed and self-defeating for the cause of sustaining consent and allegiance to Britain and British identity. Yet that would appear to have been the thinking in Downing Street, under Gordon Brown, in getting cold feet about the idea of the government encouraging local St George's Day celebrations, as revealed by John Denham in his Fabian speech last week.

But nor does the enthusiastic growth in cultural Englishness, at the World Cup or elsewhere, herald the inevitable death of a Britishness, which is inherently plural and so has always been a "both/and" identity. Those who believe that we can't (now) go on like this must similarly find it difficult to explain why we have managed to do so for so long. British citizenship and identity can contain meaning, and emotional resonance too even as swathes of Brits cheer on England, and others - including some of the Scots, Welsh and sections of the New Statesman readership - happily fail any "football test" of their patriotism.

As I have argued previously, the contest for English identity will include both pro and anti-Union strands, just as the expression of Scottish identity post-devolution has done.

Greater space for the expression of English identity is now both a anti-Union project to forge a post-British English identity, but also surely a pro-Union project to show that Englishness is not suppressed as one of the varieties of Britishness

A British unionism which insists it has no room for any English, Scottish or Welsh expression of identity will surely fail.


The claim is also that supporting England is a threat to our multi-ethnic nation. MacIntyre writes that:

"Englishness is ultimately, alas, a racial brand. Britishness, on the other hand, is cultural".

Why? Yes, Britishness is the civic identity and citizenship of a multinational state. But who says English is racially defined? Our prominent national symbols now surely prove the opposite.

We have had - and won - this argument in football, since Viv Anderson turned out for the national team in 1978. The NF and English supporters of the BNP have no national team to cheer for. They tried to hang on long after their time was up, but there was an evident absurdity in their chanting "one-nil" in the Maracana in 1984 as John Barnes' brilliant, mazy dribble gave England a two-goal victory over Brazil. Once there are mixed race and black players routinely all over the pitch, racists have no way to keep the purist score. "The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people", as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, yet the fantasy all-white England has no place in this tournament: only the real, multi-ethnic England can play.

Our civic Britishness may have the advantage of being inherently plural, but each European nation has had to develop a civic patriotism too. Le Pen gambled and lost when questioning the patriotism of the French team in 1998. Look at the team carrying Germany's hopes this year too. The Scots carefully developed a civic patriotism, which could include new Scots and old, in the early 1990s. So it is with England. As Gary Younge set out in the New Statesman, why he can now cheer for England, one would hope that white Guardianista liberals would get over their instinctive fear of any patriotic expression at all, or at least not attribute their unwillingness to do so to race.

I'm English and British, because I was born and bred here. I want to stay British too. But if we lose that argument, and ever get to the day when they are handing out English passports instead, I have no doubt about my entitlement to one. Any English project which denied that would prove entirely stillborn. There is nowhere to send me, and millions of others, "back to". Nor do Glasweigan-born Asian Scots face any existential threat from Alec Salmond's hopes of an independent nation.

Yes, "Black English" is an unfamiliar term, compared to "black British". That we were slow to pluralise the idea of the English perhaps largely reflects that new Commonwealth immigrants, like the British/English themselves, tended to forget there was a difference and conflate the two in the immediate post-war decades, when any distinctive English dimension was largely absent.

But if we do not often use the word (yet), we certainly have the thing itself. That's why you see the St George's Flag on the people carriers of British Asian families with 2.2 children, and Dizzee Rascal appropriating the flag of St George to top the pop charts. And so those who want to escape or retreat from mongrel Britishness to a pure, white England will be sorely disappointed once that conversation begins. An independent England would be a multi-ethnic one from day one. 98% of Britain's ethnic diversity is to be found in England, though the plurality of Englishnesses - in terms of class, regional, urban/rural identites and so much else - extends far beyond race. A cultural return of Englishness will reflect the wide range of varieties of Englishness too.


The question now be what presence Englishness should have outside of our football summers (qualifying permitting). Does England want to be more than a 90 minute nation?

