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What sport teaches us about who we are and where we belong

Patriotism as most British people understand it is more like the old street football than belief in an ideology of some kind – something local and near to hand, open but partisan.

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In his 1968 masterpiece, The Football Man, Arthur Hopcraft began by saying that football was “inherent in the people”. This is probably not the word that he would have used today, but it struck me then as it strikes me now as right. It would never do football justice to say people liked it, or followed it, or took it up. They like the Daily Mirror. They follow Coronation Street. They take up golf. But football is different because it is, or was, owned and performed by the people for the people. Hopcraft thought it said more about national character than the theatre.

This was a time when footballers’ autobiographies started with their subjects as poor boys with their first pair of boots. (For all I know, now they start with their first pair of Labradoodles.) After the boots, came the back street. How you played depended on who was around. Just the two? You played “doors”, each defending his own. Three? One door, one goalkeeper, one on to one. Four? Two doors, two on to two. Five? One sits out until a sixth turns up to go three on to three. Captains went “cock or hen” on the two newcomers but by the time you got to six or seven players you abandoned the doors to make goals, as it were, out of coats, or some handy rocks lying about or, if you were really going for it, dustbins.

A street football match could last all day. Rather like stone soup, it didn’t cost a penny and changed its nature as players came and went. Where the ball came from was one of those childhood mysteries, like the onset of puberty, or getting the stitch, that no one really understood. At dusk, the Mams loomed and you were collared. Richard Hoggart remembered the uses of literacy in Hunslet. Arthur Aughey, professor of politics at Ulster University, told me the uses of football in Wallace Park, Lisburn:

By the time the light was fading it would have become about 20 a side, those taking it seriously, those who played for 15 minutes before heading off, older blokes who’d stand and chat and hoof the ball anywhere it came near, and the jokers, bane of the serious ones like me. Football was not only spontaneous, it was a persistent bonding between generations and religions. The amount of social capital you’d have to invest to do that today in Northern Ireland would be enormous, probably inconceivable.

Before Hopcraft got it right, in 1952 the Observer got it wrong. Professional football “blooms”, it said, “where they play a kind of street football uninhibited by rules or touchlines, a swaying yelling storm”.

Not true. Football bloomed where every player knew the line without there being one, and as for swaying yelling storms, well, maybe, but generally speaking street football was played tight and smart. Demanding the sort of speed and awareness now found in top class five-a-side (see Lola Seaton’s “The only girl in the league”, New Statesman, 24 July), street football invented moves – the “wall pass” for instance – that professional coaches took ages to adopt. Tackles were usually clean. Harsh street surfaces proved unforgiving to anything that was violent or inept. Hopcraft loved football above all for its grace and beauty. He wrote of the “flowing line” of Bobby Charlton’s running, and the heavy “razor-sharp arrowhead” of the thump at the end.

[see also: The only girl in the league]

George Armstrong, the Arsenal winger (who was visiting relatives I think), once joined us for a back-lane kickabout in South Shields. We didn’t know who he was until he’d gone. Barry Carr was one of us on weekdays, an England schoolboy on international Saturdays, and I don’t remember any crowing from him. Bob Paisley of Liverpool started with neither boots nor ball. Jackie Milburn of Newcastle kicked the same stone to school and back for three years. When he lost the stone, things really were bad. Down the pits, Nat Lofthouse of Bolton Wanderers finished his shift before catching the bus to Burnden Park, where he took his shower before the match. And he wasn’t the only one. Bill Shankly was only kidding but he was right. Football was more important than life or death because, for millions of people (and not all of them boys), it constituted some deeper part of who they were and where they came from.

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I started writing my new book This Sporting Life thinking that sport was important but not that important. I finished it seeing it as one of the great civil cultures of these islands, something that has seeped into every part of who we are without us hardly knowing it.

In its modern sense “sport” is usually used as a noun, but for most of our history it was a verb as well – to sport, or disport, meaning to have fun, or play, or anything amusing in fact, that was cheap, near to hand, learned by custom and capable of social solidarities that business could commodify but never eradicate.

As Emma Griffin, professor of history at the University of East Anglia, tells us in England’s Revelry (2005), there was a time when every village in the land enjoyed at least one annual parish festival, one great day of belonging, done in the name of custom, and custom done in the name of a constitution generally understood to guarantee the people’s liberties. The town of Stamford in Lincolnshire liked to run a bull once a year and in 1840 it took the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Lincoln Assizes, the Home Office, the 14th Dragoon Guards, Queen Victoria and a heavy dollop of the Metropolitan Police to finally stop it. In a seven-year running battle with the law, what started as a demand for sport turned into a demand for something inherent.

There were other traditional ways to sport. Cricketers for instance came from all social classes, but the term “sportsman” was generally applied to landowners who liked to hunt. So did the people – only when they went out with dog and gun the magistrates called it poaching. Villagers believed in their inherent right to roam, but they also knew that if they were caught, a little local poaching could send you to the other side of the world locked in a ship.

Then there were those sports that involved severe training and ruthless competition, where men and very occasionally hard-riding or quick-fencing women would back their skills against the odds. In 1809, Captain Robert Barclay wagered he could walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas. Which he did, over 42 days, losing two stone along the way. Barclay trained English prize-fighters and, once it cleaned up its act to be reinvented as “boxing”, prize-fighting – with its serious training, big stakes, heavy betting and celebrity press – created a model not only for modern sport but modern journalism as well.

If hunting stood for the gentlemanly side of national pride, fighting stood for the plebeian. Let’s not kid ourselves. The people’s love of country, like their love of sport, is not always nice, but it is rarely fraudulent.

With the expansion of schools and colleges from the 1870s, “sport” became the name of a new kind of contestation based on moralised team games – football and cricket in particular. But the idea of sport as inherent remained, shifting now from parish and close to include club and college as well. The role of middle-class suburban London (Kennington, Wimbledon, Twickenham) in the making of modern sport was immense.

The Victorian revolution in girls’ schooling, for example, prepared young women for the prospect of physical competition – at first hockey and lacrosse, later tennis and netball – but most of all it got them used to the idea of representing themselves. Small, coloured ribbons denoted loyalty to one another, and loyalty to each other could be liberating. While the suffrage movement made sport of weedy young men hanging around race courses, it made heroes (and martyrs) of its athletic young women. Later, in best parish festival mode, the student rag and night-time economy inherited a taste for disporting around town as if you owned the place.

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The social historian Eric Hobsbawm famously remarked that the nation-state seemed more real when represented “as a team of 11 named people”. Fair enough. Yet in free societies representation works both ways. One of the most loved stories about England’s 1966 World Cup victory is about how Bob Charlton, Jackie and Bobby’s father, worked his shift that same afternoon.

While his sons were sharing England’s greatest sporting triumph 300 miles away at Wembley Stadium, Dan Jackson tells us that Bob was cutting coal at Linton Colliery. In other words, it was not only that the nation was rendered more real by the men in red but, in this case, that the men in red were rendered more real by a Northumbrian pitman 400 feet underground who knew his worth (and theirs). All sport has a second life in the stories it tells, and in this one Bob Charlton stood for the lads just as surely as the lads stood for him.

Patriotism in Britain has never really only been about great men. Nobody ever cheered a team (or a leader) for being better than them. They cheer it for being part of them, a piece of the main, a chip off the block. Whether this still applies to footballers in the English leagues in a time when they aren’t ordinary (and many of them aren’t British) any more is questionable, and the time has long gone when players catch the bus to games. And yet, that July afternoon in 1966 has entered our mythology of the way we were; and who we were then, as every family knows, is part of who we are now.

The idea of the British “people” has got a lot more complicated, and a lot more racialised, since Hopcraft’s The Football Man, but in supporting Leicester City – my local team – British Asians join a family more than 130 years old. Identity is neither innate nor immutable, and it is rarely biddable. It is learned however, like football is learned, by doing and by being there.

At the political level, the nation-state finds its expression in symbols and pageantry, in its governments and embassies, in its extraordinary power to give and take. But underlying all that, it finds its continuity in a history that it considers distinctive and exceptional. This is what nations are, this is what states do. The more successful the nation-state, the more they do it.

At the popular level, however, it is their unexceptionalism that people most value. Orwell called it the “unofficial” life, and it’s in a belief in one another and local places that love of country is inherent, if not always conscious. People rarely call it patriotism and never call it nationalism. And although it is true that state and nation get tangled up in each other, not least in moments of national danger, for the most part people take what is near to hand and make it a vital and dynamic part of who they are and where they belong. In a long history, working-class people have had little choice in the matter. When there are few alternatives, you can either identify or not identify, and in a life based on hard work and physical necessity, the need for security was always as strong as the impulse for liberty.

A whole school of British social realism was founded upon the idea that patriotism is ordinary. If Wellington is remembered as a great soldier, so are the “scum of the earth” (as he put it) who fought for him. If the Industrial Revolution conquered the world, one of its most famous sons, George Stephenson, was a self-taught Geordie engineer, who needed a translator (when in London). If Churchill is remembered for the Battle of Britain, the East End is remembered for the Blitz. If we won the war, that “we” includes the British empire, in whose name it was fought. The best British propaganda showed no Nazis and precious few royals, but it had a lot to say about what was inherent in the people.

[see also: Sport and the English identity]

If you bring the people into the equation, everything gets messier and more original. The people have to be won, of course, and discovered, and argued over, and made good, but they can’t be forsaken. Some journalists and politicians are fond of saying that invoking the people is “populist”, or “nativist”, or even “authoritarian”. But if you don’t bring the people in, what are you left with? Wherein lies the point of our democracy and our trust in it? In our institutions? Parliament? The Church? The BBC? By their own admission, they all fall short. Enter the universities, keepers of national history. Well, apart from the fact that telling that story is a rare event in British history departments these days, many of our universities woke up recently to declare themselves deeply flawed, systemically racist institutions in need of “decolonisation” – much to the surprise of their former students perhaps, thousands of whom are still paying for the privilege.

As for our intellectual classes, how can it be that a recent profile in this magazine of Boris Johnson’s aide Munira Mirza appears surprised when outlining her pretty straightforward position “that racial inequalities are the result of cultural and socio-economic factors rather than institutional racism”?

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The Labour Party should not be caught on the wrong side of these breakdowns in trust with the British people. Nor can it simply make up national stories of its own to suit its own purposes. Our national story is there to be expanded and argued over it is true, but it is there, and can never be split into the good and the bad any more than the old imperial stuff can be jettisoned for the nice new green environmental version of our story (Andrew Marr), or the nice new anti-corruption version (Jeremy Cliffe), or the not so nice old red Leninist version (Owen Jones). It used to be the right that wrote histories that excluded the people, now it’s the left. Much is said in the name of the people, of course, but not by the people. This is all our history, and all of it is ours. When it comes to slavery, if it comes to slavery, I want to read Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.

The most hopeful thing I’ve read about the new leader of the Labour Party is how he would prefer playing football with his pals to demonstrating against imperialism. Patriotism as most British people understand it is more like the old street football than belief in an ideology of some kind – something local and near to hand, open but partisan, unwritten but understood, conventional but inventive at the same time, ever-shifting but always the same. Sir Keir ought to look to his football to see what matters. With eyes on the Union, he might make something of a game that the English gave unity, the Scots gave flair, the Northern Irish gave George Best and the Welsh and the northern English made doubly inherent with the inclusion of rugby. And while he’s on with that, Sir Keir might forget his knighthood (he’s the first Labour leader to have one) and show a bit of levity, a touch of drollery, preferably about himself – something else inherent in the people, and all the more necessary not because times are not terrible, but because they are. As for Labour MPs, too many sound like social workers, not advocates, so let’s hear from Labour on all the people’s concerns and not just the ones that fit the ideology.

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This is not an essay about how Labour can change tack in order to scrape more votes, but where the party must situate itself now that the world of Ernie Bevin is no more. The nation-state is back, and in these Covid-divided times the need for local knowledge and common purpose should suit Labour best. The people are broadly Tory in their approach to matters of state, and broadly pro-public service, fair play and hard work on the rest. They believe in liberty but they believe in authority too. This will not be good news to many in the Labour Party who are locked in the search for Universal Truth and Reason, but in life as in sport, as Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” l

Robert Colls’s most recent book is “This Sporting Life. Sport and Liberty in England 1760-1960” (Oxford University Press)

This article appears in the 06 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos