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7 July 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 12:52pm

How the England football team has detoxified “Englishness“

Englishness is no longer an identity associated mainly with the radical right, but it shouldn't be left to the whims of a football team.

By Ben Walker

The debate over what it means to be English is often wheeled out during sporting tournaments – and every time, someone, somewhere, will pop their head above the parapet and ask: what does Englishness even mean?

Englishness doesn’t need definition. It means different things to different people. That’s identity for you: it’s defined by its followers, not from the top down.

But the very fact that an identity’s biggest proponents get to set the agenda has meant that in recent history Englishness has accrued specific (namely, right-wing) political associations.

For example, voters who are most prone to identifying as English over British generally have more strongly negative attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. In 2014, English voters ranked Ukip as the party most likely to stand up for English issues.

The successes of Ukip and other nationalist organisations on the radical right in the past decade came in part from appealing to Englishness as a lost, anti-establishment identity.

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That association has had consequences. In 2012, 58 per cent of voters of all ages and parties were able to associate the flags of Scotland and Wales with “a modern nation”, but just 26 per cent felt they could say the same about England.

Just 26% associate St George’s Cross with “a modern nation” – compared to 58% for the Saltire
British Future study using YouGov polling, 2012

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This is significant. When voters associate a modern nation’s flag with racism just as much as they do the notion of a modern country, that suggests an identity in crisis.

The good news is the damage appears temporary. Impressions are fluid or, at the least, capable of being unpicked. A more recent YouGov poll, this time from 2021, found the number of people who said it is unimportant to be white to be English had jumped from 74 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent.

When David Lammy was told by a white woman on his LBC show earlier this year that he wasn’t allowed to call himself English because he was black, she spoke for an ever shrinking minority: 64 per cent of white English people said in a British Future report in 2021 that “calling yourself English” is applicable to every race and background in the country.

Among ethnic-minority residents that figure was in the plurality too, though it was lower at 46 per cent (just 21 per cent disagreed). Compared to the share from white people, this shows there is still work to do – ethnic minorities in England are not yet fully confident that Englishness is for them.

Nearly two-thirds of white English voters believe calling yourself English is acceptable for all races – compared to 46% among ethnic minorities
"How much do you agree or disagree with the statement "calling yourself 'English' belongs to people of every race and ethnic background in England today?"

Source: British Future study using YouGov polling, 2021

What is interesting is that there is much more enthusiasm for cheering on the collective: the nation’s football team. The British Future report found overwhelming agreement from both white and minority ethnic respondents that the England football team belongs “to every race and ethnic background in England”.

Here we see the rise of an increasingly inclusive sense of Englishness, spearheaded by Gareth Southgate’s well-disciplined squad. In 2021, Englishness is an identity that has less to do with being white than what voters thought in 2012. It is becoming more inclusive than the narrow definition pushed by movements such as Ukip. The success of Southgate, and perhaps the reduced national presence of figures like Nigel Farage in the past few years, has changed the way people think about Engilsh identity.

[see also: The England squad is built on immigration – yet our xenophobic government dares to cheer it on]

But this success is a double-edged sword. It shows an identity that is subject to the fluid forces of politics and sport. Englishness needs grounding, lest these detoxifying trends of the past few years be reversed. It needs, perhaps, answers from organised politics, both on the right and left. For without that, Englishness risks being left at the mercy of the same anti-establishment forces that so successfully weaponised it for political purposes in the mid-2010s.

Southgate shows an Englishness capable of being more modern and tolerant than ever before. Now is the time for politicians to make that shift permanent.

[see also: Gareth Southgate has shown political leadership once again]