This is itself a major and welcome shift. Football was a source of national embarrassment in the hooligan era. Yet, in 1996, football's return home saw England find a way to join the carnival instead. Today, as the St George's Flag flutters from the car windows there is also a sense that the traditional tabloid rollercoaster, where England must always be either the best or worst team in the world, has given way to an enjoyment of the tournament without quite believing we will win the penalty shoot-out at the end.

Perhaps here we have, whisper it, learnt from the Scots. Modern Scottish identity surely hit its nadir with the farcical hubris of Ally McLeod's promise to win the 1978 World Cup - the humiliation not erased by Archie Gemmill's wondergoal against the Dutch, later immortalised in the Trainspotting film. When the subsequent devolution referendum fell short of the votes required, Scots intellectuals bemoaned the shortcomings of a nation of "90 minute patriots".

But Scotland developed a healthier relationship with both football and politics. The Tartan Army developed what David Goldblatt calls "a carnivalesque caricature of Scottish identity" in which the craic mattered as much, perhaps more, than the result. Post-devolution, Scotland has an occasional presence on the footballing stage, but it no longer places the whole burden of carrying a national psyche on its footballers.

What the English want remains unclear. If we do wish to be more than a 90 minute nation, we will have to work out how and where to have that conversation. But, first, let's watch the football.


One very rarely hears calls for a British World Cup team now. That partly reflects the rise of English cultural identity. Perhaps as important is the diminishing of Celtic footballing talent, as MacIntyre notes.

How different it was in the mid-1980s, and when I recall that both the Daily Mail and Shoot! magazine used to regularly discuss the proposition of a British World Cup team, and when one could easily pick a balanced team.

How about ...

Southall (Wales);

Stevens (Eng), Ratcliffe (Wal), Hansen (Scot); Sansom (Eng),

Strachan (Scot); Robson (Eng); Souness (Scot); Whiteside (N.I)

Dalglish (Scot); Rush (Wales).

A hell of a squad and subs bench could include Shilton (Eng), Jennings (NI), Donaghy (NI), Gough (Scotland), Van Den Hauwe (Wales), Butcher (Eng), Hoddle (Eng), Wilkins (Eng), McIlroy (NI), Barnes (England), Hughes (Wales), Lineker (England).

How would that lot have fared against Maradona's Argentina in 1986?


Wyrdtimes said...

Can England be more than a 90 minute nation?

It can. But only if the English demand and are given more recognition than just in sport.

England is the only one of the 32 nations playing football in South Africa without a state to its name. The only one without a parliament. The only one without a national day. The only one without a national anthem.

You've done a good job of demolishing James MacIntyre's pathetic article. But you're still missing what's really happening in England. There is a massive upsurge in Englishness and it's not all to do with football.

"Some believers in Britishness fear that any expression of English, Scottish or Welsh identity must inevitably threaten to eclipse and end it. "

Some believers in "Britishness" like Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and 95% of the Labour party believe specifically that English identity is a threat to the Union while Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities are to be encouraged. This is the mindset that really threatens your Union. While the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were extensively consulted on the establishment of devolved government the English have been ignored. Worse than ignored we've had to watch our proud historic nation being balkanised into "regions" without consultation or consent.

It's the same mind set that lead to post devolution Britishness lessons. But because Education is a devolved matter the UK parliament can only make Britishness lessons happen in England. Post devolution it's only the English that have to consider themselves British.

Despite the virtual wall of silence on English political matters from the Brit establishment media. Most English people are now at least dimly aware that our neighbours are getting a much better deal from the British government than they are. English families (mine included) are discovering this raw deal the hard way. My mother for instance, having worked hard all her life is now in the position where she has to sell the home she and my father worked so hard, for to pay for nursing care. If we were Scottish, this wouldn't be happening. When I had earache earlier this week and needed a couple of prescriptions I had to pay £14.40 for them - but I know, and now everyone else in the pharmacy at the same time knows that in Scotland it would have been £6 and free in Wales.

Wyrdtimes said...

