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England rising

How the World Cup and Gareth Southgate’s young, diverse team reawakened a sense of progressive English nationalism.

As England prepare for a World Cup quarter-final in Samara in south-west Russia, the cross of St George is ubiquitous once more and even the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has agreed to fly it over Downing Street on match days. Football is one of the primary means by which we express our national identity. Deep skeins of national pride run through and are reflected in the team. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote.

So, a World Cup summer, when there is a heightened sense of English self-consciousness, also offers an opportunity to ask what it means to be English in the age of Brexit. Englishness is a contested identity, too often associated with reaction and an ineradicable sense of loss or denied altogether by ultra-liberals enraptured by multiculturalism.

English politicians have traditionally been wary of promoting Englishness for fear of the demons that may be unleashed. In his new book English Nationalism, the historian Jeremy Black argues that an intellectual elite has failed to “confront the issue that England exists, and that its role and character are being pushed to the fore as the stability of the United Kingdom comes under increasing pressure”.

England certainly exists and is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) existing nations. England grew out of the ancient kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria and, in the 10th century, Athelstan, king of the West Saxons, began using the new title of “Rex Anglorum”: “King of the English”. “Since Anglo-Saxon times England has generally had strong central government and effective administration; it has never fragmented into warring regions,” Robert Tombs, author of The English and their History, has written.

Following the Act of Union of 1707, the English have been encouraged to see themselves first and foremost as British: England and Britain were coterminous or considered to be interchangeable, by the English at least. But that is changing. For we are witnessing a reawakening of English national self-consciousness, partly as a consequence of Brexit, which has been called an “English revolt”; partly because of the confidence and assertiveness of Scottish nationalism but also because the once unitary British state itself is fragmenting.

The rise of nationalism in Scotland and England is in large part a reaction to the unitary British state that became dominant after the two world wars – the failure of movements for home rule, and later the fusion of Labour’s central state with Margaret Thatcher’s free market and the destruction of local government. After the Act of Union Britain was never an unqualified nation-state and never completely acquired the crucial marks of modern statehood, such as having a written constitution and a formal separation of powers. Since the Second World War, Britain has absorbed waves of immigrants perhaps better than any other European country and without the emergence of a significant neo-fascist party or movement. The notion of Britishness – a legal, civic, inclusive, non-racial identity – has eased the absorption of millions of people of differing religions and ethnicities.

But today, our polarised politics is deepening divisions and pitting the four nations of Britain against one another, forcing us all into a reconsideration of who we are and where we belong in the age of Brexit.

“England needs a reconnection with what Englishness is,” says the Scottish writer Gerry Hassan. “It needs to link foundational stories about what England is. This is what has happened in Scotland.” Even though Scots voted to Remain in the referendum of 2014, Scotland has experienced what Hassan describes as an “independence of the mind” in how it talks, thinks and acts. The same cannot be said for England. “But it needs to happen,” Hassan says. “We are witnessing a shrivelling of Britain. It is shaking and rocking at its foundations and cracks are appearing. These cracks have many origins and [what’s happening in] Scotland is just one of them.”

England is the largest country in Europe without its own political institutions. Throughout much of England, and in the rest of the UK, there is resentment at the power and wealth of London and the south-east. It’s not just the Scots who complain about a democratic deficit: so too do the people living in the north of England or the far south-west as they endure the consequences of nearly a decade of austerity. The immiseration of local government contributes to people’s feelings of powerlessness and the belief that they are ruled by unaccountable corporate and political elites.

Yet there is still no upsurge in support for an English parliament or for regional assemblies of the kind proposed by New Labour as part of the post-1997 constitutional settlement. “The other parts of the union enjoy their own political identity and space, their own democratic institutions and their own democratic powers, England has none of these,” said the former Labour MP John Denham, in a lecture last week. “England, as England, is absent from our national political debate and conversation. What happens in England affects the whole of the union, but England is rarely mentioned.”

