The lost tribes

The Church of England, the unions, the political parties - even our football team - have let us down

The slim red cross of St George has been making a comeback for some years now, and no one has waved it more eagerly than football fans. Given the frequency with which they end up dazed by beer, as they wrangle with the police in some faraway country, this has not always been a happy association. Much has been made of the class divisions it illuminates: St George might be essential decoration for a white van, but he would not be seen dead on a silver-grey Mercedes. There are also racial overtones: English nationalism has some sour streaks, and as an expression of national pride - even on the joshing, pantomime level of football rivalry - this sort of flag-waving remains a far-from-inclusive gesture. At least one pub chain in Birmingham has banned the emblems; London's black cabs sport them at their peril.

Perhaps the flag really can be recaptured from its more extreme standard-bearers and given a fresh coat of rejuvenating face paint. If national pride could be cheerful and good-tempered, who could possibly object? Certainly, it has been busily marketed: shops are heaving with St George's mugs, wigs, pens, banners, stickers, balloons and bunting. Given that the man himself was a mythical Turkish knight, glimpsed in visions by Christian crusaders, and merged with Arthurian and classical stories, his magical reappearance among us, after so many years secreted away in the Union Jack, is both novel and anachronistic, a radical piece of symbolism and, at a time when the national identity is both fluid and under challenge, something of a throwback.

If this call for tribal solidarity - raised by such disparate groups as the UK Independence Party (Ukip), English football fans and the BNP - strikes some as unwelcome, no one can deny that there is a vacuum waiting to be filled. Many of the old national networks, the binding agents around which society was organised, have frayed or been looted in recent decades. The various component parts of the Union flag have been separated and restitched as individual national icons by political devolution, so it is no longer politically sensitive or desirable for an English man or woman to wave the Union flag - indeed, it is rarely glimpsed outside Northern Ireland and the Olympic Games. It is possible to argue that "Britain" remains an attractive idea - a political and cultural union that makes mini-multiculturalists of us all - but more energy is going into detaching the component parts than in riveting them together. In popular culture, "Britain" grows ever more distant, a historic, public-school notion cherishable only by retired colonels and mandarins. The market is favouring more compact units of pride.

Other once-proud institutions have been dissolving, too. The Church of England and the historic trade unions have grown quiet or been modernised (now that we have so few coal miners, shipbuilders or motor manufacturers) into near-oblivion, and family ties have been stretched, as advanced communications and job mobility uproot and whirl people across both the country and the world. Even the old class divisions have been criss-crossed by bolder badges of identity connected to race, sex or religion. As a result, England itself often feels like an empty concept, almost an absence - a grey area between the more vivid nationalisms of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and elsewhere.

These may be parochial issues, but they chime with larger forces. Across the world, liberation movements or aspirant "nations" are chafing at the real or imagined strictures of modern geopolitics, and clamouring for recognition (if not power). They may be tribal in the original sense, or religious; they may be political or ethnic. In Africa, where some 5,000 tribes have been jammed by centuries of colonial rule (and misrule) into 50-plus countries, the results of this friction are horrific, and we see similar eruptions of local identity everywhere from the Middle East to the Philippines and from Spain to India.

Such uprisings are usually taken to be a local or regional reaction against the demands of globalisation, a complicated set of commercial considerations which boils down, in public discourse, to a simple sweeping mantra ("Bigger is better") that strikes many of its victims as the opposite of progress. Movements such as communitarianism are a secular attempt to create, through politics, the old neighbourly networks that withered through neglect.

In England's case, the recent eruption of anti-European sentiment, on which Ukip cleverly capitalised, has its roots in an emotional resistance to the scale, as much as the nature, of the enterprise, a sense that its elites are "faceless" and "unaccountable". Naturally, in reverting to simple nationalism, it is often forgotten that nationalism itself is a relatively recent innovation, only a few centuries old, and with a mixed record. It has inspired some dizzy achievements, but its squabbles have claimed millions of lives. The attempt to resuscitate a medieval symbol, born out of a crusading war, denies the impact of modern immigration, which insists that Britain is a place, not a race; a vibe, not a tribe.

The resistance to agglomeration may be only one of the engines driving us towards a new tribalism. Its twin is also its flip side: the culture of individualism that has detached people from their communities - whether to boost their self-esteem through the politics of self-assertion or to create a market of atomised consumers. We live in an age, it has been said, where we bowl alone. We also watch television alone, live alone, eat alone and die alone. As Julie Burchill once wrote, we have Friends instead of friends, and Neighbours instead of neighbours. iPod, we think: therefore I am. This lonely strategy has been matched by an equal-and-opposite appetite for group identity. As the old tribes dissolve - family, village, language and nation - so the dislocations of modernity promote a parallel desire to cling on to them before they disappear for ever.

Modern life also promotes a willingness to form new groups, whether they be tiny book clubs, informal networks of friends, or cults and churches. The sense of belonging, it turns out, will not go down without a fight. There is even a renewed perception, after years of me-me strutting, that groups and crowds are smarter than we think. In his new book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki reminds us what happened to the anthropologist Francis Galton in 1906. To demonstrate the stupidity of the average Briton, Galton went to a country fair and invited a sizeable crowd (787 people) to guess the weight of an ox. The result was surprising. Although no single individual guessed the weight correctly, the average guess produced a figure - 1,197lbs - just one pound short of the true weight. The crowd, in other words, was smarter than any of its members.

Surowiecki pursues this thought into other fields where groups are more intelligent than even the cleverest individuals. In so doing, he rebuts the idea that individual excellence or leadership is what counts. In one sense, his thesis chimes with free-trade economics (the market is always right), but it also confirms that democratic truths are where wisdom resides, and that we neglect this at our peril. An interesting addendum to the Galton story is that, because the average was right, all the mistaken participants could well be made to feel "disenfranchised" and excluded.

Surowiecki makes the important point that for crowd wisdom to be representative, you need a great deal of diversity in the sample: uniformity is what creates errors. It is an important qualification. Without diversity, the crowd becomes merely a mob. This is why many will be rightly fearful of what may be thrown up by the new tribal urge. Tribes, we feel, are nations without diplomacy (or even, as in the case of the soccer tribe, manners). Chief among their characteristics is an urge to settle disputes with their fists. They are exclusive and fundamentalist; they often stipulate or propose racial conformity as a condition of membership. Football fanatics might even turn out to be one of the least significant manifestations of the trend: playful, Punch-and-Judy versions of a more acrid impulse. National pride, we might easily say, goeth before a national fall. But at a time when people have overlapping loyalties, tribalism, in seeking to promote one ring to rule them all, retains the menacing silhouette of something to be feared. Who would have thought that the unprepossessing vocabulary of the me-me generation would be supplanted by a fresh burst of us-and-them?