There's a very long list of areas where the English suffer a Britishness tax. Student tuition fees, dental check-ups, eye tests, school meals, road and bridge tolls even access to life saving drugs. The English are waking up to this.

Like I said, the media is doing it's utmost to keep the above under wraps. And most MPs representing English constituencies are also doing the bit for Britishness by refusing to argue for fair funding and fair services for their English constituents. Unsurprisingly, members of the UK parliament, put the UK first. Even when that means the people voted them in get worse services as a result.

"But nor does the enthusiastic growth in cultural Englishness, at the World Cup or elsewhere, herald the inevitable death of a Britishness"

This is true. What threatens Britishness is the lack of equality in the UK. More an more English people are waking up and realising that things are just not fair. And if there's anything we English like it's fair play.

"Yes, "Black English" is an unfamiliar term, compared to "black British". That we were slow to pluralise the idea of the English perhaps largely reflects that new Commonwealth immigrants, like the British/English themselves, tended to forget there was a difference and conflate the two in the immediate post-war decades, when any distinctive English dimension was largely absent. "

The British government fears above all else the rise of the English identity. That's why there has been no English check box on census forms and other official documentation. I understand that the next census will finally have an option for English, but I read somewhere that it will have no option for Black English or Asian English, or Chinese English. The British government wants immigrants to identify with Britishness rather than Englishness. But like you say the vast majority of immigrants have been into England. as far as I'm concerned that makes them English. The best possible thing that could happen for race relations in England is for immigrants to demand their rights to be English. Which also involves not demanding or expecting any special priviledges and respecting the primacy of English law and freedom of speech and expression.

"What the English want remains unclear. If we do wish to be more than a 90 minute nation, we will have to work out how and where to have that conversation. But, first, let's watch the football."

It remains unclear because the British establishment (left, right and centre) refuses to ask the English question. In the same way we won't be consulted on membership of the EU, they don't want to ask the English question because they fear the people will give the "wrong" answer, in this case that would be demanding equal funding, recognition and representation.

The most resent survey asking about an English parliament returned a result of 69% in favour. And similar surveys consistently return results above 40% in favour. And this is the situation without any public debate.

Wyrdtimes said...

On the rare occasion when an English parliament does get mentioned we get the same old arguments against it. It would create two classes of MP (Gordon Brown's favourite). Ignoring the fact that devolution has already created four classes of MP. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs unable to vote on devolved issues in their own countries but able to vote on English only issues. It would cost a fortune - I'd argue that it would save a fortune. The oppositions best argument is that an EP It would create another tier of politicians - and the public don't want more politicians. The truth is an EP doesn't require any more politicians - just different politicians. With the English parliament restored - Westminster becomes redundant and it's this - the vested interests of the British establishment that really stops them asking the English questions.

Unlike the author of this piece I do not feel any sense of dual identity. I'm English and only English. I believe an independent England lead to a better standard of living for everyone in England. We'd also get on much better with our neighbours and best of all we could say goodbye to the big Britisher delusions of grandeur that keep involving us in wars.

Home rule for England.

13eastie said...

Re. "England is the only one of the 32 nations playing football in South Africa without a state to its name."

No it isn't.

"Korea DPR" continues to insist it is representing the entire peninsula. This is arguably even less truthful than for the flag-hoisting residents of Downing St to claim England to be representing the entire UK. (Confusingly, and perhaps reasonably given recent performances, I don't doubt it would be easy to find plenty of folk in Parkhead pubs happy for the Pyongyang contingent to fly the soccer saltire this year, but that is the subject of a different discussion).

The is no treaty in existence that recognises "Korea DPR", which is, in fact, nothing more than a figment of Mr Blatter's imagination, designed to accommodate the hopeless denial and delusion of a communist pariah and the un-sporting refusal of the DPRK (itself un-recognised by one member of the UN Security Council) to acknowledge the existence of one of its potential WC opponents (and one who happens also to be one of its only two land neighbours).

It goes to show how artificial senses of national identity are. And how easily manipulated they can be when the politics require it.

The surge in English identity is similarly artificial - a probable function initially of Skinner and Badiel as much as a symptom of Labour's pointless devolution latterly. Certainly it was far harder to find in 1982.

[As an aside, and for what it's worth, the Scotch 'craic' you vaunt, once a joy to share, has been much on the wane at Calcutta Cup games over the last two decades, based subjectively on my near-continuous attendance during this time. What is for sure is that the Scots have certainly not developed a relationship with either politics or football (of any code) 'healthy' enough for the bars to re-open at Murrayfield!]

Nations are made of individuals. Nationality is already 'plural' to the extent of the measured population.

If someone wants to call themselves 'Black-English' let them. If they prefer not to, or chose something else, who cares?

Where the hell is the evidence that the 'refinement' of nationality on the grounds of race adds value?

Might it be permissible for someone here to have and claim a sense of nationality and belonging without immediately subverting it on racial grounds?

I have a British passport. I've lived on every non-polar continent.

I'm one of a (thankfully now dwindling) number of people whose birth certificate states his (very unscientifically determined) race. I know of no-one to whom such a document has been issued who takes either pride or solace in its implications.

I've never seen racial categorisation as conducive to national unity or self-confidence. Evidence to the contrary is too numerous to need to mention.

People should be aghast at the Fabian requirement for everyone to have a category to which to subscribe, and for no-one to have any non-racial facet to their existence - and even if they are not, they should recognise that the silly and futile descriptions on offer are never either relevant or precise enough to be of use, and they never could be.

"And why do you call yourselves white, Your Honour; you are more pink than white."

I've always been tempted to ask for the folks at the town-hall to draw me a Venn diagram of the set including 'White British' and 'Irish British' before sending me any more of New Labour's silly forms. No wonder we have so many Jedi knights nowadays...

If you see someone wave your flag, why on earth the need to pigeon-hole them?

P.S. Re."England must always be either the best or worst team in the world", I expect tomorrows papers will be unequivocal in this regard!

Sunder Katwala said...

Thank you. The North Korea/South Korea point is interesting, and I have no time for Sepp Blatter. But I don't think the North Korean delusion really overturns that point. I do feel for the North Korean fans, trying to fill in their World Cup wallcharts, if the state newspaper is suggesting there is one group with three teams, perhaps there would only be three quarter-finals, etc.

I take the point about Murrayfield, though I think it is clear that Scotland's relationship with (association!) football and nationhood by 1998 and 2008 was healthier than in 1978-79. I enjoy Flower of Scotland, but ...

The "black British" point and the absence of "black English" from public discourse is not intended as a demand for hyphenated identities or any official categorisation, though I can see how it could be read as that. Just that if we talk more about England, its authenticity will depend on representing England now and who the English now are, so it will need to encompass the identities of our cities, as well as rural areas, and combine traditional and modern expressions of Englishness. (A fault of New Labour was that, in 1996-97 it was sometimes good at broadening the sense of who was included in the nation to bring in those Tebbit seemed to reject, and its critics may not realise that this was important at the time, yet it also seemed to think it needed to reject those with an attachment to tradition or history to do so in the name of perennial New-ness. Which is one way to end up with the Millennium Dome, I guess).

Some effort was made in the early 90s to make clear that "Scottish" included Asian Scots, and it was essential for the SNP and also softer devolutionist projects to be clear that this was a civic patriotism/nationalism. That wasn't so clear (perhaps outside football and cricket) for England and Englishness. This sets up the claim that the civic and plural British identity is not racially defined, but somehow the other is a "blood nation". In 2010, this is nonsense. In the mid-1990s, I remember some Asian/black British writers arguing that, but one mostly know hears this from a particular strand of white liberal commentators in the Guardian, Independent or New Statesman.

MacIntyre in making this point is saying "I can't support (racist) England and Englishness because it excludes you". If I say "bollocks, it doesn't", he is (inadvertently) saying to me (and Rio Ferdinand, Dizzee Rascal, commentators like Gary Younge who are saying 'this used to feel exclusive but it doesn't now' and the 11 year old kid with the shirt and sticker album, and millions of others), 'you are making a mistake if you think you can be part of this: the far right are right after all, England is white: stop making yourselves look silly by legitimising racism'. And I'd like to help get the well-meaning liberals out of that absurd position, of accidentally endorsing the far right on a supposedly anti-racist ticket, and being massively behind where most people got to when it came to England and football - without thinking so much about it - at least 15-20 years ago.

Sunder Katwala said...

Also, "white Irish" doesn't help those of us who are mixed race and non-white Irish!

Peter Haydon said...

A very well-written post. Leaving the football aside, at least until I suffer in front of the TV on Sunday, I believe you identify a very important weakness about this nation.

We have not been very good at accepting immigration, and I don't mean that in the sense that we have done beastly things to immigrants. You say that someone born and bred in England has to be English. I agree with that, for what else can they be? Yet do all those who are born here of immigrant stock press that point? I don't think so, and if I see someone of Asian or African appearance, does the word English leap to my lips? I confess it does not, but I do believe that later generations than mine have more sense than me.

Although a fairly right-wing person, it is obvious to me that there never was an English race, the idea is absurd. But there is an English nation, with or without political structures, and it consists of those who sprang from its soil and grew here, an accident of birth like every other nationality. English sports teams give us a harmless focus on nationality, and a way to express it without killing anyone; you are right to demolish the fool Macintyre.

Will there be a 'Mind your own fricking business' checkbox on the census form?

Sunder Katwala said...

The Old Man,

Thank you for your comment. The inter-generational point is interesting. My feeling is these were quite sharply contested and agonised over arguments and personal journeys 25 years ago in the mid-80s, and now less so. (I can see why some would have felt threatened by a rise of England and Englishness then, but much less now). So perhaps sometimes what we don't notice is that part of this is also the everyday story of gradual, successful integration which we do see in all the paraphenalia around the football, though it is of course the tensions and flashpoints which catch the headlines.

Dandelion said...

Very interesting read.

It's hard to believe that anyone would argue for suppressing anyone's identity in this country.

Also, I don't think the English actually did conflate Englishness/Britishness back in the day. Any more than New Zealand people ever confused New Zealand with Australia. That's something other countries did. In the case of Britain, a lot of people from countries who did conflate the two then emigrated to here, and brought their conflation with them. Which is fine, but it wasn't always thus, and I think people without a living-memory-immigrant-heritage are and always have been perfectly clear about the distinctions and overlap between British and English.

Dandelion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for the best article I've read so far on this issue. I'm a black comic and I've been writing my Edinburgh show - "Kiss The Badge, Fly The Flag!" - on my misgivings on wearing the shirt and displaying the St George flag. What I've found over the last six months is that there is something of a cultural change, especially for the second/third generation of ethnic minorities, to these symbols of Englishness. In May we had scare stories about the banning of the England shirt and the flag in The Sun and The Express - which eventually turned out to be groundless. In April we had the BNP and EDL battling with anti-fascist organisations and the main political parties for ownership of the flag. Then during the world cup we had Umbro's Anthem advert and Dizzie Rascal's number one hit re-defining 'Englishness' in a way that reflected what was happening on the streets. Namely, that some ethnic minorities were now happy to wear the shirt and fly the flag - I even wore the shirt for the first time.
However, I've read loads of racist comments on various websites in reaction to the Anthem, Dizzie Rascal's single and Ashley Cole's recent reported comments on 'hating' England.
So I would say that at the moment we are a 90 minute and one day (St George's Day) nation, but after every Euro or World Cup tournament there is a hangover effect and the flag and shirt are adopted by more people. Whether this will happen after this year's adject display is another matter. But I don't think that its a bad thing that it takes football to this as the England squad make-up shows its more of a meritocracy than the country itself. I couldn't become Prime Minister - I didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge - but I could have played for England. And despite Macintyre's Guardianistic snobbery, when I'm aboard (and I include Scotland) I'm defined as Black English - although not always in that order or using that terminology.
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