Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Slaying the racist dragon

Billy Bragg celebrates the contribution of the flag of St George and the England football team in furthering the cause of multiculturalism.

August 1, 2004
7 min read

What was your first reaction when you saw them, all those England flags fluttering from the windows of cars and vans in the first week of June? Against the backdrop of elections in which the British National Party (BNP) was threatening to do well, you could have been forgiven for being concerned. Was this flag-waving the herald of a wave of xenophobia about to sweep the country? Was the belligerent nationalism of the football terraces about to manifest itself at the ballot box? Did these thousands of St George’s flags represent a rejection of multiculturalism in favour of a narrow English identity?

These questions could have been answered by looking at the occupants of cars adorned with the England flag. They seemed largely made up of families with kids who had pestered Mum or Dad to let them show their support for the national football team. Yes, they flew from white vans, but some of those vans were driven by black guys. There were even a few Asian drivers flying the flag for the team.

I would have been much more concerned if there had been a spate of cars flying the Union Jack. In their campaigns for the elections, the BNP and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) used the British flag to represent everything that they stand for: an inward-looking, white society, angry at the present, fearful of the future, clinging to the past. There is an ugly xenophobia out there, but it’s waving the Union Jack.

Friends of mine argue that the same connotations are inherent in the flag of St George. They also point to its association with the violence and racism that follows the England football team when it travels abroad. Surely, flying the English flag is an endorsement of that belligerent nationalism? Those of us who support England look with envy at the way the Scots were able to transform themselves from one of the most feared groups of football fans into some of the most popular supporters to be found at international tournaments.

By making a conscious effort to isolate the hooligan element, the England fans are, at last, beginning to change too. Travel bans have played a part in this, but it has been initiatives undertaken by the fans themselves that have improved the atmosphere. Concerned that their reputation was preceding them, the fans have organised trips into local schools in places where their team is playing.

During Euro 2004 a group of England fans visited the Nuno Goncalves Secondary School in the poor Sapadores district of Lisbon. Around 30 fans, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word obrigado (Portuguese for “thank you”) gave up their morning to help the pupils practise their spoken English.

While the genuine fans were doing their best to make a good impression where England were playing, hundreds of miles away from the football it was all going off in Albufeira. Guess which event got the most coverage? Genuine fans were furious, pointing out that Albufeira is a well-known trouble spot where drunken, violent Brits are arrested every weekend. Back at the matches, the behaviour of England fans was exemplary. More arrests were made at Glastonbury Festival than in Lisbon on the night that England were knocked out of Euro 2004 by Portugal.

England’s travelling support is changing. The fans themselves are making a real effort to join in the celebrations at international tournaments. The new atmosphere that they are creating is starting to produce results. In Portugal, the policing of fans was much more low-key, allowing the supporters to have a good time without them being constantly harassed by riot police looking for confrontation. For the first time groups of black and Asian fans were present, wearing the England shirt with pride. And why shouldn’t they? Take a look at the 11 men who wear that shirt on the pitch. They are a visible representation of what England is: a multicultural society in which the right to play for the national team is not decided by race, but by talent.

Far from representing a narrow definition of English identity, those thousands of St George’s flags could be seen as an endorsement of this idea, in which the right to be English is accessible to anyone, no matter what their background. This notion was best illustrated by a group that I saw crossing the Thames via Westminster Bridge on the day that England played Switzerland. Two Muslim women, dressed in full-length black burkas, were holding the hands

of two boys aged maybe five or six who may well have been their sons. The two boys were wearing identical red shirts, on which the word “BECKHAM” was emblazoned in Olde English script. Underneath was a small flag of St George.

I am concerned that as those kids grow up they will come under pressure to make a choice between being either a Muslim or an England supporter. Clearly the two are not mutually exclusive, yet reactionary forces within both Islam and English nationalism share a vested interest in enforcing an exclusionary view of society. Shouldn’t we on the left oppose this by working to create an inclusive sense of English identity that is open to everyone?

I am well aware that this is a difficult subject. Over the years the left has declined to contest this ground with the far right. Unfortunately, this has had the effect of allowing the racists to define who is and who is not English. Our approach to this issue needs to change because, whether we like it or not, the rise of Ukip has put nationalism on the agenda. When the working classes raise the flag of St George to express their identity, have we nothing to say to them except to condemn them as bigots?

Over the next few years, as Ukip continues to define its idea of society in terms of what it doesn’t like, a space will open up in which to create an alternative identity that exemplifies the things that we do like about ourselves. Just as our Scottish and Welsh neighbours have always defined themselves against the negative aspects of their big neighbour, we now have an opportunity to do something similar.

In Scotland minority political parties have already embraced a new sense of nationalism to draw voters away from the big three parties in support of progressive ideas. The Scottish Socialist Party sees no contradiction in being both nationalist and internationalist. Compare the anti-racist nationalism of the Scottish National Party to the very different position taken by the BNP.

Could a similar transformation occur in England? Obviously, it is a larger country than Scotland and has a far higher degree of multi-ethnicity. On purely demographic terms, the English identity is highly diverse; this is a historical fact that gives us something to build on.

Because of our diversity, it is impossible to imagine a contemporary vision of England that does not reflect the multicultural nature of our society. Equally, we have to accept that multiculturalism, by its very nature, must make room for everyone to express their culture, including the English.

There can be no coercion here, no list of tastes and traits that define “the English”. Identity is a very personal thing, and some will feel that they just do not belong within such designations. But think again of that Muslim family on Westminster Bridge. I want those two little boys to feel that they can be part of the English community if they so choose.

I believe that the events of recent months have put the flag of St George in a neutral position within our culture. It no longer automatically represents a belligerent nationalism spoiling for a fight. It has become one of a number of symbols that we use to identify ourselves at international sporting celebrations. As Ukip reduces Britishness to little more than Ulster Unionism without the sense of humour, let’s bring the flag of St George home and reclaim it as one of the symbols that we use to express an alternative identity that is diverse, outward-looking and inclusive.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


2