If, as Cecil Rhodes claimed, to be English is to have “won first prize in the lottery of life”, it doesn’t much feel like that during the World Cup. It isn’t just the leering, the inane and pointless aggression, the cheap English lager, the “funny” hats, songs and dancing and the pale, parochial, howling lack of worldliness and cultural refinement displayed by “our” fans.
There is something more depressing still about the fact that the English football team remains, as it has been for decades, unspeakably poor compared to the fantasy it creates in those fans’ minds. The tabloids constantly tell us that “England expects”, but why this is, no one knows.
England, even under a coach of Fabio Capello’s experience, consistently retains its failure to produce possession football of the sort epitomised by Liverpool in the glory years of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley in the 1980s. Instead, it still, hopelessly, insists on the kind of boot-it-upfield-and-hope-for-the-best “tactics” that Franz Beckenbauer has rightly condemned as “kick and rush”.
Still, I digress. The reason I do not support England has nothing to do with its abilities, dire though these are (I will be very surprised indeed if the team gets any further than the quarter-final in South Africa). No, it is because there is no logic at all in its existence.
We all belong — for now at least — to the United Kingdom. There is a “Team GB” British side in the Olympics. So why not in international football?
Englishness is ultimately, alas, a racial brand. Britishness, on the other hand, is cultural. Most second-generation — or even, dare it be said, first-generation — foreigners who live here can comfortably consider themselves British, but less so English. I, for example, am roughly three-quarters Canadian and a quarter Scottish. My Scottish descent but London upbringing makes me Anglo-Scottish, and therefore British, not English.
Which is why I feel like a stranger in my own land amid the creepy mass influx of St George’s flags — by definition exclusive emblems — now prevalent in cars and house windows. And why I felt so queesy at the Prime Minister David Cameron’s populist decision to fly the red-and-white flag over Downing Street during England’s (albeit limited) “campaign”. That the Union is under much more threat under the Conservatives (increasingly the English party) is another story, and I won’t go into it here.
But it is because of a growing fear for the future of the Scottish-English Union — one that represents 300 years of rich social, cultural and political integration — that I hope one day to be able to cheer on British goals in the World Cup. And do so with great pride and patriotism.
(Doubtless, some of the many attacks such a view would provoke will be that such a side would only be England players plus Ryan Giggs of Wales. And it is true that it isn’t easy for someone — apart from, say, Colin Hendry and Ally McCoist — whose close interest in football has tragically waned over the years to think of a British squad today that would be that much better than England’s. But that is not the point.)
It’s time to replace English aggression with open, generous British unity, before it’s too late.