Look at photographs or film clips from the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley and you will see there is something missing: the flag of St George. Most of the flags being waved in the crowd are Union Jacks. This was still a time when Englishness and Britishness were essentially coterminous or considered to be interchangeable, by the English at least, and when the United Kingdom could be rationalised as, in the words of the Cambridge historian David Reynolds,“a mini-English empire”.
Fabio Capello, the Italian hardman who managed the England football team from 2008-12, describes the 1966 World Cup triumph as the “returning ghost” of our national game. It’s an astute observation because we are haunted by the events of that radiant July afternoon when Alf Ramsey’s side, captained by the blond-haired gentleman East Ender Bobby Moore, defeated Germany 4-2 after extra time. England have won nothing since nor have they even reached another major final. Baddiel and Skinner’s “30 years of hurt” have become 52 years of traumatic penalty shoot-out defeats and abject capitulations in international tournaments.
When did England football fans embrace the flag of St George? In the 1970s, when I was growing up, the English flag was associated with far-right groups and nasty nationalists. The England team had a hardcore hooligan faction: repellently racist and always on the lookout for trouble. By the time of Euro 96, however, the image of England football fans had softened somewhat in the era of the Premier League, which was being marketed as a “whole new ball game” and was attracting financial speculators as well as the more affluent middle classes.
When I went to see England play Scotland at Wembley during Euro 96, the flag of St George was everywhere: waved in the crowd, draped from the windows of buildings and attached to and flown from cars. This flourishing of English nationalism felt quite different from the anger and disenchantment of the 1970s: it was more inclusive, civic and benign. A country at ease with itself as Tony Blair’s New Labour prepared for power? It didn’t quite turn out as some of us hoped.
Who are the English and what do they want? The vote for Brexit has been described as an English revolt; what George Orwell, in a different context, called a “tug from below”, a rising up of the ordinary people of the towns and shires against complacent metropolitans. England is the largest country in Europe without its own political institutions. So far there is no pressing demand for an English parliament or even for greater devolution within and to England; but the rise and increasing assertiveness of Scottish nationalism has forced the English into a reconsideration of their own position within the union. Before too long, the discontinuities in the United Kingdom will force a reappraisal of our unsatisfactory constitutional settlement.
From the Act of Union of 1707, what Jeremy Black in English Nationalism: a Short History calls the “political tone and agenda” of the new British state were set in London and southern England. “This was the basis of British consciousness,” Black writes, “a development that did not so much alter the views of the English political elite, for whom Britain was essentially an extension of England, but, rather, that reflected the determination of the Scottish, and, to a lesser extent, Welsh and Irish Protestant elites to link their fate to the British state.”
Today the rickety British state is showing its age. And a World Cup summer invariably reawakens a suppressed sense of English national self-consciousness, never appreciated in Scotland. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” as Eric Hobsbawm wrote. The England football team embodies many of the contradictions of the English nation. For a start, during the pre-match formalities, the players sing not an English anthem but “God Save the Queen”, which Scottish and Welsh sporting teams have long since ditched. The hauntedness of English football – this longing to recapture something lost – is not an isolated phenomenon but an expression of what it means to be English, which goes back to the Norman conquest and the Harrying of the North or even before. As Ferdinand Mount has written, the dominant tone of English discourse is “one of regret, of nostalgia rather than self-congratulation”.
The forces of nostalgia contributed to the Brexit vote and they inform much of the rhetoric of the hard Brexiteers: this yearning for Britain, or Greater England, unchained from the EU, to renew its historic role as a buccaneering Anglosphere great power.
On the eve of England’s plucky victory over Tunisia, coach Gareth Southgate, who leads a harmonious and likeable multiracial squad, spoke of his pride and patriotism. “My family are incredibly patriotic. My grandad was a marine. I’ve always been brought up with England being a core part of what we stood for and my life [sic].”
This is the authentic voice of the decent England fan. We have heard this language from Alex Salmond and other Scottish nationalists. But few people on the left in England speak in this way of patriotism and love of country, which is one reason why the working class is abandoning Labour.
At the end of English Nationalism, 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”. He is surely right. And if English nationalism is repressed or denied it will return in ways altogether disagreeable to liberals, from the emergence of Nigel Farage’s “people’s army” to the vote for Brexit.
This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis