On the morning of the match I was in my garden when, from behind some rowan trees, evergreen oaks and high bushes, I heard the sound of young girls’ voices softly sing-chanting “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming home…” The voices came from a neighbouring garden and the girls did not complete the chorus but instead kept repeating the same lines, over and again, like a mantra: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home…” They knew of what they sang and it was as if at that moment they were singing for or with the whole country. Then, they fell silent, leaving in the air a strange sense of suspension and incompleteness. I felt something close to this – suspended, incomplete – the morning after the night before, with England ultimately defeated by Italy on penalties, a repeat of previous shoot-out traumas at Italia ’90, Euro ’96, France ’98, Euro 2004, Germany 2006, Euro 2012…
“I’m disappointed for the country because I know this pops the balloon of hope that we have been able to create,” Gareth Southgate said after the match as the rain fell at Wembley. He should not be too disappointed. England reached their first major final since 1966, having been World Cup semi-finalists in Russia in 2018. Eliminating agent-led player briefings, he has brought together a remarkable group, many of the players being nurtured through the younger age groups at St George’s Park during the period Southgate was coach of the under-21s.
More importantly, in a polarised and fragmented society, Southgate and his multiracial players have revealed to the English something of who they are or could be. He understands football is one of the primary means through which many people express their national identity and that it is more than a game. He understands too how football and politics are never separate but endlessly intertwined, especially the politics of race, nation and identity. His England have reclaimed the flag of St George from its toxic associations with whiteness and the far right – a process that began spontaneously at Euro ’96 when a new, more progressive sense of English identity emerged a year before New Labour swept to power – to show that it represents not just some but all the people all the time, as it must.
Southgate’s own politics are complex and he is extraordinarily politically literate for a football coach. “We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves,” he said during the Russia World Cup. “We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England.”
More recently, at the start of the Euros, he returned to these themes in an essay he published on the Players’ Tribune website, entitled “Dear England”. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” he said. “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.”
After the publication of “Dear England” Southgate was rebuked by some commentators and Conservative MPs for being “woke” and an apologist for Black Lives Matter. This was nonsense. His political interventions are so interesting precisely because they are at once progressive and conservative. He is respectful of tradition and institutional wisdom – the repeated references he makes to the Queen, the military, his grandfather, “a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during the Second World War” – while understanding who his players are and what they represent. “This team is playing for all of us,” wrote the anti-racism campaigner Shaista Aziz.
In a recent Guardian column on the English Question, Andy Beckett, a historian of the early Thatcher years, wrote: “For too long, one version of Englishness has dominated British politics. Proud, white, both confident and defensive, often xenophobic, always anti-Europe, this Englishness has changed as little as the tabloid front pages that have bellowed it out for decades. Brexit is one of its greatest victories. The continuing Conservative ascendancy is another.”
Beckett’s version of Englishness only makes sense if you believe all Brexiteers and Conservatives are xenophobic nationalists. They are not. Nor is there one dominant version of Englishness. We experienced another more hopeful “version” during the Euros having already glimpsed something similar to it during the summer heatwave of 2018 that coincided with England’s run to the semi-finals in Russia.
The key to understanding Southgate’s “version” of Englishness is to accept that he rejects binaries and false oppositions. For him it is never a question of either/or. You can be both a progressive and a conservative. You can take the knee and love your country. You don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition; between the Englishness of his grandfather and the Englishness of Marcus Rashford. His mode of leadership is informed by social virtues: courage, compassion, humility, restraint, the fulfilment of our obligations to others. He is, says the writer Adrian Pabst, “our first post liberal England coach”.
Under Southgate the England team has become a symbol of multiracial unity, which was why it was so distressing to read about the abuse directed at some of our black players after the game. The tech giants continue to tolerate and indulge this rancid abuse and profit from it. There is a solution: treat them as publishers and legislate so that they are legally responsible for what is published on their platforms. Hit their profits and they will act. And cherish Southgate and his players.
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook