It's time to take Englishness outside of the football stadium

Englishness finds a confident voice in sport, but has little cultural or political voice. Cameron and Miliband should not remain mute.

England are on their way to Brazil. Goals from Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard meant that a spirited Poland performance could not quite conjure up those Wembley ghosts of 1973, when England’s failure to beat the Poles meant a shock failure to qualify, greeted by the Sun with a black border around the headline 'The End of the World'. Only a game, maybe, but it would be almost a decade before England were to again play in the World Cup finals again, in Spain in 1982. Something else that would surprise a time traveller from those days is how football today is the arena where English national identity is expressed with most confidence.

How unlikely that would have seemed in the 1980s, when footballing Englishness was a source of national shame. While the Dutch fans dressed in orange, and Scotland's Tartan Army partied, England's hooligan element marauded across Europe singing 'If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts'. Our club teams were banned from the continent, and normal fans were often driven away from the hassle of following England by the extreme elements and the police presence they attracted.

Football Englishness sorted itself out in that halcyon summer of Euro 96. The team did not quite end those 30 years of hurt since the 1966 World Cup, but the fans showed how we could host a party. It was a very English occasion. Wembley had been full of Union Jacks when Bobby Moore had lifted the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy in 1966. Now England had the right flag, as the St George's crosses fluttered in the breeze. (Even if we do retain the wrong anthem to this day.) Ever since, people have enjoyed flying the St George's flag - as long as there is a tournament on.

During those World Cup and European Championship summers, it springs up everywhere. Sold in supermarkets, flown on family cars, we enjoy seeing it flutter, for a fortnight or two, uniting the country in hope if not expectation - since we all know about the penalty shoot-out thing. Yet when the tournament ends, the flags go away, and are replaced by a curious and unhealthy unease about the flag of St George.

Some worry that it becomes an exclusive symbol, not the same inclusive one of our footballing summers, when it is flown outside a pub on a cold winter's night. Others are, quite reasonably, frustrated at feeling that they would like to express a perfectly normal sense of national pride, yet feel that would be frowned upon. 

Yet with our footballing patriotism, it has long been clear that the St George's flag represents the inclusive pride in the talent of our team, whose family histories tell many different stories about the making of the modern English. The latest England hero, Andros Townsend, was born in the same Leytonstone hospital as David Beckham, to parents with Jamaican and Cypriot roots - one more route to a shared pride in wearing the England shirt.

It is time for England to be more than a '90 minute nation'. Englishness finds a confident voice in sport, but has little cultural or political voice or presence beyond the football, cricket and rugby teams. A "Festival of Englishness" in London this Saturday will look at sport and national identity, but will also ask what comedy, culture and politics need to contribute to English identity today too. This extends to major cultural institutions like the National Theatre. There is a Scottish National Theatre and a Welsh National Theatre, while English theatre-goers are left without: the London institution still thinks of itself as having a British remit. 

The English question remains an enigma in the assymetric devolution settlement, put by the politicians of all parties in the 'too difficult to think about' box since the mid-1990s. But the question of England's political voice will be asked anew next year as Scotland votes on independence and, quite probably, revisits the devolution settlement within the union too. 

Paradoxically, the Scottish referendum is both further catalysing the rise of Englishness, while curiously delaying political engagement with it too. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have acknowledged the need to talk about England, yet have gone strangely mute on the subject, perhaps because they fear speaking about Englishness may make it harder for their Scottish pro-union allies ahead of next autumn.

Perhaps Scotland offers a model for the English in developing a broader sense of civic nationhood. England’s achievement last night in qualifying for their fifth successive World Cup final emulates something Scotland achieved between 1974 and 1990. Yet Scottishness then was far too dependent on footballing hubris, leading to the debacle of the 1978 World Cup, when Scotland crashed out having declared they would win it, even as Archie Gemmill’s goal against the Dutch, since immortalized in Trainspotting, suggested they were good enough to do so. During that World Cup hangover, the failure of the 1979 referendum saw devolution shelved for a generation.

It might now prove a long time before Scotland ever qualifies for a World Cup again, though they won impressively against Croatia last night. But sport matters much less in Scotland today because of the broader civic, political and cultural confidence enjoyed by the Scots since the 1990s.

We should not place too many English eggs in the sporting basket either. After the golden generation of the 1990s never quite fulfilled their promise, we have gone beyond the rollercoaster ride where England have to be either the best or worst team in the world.

England fans are glad that we have qualified. With the England team in transition, playing in the South American heat, the traditional quarter-final exit would be more respectable than disappointing. (It would be hard to do much worse than the last World Cup in Brazil, when England lost 1-0 to the United States, back in 1950.)

But we will dream a little, and then enjoy the World Cup while it lasts. We should realise too that, while it is good to express English pride and patriotism for our sporting teams, taking Englishness outside the stadium is long overdue.

"England, my England – A festival of Englishness" is hosted by British Future and the Institute for Public Policy Research on Saturday 19 October at the London College of Communication, London SE1. Tickets are £10 (£5 concessions). For more information and to buy tickets go to www.ippr.org

A young England football fan arrives ahead of the World Cup 2014 qualifying football match between England and Poland at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage