During England’s exciting run to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia in 2018, Gareth Southgate emerged as one of most thoughtful and articulate analysts of what it means to be English in an age of fragmentation and polarisation.
Who are the English and what do they want?
Southgate thought he knew. Instead of avoiding questions about the St George’s flag, national identity, patriotism and indeed racism, he leaned into them. Southgate could do this because he knew who he was and what he represented. He spoke from the heart, saying what he believed, not what he thought others wanted to hear. He is no phoney.
“We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves,” Southgate said during the World Cup. “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 … you have a chance to affect something bigger.”
He was right: his likeable multiracial team – many of the players had progressed from the lower leagues – did affect something bigger that summer as we followed their journey back in Britain. The 2018 World Cup coincided with an extraordinary heatwave in England, the hottest and most enduring since the summer of 1976, and, for a time, millions of us were united by an interest in football.
The writer Alex Niven, author of a fine book about England, New Model Island, coined a neologism to describe the mood in the country during those few weeks: “Southgateism”. “For me Southgateism,” Niven said when we spoke, “refers to that brief, heady moment in the summer of 2018 when the turmoil of the 2010s seemed to give way to a more positive atmosphere in England – obviously the narrative was slightly different in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
“With hindsight the 2017-19 interlude already seems like a strange hiatus, but in the middle of it there was this weirdly hot summer after a brutal winter, and an unusually exciting, good-natured World Cup in Russia. The strong showing of the England team under Gareth Southgate genuinely united a broad swathe of people living in England who otherwise wouldn’t have felt anything in common.”
In many ways, Southgate is a rather old-fashioned, even Orwellian figure, with his hesitant speech patterns, clipped beard and modest, unassuming manner that disguises an inner toughness and resolution. He is deeply attached to his country and cherishes the responsibility of his role: he understands the difference between patriotism and nationalism. More than this, he understands the need for a patriotism that is both generous and enhances national cohesion rather than undermining it.
Responding to the anguished debate about the ritual of his team taking the knee before games (though not directly mentioning it), Southgate published on 8 June an essay about national identity on the Players’ Tribune website. It was titled “Dear England” and it was an immediate viral hit, widely shared and admired.
In the essay Southgate discusses the influence on him of his grandfather, “a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II”, and his own early experiences as a fan of the England national team. “You remember where you were watching England games. And who you were watching with. And who you were at the time.”
Beautifully said, and so true.
He spoke too of how much it means to his players to represent their country and – in an implicit reference to the work of Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and others in the squad – of how some of them have effected lasting change in their work as activists and campaigners away from football.
“This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves. Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.”
During lockdown I have been writing a book about Englishness, Who Are We Now? Stories of Modern England (Picador), which explores some of the themes Southgate addresses in his essay.
“Southgate’s writing your book for you,” the novelist Ed Docx said in a text alerting me to the Players’ Tribune piece. “Astonishing essay for the England manager to write. Look at him wrestling with it all!”
It was indeed astonishing. Imagine Big Sam or Steve McClaren writing it. You can’t. Which is why England are so fortunate during this period of intense political and cultural upheaval to have Southgate as their manager. He speaks to and for his players but also wants to reach a larger audience. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football.”
He continues: “I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold… I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
Southgate understands that love of country should be something deeply felt but not ostentatiously stated – something the Labour Party often struggles to grasp – and football is one of the primary means through which many millions of people express their national identity. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote.
England’s first match in the Euros is on Sunday (13 June), against Luka Modrić’s Croatia at Wembley. Whatever happens to the team during the tournament delayed by the pandemic from last summer, whether they win matches or lose them, Gareth Southgate has shown political leadership once again while revealing that he understands the true meaning of glory.
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web