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The England football team is an interesting prism through which to view the changing face of the nation. The first black footballer to represent England was Viv Anderson, the former Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Manchester United right-back who made his debut in an international friendly at Wembley in November 1978. In 1984, when John Barnes scored a wondrous solo goal to inspire England to a 2-0 victory over Brazil at the Maracanã stadium, a belligerent faction of England’s travelling support refused to accept the result. England had won only 1-0, they said, because one of the goals had been scored by a black man.

This was a time when our national game was disfigured by racism and far-right activists had infiltrated the football firms, the groups of organised hooligans who followed clubs such as Millwall, Leeds, West Ham and Chelsea. In one game at Goodison Park – throughout the 1980s Everton did not have a single black player – Liverpool’s John Barnes had bananas hurled at him from the crowd; there’s a famous picture of him nonchalantly back-heeling one into touch.

Here is Martin Amis, writing about football in the era before the creation of the Premier League in 1992:

“Every British male, at some time or another, goes to his last football match. It may well be his first football match. You stay home, thereafter, and watch it on TV. At my last football match, I noticed that the fans all had the complexion and body-scent of a cheese-and-onion crisp, and the eyes of pit bulls. But what I felt most conclusively, above and below and on every side, was ugliness – and a love of ugliness.”

What I found most ugly about the so-called beautiful game when I started going to matches with my father in the 1970s, even more than the pitch invasions and terrace stampedes that I witnessed, was the unrelenting abuse and derisive chanting directed at black players. I once spoke to the former Arsenal midfielder Paul Davis (born 1961) – who later sent his son to Eton – about what he experienced as a young player. “It was particularly bad at Sunderland, Leeds, at Chelsea and West Ham,” he said of the abuse, and then spontaneously switched to the present tense as if reliving the experience. “It’s tough; you cannot block it out. You just have to find a way round it, concentrate on what you’re doing. Don’t retaliate. The noise was so intense. Everyone standing. It’s very intimidating. I take corners. I’m close to the fans as I take them. It’s tough, a real tough one.”

Davis was unlucky never to have played for England but when we met he was cheered by how the culture of the game had changed. England are represented at the World Cup in Russia by a harmonious and likeable multiracial squad of white, black and mixed race players, at ease in one another’s company, patriotic and seemingly happy to sing the national anthem (a unionist rather than English anthem) and wrap themselves in the flag. England’s history of immigration is present in the team. The coach, Gareth Southgate, has impressed through his thoughtfulness, articulacy and pragmatic good sense. He encourages his multimillionaire players to show humility and to play with pride and without fear. “We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves,” Southgate said, in an interview with ITV. “We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England. In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”

Southgate, who is 47, is a patriot but not a jingoist. He is resilient and has self-belief but is never boastful. For him, this latest English awakening is about more than football: it’s about culture, identity and belonging. “Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results but you have a chance to affect something bigger,” he said.

This remark impressed Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who tweeted: “Really interesting – and impressive – to hear Southgate talking about the power of sport to influence national and cultural identity in these terms. He really is a class act, isn’t he?” Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer, waggishly suggested that Southgate should lead a new centrist party.

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What’s going on here? How have we reached a state of affairs where the England football manager speaks more intelligently about questions of cultural and national identity than our two main party leaders? Although, with his enthusiasm for allotments, marmalade, manhole covers and trains, Jeremy Corbyn is a quintessentially English character of a kind Orwell would have recognised, he has nothing original to say about England. Corbyn is an international socialist; his great interest is foreign affairs. The causes that most animate him are a united Ireland, Palestinian liberation, anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism. He draws inspiration from an often obscured English radical tradition – the Chartists, Levellers, Thomas Paine, CND and so on – but has struggled to embrace it in a sustained way for fear of appearing nationalistic. Of the discontinuities in the United Kingdom and the fracturing British state Corbyn offers mostly silence or banal observation.

As for Theresa May, she has no feeling for the rhythms and textures of modern England, certainly not the multiracial, cosmopolitan, polyglot England of the cities. Trapped in a Brexit nightmare of her own making, she cannot unite her party nor convincingly lead the country, and she also lacks emotional intelligence: she agreed to fly the St George flag over Downing Street during the World Cup only after being coerced into doing so by a Sun newspaper campaign and the agitations of a Tory backbencher, Nick Boles.

May lacks spontaneity; at public events or in front of the cameras she seems frozen, as if permanently in fear of being embarrassed. This awkwardness is characteristic of her entire approach to politics since the humiliation of the 2017 snap general election campaign: she reacts but does not lead. As a consequence, there is an absence of moral purpose in her government. At a time of national uncertainty and confusion, she has no convincing story to tell the people about who they are and where they are heading.

“There’s been a failure to define a British – indeed an English – national interest,” Jeremy Black told me. “It is the job of politicians, and commentators, to think about where we are in the twenty-first century and to make sense of the questions of the moment. But no one is defining the national interest either from the left or the right.”

The danger is that we allow English nationalism to be defined by the forces of darkness and xenophobia, as witnessed during the Brexit referendum. An important part of what it means to be English is to have multiple identities. “We need to encourage this sense,” says the historian Jeremy Black. “Identity is not a zero-sum game. Nationalism does not have to be blood-and-soil late nineteenth-century nationalism. It’s important to have a sense of national identity but it does not need to be hostile or exclusionary.”

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) ends with one of the author’s finest passages. Orwell has returned to England after fighting and being wounded in the Spanish Civil War and he knows another great war is coming. But he finds England complacently becalmed; it is as if the people are asleep. The final, long paragraph of the book begins, “And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world.” Orwell fears the English are “all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs”.

Brexit is an explosion that has jerked us all awake. And in our wakefulness we discover we are more divided in England than we have ever been in the modern era. Too many of us inhabit a fractured world of competing social media narratives. Too many of us deny or disallow the legitimacy of the other side’s point of view.

The narrow Brexit vote has made it harder to develop a progressive, inclusive English nationalism. Many liberals now feel strangers in their own country (as the right has in the past) and primarily identify as “Londoners” or “European”. The Brexit vote, paradoxically, has led some to feel more European than ever.

England itself is chronically divided: between provincial towns and metropolitan cities, between the conservative old and the liberal young, between graduates and non-graduates, between renters and owners. Politicians lack either the will or the means to bridge these divides. There is also potential for the far right to prosper after Brexit, either because the project fails to satisfy Leave expectations or because “the people” have been “betrayed” by a soft Brexit (the traditional nationalist “stab in the back” narrative).

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Where are we heading? No one knows. What we do know, however, is that unless we find common purpose – what John Denham in his lecture called the “bonds of belonging” – and start seriously addressing the issues that have led to festering resentments and feelings of disenfranchisement, the British umbrella under which we have sheltered since the Act of Union will be torn apart.

A nation is more than an imagined community: it has a material reality that is about people, places and practices. People are embodied and embedded in relationships, however difficult and dysfunctional. There is attachment and affection for the places where we gather and live, the town square, the pub, the parish, the church, the sports club or the countryside.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes culture as “the raw material of which the individual makes his life”. Orwell defined culture not as high art but as the life most people lead. The loss of culture is, writes Benedict, a “loss of something that had value equal to that of life itself, the whole fabric of a people’s standards and beliefs”. For differing reasons, many people feel they are losing their culture or that it is not acknowledged or respected.

“English nationalism seems to be fuelled by a backlash against the contempt in which certain elites hold England’s struggling seaside towns, suburban communities and rural areas – a popular revolt against indifference or hostility to people’s everyday life,” says Adrian Pabst, co-author with John Milbank of The Politics of Virtue. “Forty years of market fundamentalism, reinforced by the rise of individualised identity politics without much regard for common bonds, has torn England’s material fabric asunder.”

We know who the leaders of a reactionary Englishness are. But who are their progressive equivalents? The question is no longer whether politicians should promote Englishness but rather what kind.

What one seeks, then, is patriotism without rancour and a more confident, harmonious English identity that is not inward-looking and bitter, not captured and defined by the far right or the forces of reaction, but in its diversity, openness, tolerance, rootedness, generosity and commitment to the common good reflects a country distinct from but also part of a larger multinational polity; a country that has struggled for self-definition but seems at last to be experiencing a reawakening, however inchoate it may be. Call it Gareth Southgate’s England. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit