In 2007 a charming television documentary series called Meet the Natives was first broadcasted. The series – which is, happily, still available online – follows a group of men from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu as they visit England for the first time. The men are followers of the Prince Philip movement, a small religious sect who consider the late Duke of Edinburgh (and now his son Prince Charles) to have a divine status. Over the course of the series, the group stay with various English families, share their impressions of English culture and, at the end of their stay, are received by Prince Philip at Windsor Castle, much to their delight.
Media coverage of the Prince Philip movement often uses words such as “worship” that are not quite accurate, since they suggest a Christian style of religious practice. “Venerate” is a better term, and indeed could be used to describe our own apparently secular regard for many public figures, including members of the royal family.
After watching Meet the Natives and following the media coverage of the death of Prince Philip in April, it occurred to me that our own attitude is not so very different from that of the people of Tanna. We may not hold supernatural beliefs about our revered figures, but we do treat them in a manner that certainly appears religious, as it involves taboos, rituals, myths and collective celebration or mourning.
That’s not a bad thing – in fact, I think it may be essential to a functioning society. There was a lot of grumbling from republicans about the media pageantry surrounding Prince Philip’s death, so much so that the BBC had to set up a separate web page for people to direct their complaints about the broadcaster’s coverage. But although I have no particular love for the royals on a personal level, I don’t share this distaste for their institution because I think it serves a valuable purpose.
There seems to be an intense human need to choose certain individuals and grant them a special status, whether they be kings, dictators or celebrities. If we must satisfy this impulse – and I think we must – then a constitutional monarchy may be a wise channel for it. Better to venerate a powerless prince than a strongman politician.
And even better to venerate a football team. Competing in an international sporting fixture is a little similar to going into battle, except that this is a safe, bloodless, make-believe battle that, in the end, doesn’t really matter, despite the intense emotion it inspires in fans. “Our boys” have won a special position in the national consciousness that can be understood in quasi-religious terms, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. We need sacred figures to represent us, and sportsmen are particularly well positioned to peacefully play that role on behalf of the collective.
I’m writing in the days after the Italian win against England in the final of the European Football Championship at Wembley. At the time of writing, news reports suggest that there were chaotic scenes in central London before and after the match, and that a group of English fans attempted to force their way into Wembley Stadium without tickets. On the whole, however, there seems to have been very little xenophobia directed at Italian fans.
In fact, there was a great deal of mutual respect. The England players were given a guard of honour by the Italians as they collected their runners-up medals after the game, and the comedian Sooz Kempner witnessed English fans applauding their Italian counterparts in London following the match. On social media, national rivalry was expressed mostly through jokes about pasta and beans on toast.
This display of harmony shouldn’t be sniffed at, and not only because the football hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s was so much worse than it is today.
Seventy-eight years ago, almost to the day, British troops were taking part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, a campaign in which there were thousands of casualties on both sides. Forget the lefty jibes about Britain being a “rainy fascist island” – within living memory, Italy was governed by a fascist regime, and one we went to war against. That our two nations can now play a mostly friendly game of football is something to celebrate.
Gareth Southgate has done a very good thing in constructing the England team as it is now: dignified, well-disciplined and comradely. This June, in a letter to the nation titled “Dear England”, Southgate put forth his own vision of patriotism in the course of defending his players’ decision to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter.
As Jason Cowley wrote in these pages, Southgate showed in this letter that he “understands the need for a patriotism that is both generous and enhances national cohesion rather than undermining it”. Southgate is helped in this effort by the admirable actions of players such as Marcus Rashford, whose campaigning work is very deserving of veneration.
Some staunch internationalists prefer to reject either veneration or patriotism altogether. For them, the spectre of an England win inevitably raises the spectre of “nationalist demons” – despite the racial diversity of the team – and excessive interest in national symbolism (sometimes called “flag-shagging”).
I’m sceptical, however, about the practicality of this proposal. History suggests that purging one form of tribalism only makes way for another kind of tribalism, and one that may be much worse. As a society, we have a bone-deep urge to put some people on a pedestal, and Gareth Southgate’s England squad look very nice on theirs, whether or not they’re holding a trophy.
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook