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14 July 2021

A modern nation needs to create an optimistic account of what kind of place it can be

In marriage, similar to sport, we must always aspire to be the best version of ourselves. 

By Stephen Bush

I recently visited three places of worship in one week. On 10 July I went to St Paul’s Cathedral in London for the wedding of one of my best friends. On 12 July I went to the London Buddhist Centre for the ordination of one of my oldest friends. And in between I went to Wembley Stadium to see England beaten on penalties by Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

Weddings and England matches provoke conflicting emotions in me. I am both sentimental and unsentimental about marriage. My own took place in a registry office. We decided to get married because we reasoned that as we had already bought a desktop computer and a fridge together, we were already pretty committed. Plus, as I frequently say to other people, our biggest commitment is the frankly terrifyingly large amount of mortgage debt we now have on a small flat in Hackney.

While marriage is, in theory, a gesture of great commitment, it is, in practice, an easier and cleaner structure to exit than a prolonged cohabitation. Before our marriage, my partner and I were like members of the eurozone: partially economically integrated, but without any mechanism for an orderly break-up. A marriage, by contrast, is like leaving the European Union: breaking up is hard to do, yes; triggering exit proceedings involves years of painful legal wrangling. But there is, at least, a clear and agreed process for walking out the door and divvying up the assets.

[See also: The inclusive patriotism of Gareth Southgate’s team taught people like me how to be England fans]

Yet despite such pragmatism, I am at my roots sentimental about marriage. Although the gamble at the heart of every romantic relationship – that the person you’ll change into will continue to love the person they change into, and vice versa – hasn’t ­altered, how I feel about the gamble has.

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As for the England team: I desperately wanted them to win, and that final missed penalty felt similar to a death. But I also ­hated that, during the otherwise glittering first half, when Gareth Southgate’s young team carried all before them, every time an Italian player touched the ball large parts of the crowd booed. Booing is a part of football, but it should retain its moral force, and be directed only at players who have committed some great moral offence, such as flagrant cheating or playing for Tottenham Hotspur. It shouldn’t be a response simply to the plain fact of being Italian.

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That England already had a home advantage, with the number of Italian fans attending thinned by the difficulties of travelling in a pandemic, made it all the more grim. And there was no escaping that as happy as I would have been had the shoot-out gone the other way, so too would the people booing, and the people who engaged in acts of thuggery and racism in response to the defeat. It’s my England, but it’s also theirs.

My friend’s ordination helped me clear up some of the confusion. When a Buddhist is ordained their new moniker is at once a revelation, a name that speaks to who they are today, and a promise: something they have to live up to, a pointer on their journey. But my friend’s new name isn’t just about his best self: it also reminds him to acknowledge his limitations.

A country’s identity in part should be formed by its best idea of itself, just as in life we need to be able to draw strength from our finest conception of ourselves, rather than who we currently are. A nation needs an optimistic account of what kind of place it can be.

[See also: The England team have exposed the lie of the government’s culture war]

Politicians often struggle with this: they either retreat into platitudes, saying that, for instance, the minority of brawling and violent England fans aren’t real fans – or don’t represent the “real” England. It’s true to say that they are a minority: but they are real, and they do exist in England. The problem can’t be changed unless it is faced.

Sometimes politicians make the reverse mistake: to declare that the presence of this minority makes everything irredeemably rotten and awful. I don’t think that works either because without an idea of your best self, how can you ever be anything other than your worst?

Part of what connects all three ceremonies is that we don’t do them alone, which gives them greater meaning. My oldest friend’s new name matters not only because of what it says about him, but because it’s what everyone will call him from now on. The result of a football match only matters because it matters to other people: in many ways, it’s a type of collective madness that a contest of fine margins between two groups of top-class athletes can cause celebrations in one country and despair in another.

The other common factor is a belief in something larger than ourselves. A marriage is a promise between two people made to a wider community. It matters because, while you don’t acquire any additional commitments in doing so, you have made your implicit promise to the other person explicit: and in addition, you have made it in front of a group of other people. An ordination is an affirmation of someone’s belief in something beyond our sight and, often, beyond our understanding.

In both cases, our pledge to try to be the best version of ourselves is both private and public: when times are hard, we draw on our promise and attempt to regain some of that sense of our better self. But we can only avoid self-defeating self-loathing by acknowledging that we are the person we are on all of our days: our worst self and our best self.

Wanting your side to win a football game is a celebration of a place or nation that is bigger than yourself, even if your preferred team plays halfway around the world in a city you will never visit and a stadium you will never see. That bigger England is, I think, something worth cherishing – however flawed our current self might be. 

[See also: Who is behind the online abuse of black England players and how can we stop it?]

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook