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The beginning of June must be a miserable time for the ‘Anyone but England’ faction. England kick off their World Cup campaign in Frankfurt on 10 June and the St George cross is flying everywhere, daubed on kids’ faces, fluttering from car windows—we can hardly move for them.
From the (outside left) position that Red Pepper represents, those of us for whom England is our team are treated to two kinds of responses. At best we are patronised as dupes, distracted from more serious matters of state. Or at worst we are accused of lining up with the racist BNP. Of course plenty of leftists will be missing branch meetings, leafleting sessions and demos to keep up with England’s progress in Germany, but still the rest of us have to put up with this kind of derision and denunciation.
Xenophobes and racists? Don’t paint our faces with your own narrow-minded prejudices. Of course supporting any national team translates easily into a variety of brands of patriotism. I see no need to apologise for my particular liking for a very English soft patriotism. Emptying itself of hatred for others, preferring pride to prejudice, founded on commitment to confrontation. Responsible for England’s reputation off the pitch in the same way the team is responsible for our reputation on the pitch.
I have the utmost respect for those who philosophically disavow all flags and owe no loyalty to no single nation. But please don’t offer it as the only legitimate response to whether England are worth cheering for. Englishness in general, and what it means to be an England fan in particular, is a site of contestation and by vacating this space we allow others to define it for their own ends. The far right, the BNP, would love to define supporting England as something only the white English are qualified to do, but we cannot challenge them with anything resembling credibility if the team means nothing to us.
Inner-city England is already redefining what England means. Those flying the flag or wearing the England shirt are now as likely to be black or Asian as white. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the flag has lost its imperial or martial baggage overnight, but it does suggest that the present and future won’t necessarily be determined by our past either. Whenever leftists turn their back on England, they ignore this transformation of our national identity.
New left thinkers including Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams and Christopher Hill all understood the necessity for accounting for the formation of national identity. What did EP Thompson call his pathbreaking work? The Making of the English Working Class. Eric Hobsbawm was one of the first to spot how football and nation were becoming hopelessly interconnected, summing up how ‘an imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’.
Of course, a national identity cannot be so easily reduced to a game of football and its supporters. But in the context of devolution, the football stands have been an important space for defining the symbols of Englishness: the St George cross, an England shirt, a terrace anthem ‘Three Lions on our Shirt’. With England winning both the rugby World Cup and the Ashes, this process of getting to know ourselves has continued through other sports. But politicos of left, right or thereabouts have scarcely noticed. The Blairite modernisers talk about re-branding Britain, while Brown and his supporters immerse themselves in a project for a progressive Britishness. The outside left prefers to fly the flag for Venezuela, the Zapatistas, Cuba, just about anywhere but England. Neither Labour unionists nor leftist internationalists have come to terms with the English question.
A practical, popular and progressive politics should have something to offer this potent mix of football and nation. But what do the ‘Anyone but England’ faction have to give except high-minded abstentionism?
I agree that supporting England doesn’t make anyone a xenophobe or racist. There’s an obvious logic in following the home side. And a left politics of sport that requires people to renounce the national team is a non-starter. Nor should we turn our noses up at the World Cup as a ‘distraction’ from real issues: there are plenty of sound reasons to seek entertainment, relief, release in sport. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the cup without turning a blind eye to painful realities.
On the other hand, for a variety of reasons (personal, political, whimsical, a preference for the style of football played elsewhere, and so on) millions of people in England will not support the England team. None of them should be required to camouflage or justify their own forms of partisanship (or indifference). Most importantly, not being keen on the England football team does not make anyone less English, less a full and equal member of the community, than anyone else. The challenge during the World Cup will be securing space and respect for this diversity of partisanship.
The World Cup is a wonderfully dramatic display of human skill, ingenuity, fallibility. But it is also a huge economic enterprise, deeply enmeshed in the culture and politics of global capitalism. For me this is the key battleground for the left—resistance to corporate control and the celebrity culture—and one needn’t support England to engage with it. In fact, if one’s interest in the World Cup is solely in England’s fortunes, one is more likely to be bamboozled by the whole glitzy package. Sports lovers need to cross national borders, to see themselves and to organise as a global democratic constituency.
You’ve written insightfully, Mark, about the fans who attend England matches. But far greater numbers will follow the World Cup on telly—not because they love football, but because England is in it, and the media puts vast resources into persuading them that England’s cup run should be important to them.
In the unlikely event that England win the cup, we would witness a self-consciously national celebration, some of it spontaneous, but a great deal orchestrated from above. In the context of the war on terror, attacks on asylum seekers, Islamophobic arguments about who does and doesn’t belong, this would feed those very forms of Englishness you disavow (not just the flagrant chauvinism of the far right, but the packaged, consumerist variant of Blair and Brown), not genuine self-awareness or renewal of English radical traditions.
Claiming the red cross for the good guys doesn’t automatically change its meaning. Even the symbols we create are stolen from us and used by the rich and powerful. How much more so the symbols we inherit?
Englishness is a ‘site of contestation’, but the playing field on which it is contested is not a level one. In the current global and UK context, it remains an identity of privilege, potent because the privilege is seen as natural. It is more a means of control, pacification, of nominal inclusion, than of democratic resistance. An effective way of contesting that type of Englishness is precisely for English people to support an array of teams in the World Cup. Abstentionism is by no means the only alternative to flying the St George’s cross.
Recognising that supporting England isn’t about becoming a racist or xenophobe is a good starting point. Sadly, too much of the knee-jerk left, not to mention the liberal commentariat and the more snobbish sections of the right, don’t agree. I’ve lost count of the number of times the cosy stereotype of the St George cross hiding a hooligan at best, a raving fascist at worst, has been chucked at England fans from every conceivable quarter.
There is no reason why pride and passion for England shouldn’t accommodate inclusivity too. This is precisely the grounds of contestation on which those who equate Englishness with an exclusive, racialised definition will be defeated. England for all isn’t something the BNP would ever subscribe to, but increasingly it is what England fans believe in. It is a powerful emotion to see those who would never have thought of supporting England before, not just black and Asian fans, but women and families too, joining in. The reason? Not just Becks and company on the pitch, but our fan culture breaking the connection with violence and racism that for too long it has been associated with. In any other context this would be lauded as ‘people power’, but because it’s football, and England, it scarcely gets noticed by those who should be taking an interest in how social change can come about.
Mike is right that the vast majority watching the World Cup will do so on TV, not travel to Germany. But our consumption of this global spectacle is fundamentally shaped by the experience in the stands and the streets of a tournament. What supporting England means to the travelling fans has had a huge impact on how Englishness is consumed and shaped by those watching back home.
Of course, the World Cup is shaped by powerful forces, the media and corporations in particular. Mike seems to suggest that, just because we’re cheering England on, we aren’t aware of this. Nothing is going to shift our eyes from the team as soon as the match starts, but don’t doubt our opposition to the corporations and cynicism about the media.
McDonald’s and other sponsors have been allocated 16 per cent of World Cup tickets, with a further 11 per cent going to corporate hospitality—25,000 tickets per sponsor, or close to half a million in total. These are taken from the fans. As we might chant: ‘People’s game? You’re havin’ a larf.’ A dogged campaign by the fans has forced this issue into public debate and Fifa has been pressured into cutting back the sponsors’ allocations from the next tournament onwards. It’s not anti-capitalist, but our objectives are against the corporatisation of our game, and all this has been motivated by seeing ourselves as part of a global community of fans too.
As for the media, the tabloids, followed by much of the rest will be as jingoistic as ever, particularly against our German hosts and rivals. But England supporters are finding ways to create a fan-friendly World Cup and react with scorn at those who stir it up on their front pages and then, when trouble erupts, deny all responsibility.
St George is not a blank canvas, but to deny us the possibility to shape its current and future meaning is to deny us our nationality. A fan-friendly culture, engaging with other countries and cultures, home and away, wanting England to win but not hating the other lot. Keeping an eye out for how the lvorians, Portuguese, Dutch who play for our clubs are getting on too. These are some of the resources of hope I’ll be taking with me to Germany. And who do I want to win? England, with no apologies.
The work done by Mark and his colleagues within the family of England fans (not least, in providing independent representation for the thousands travelling to Germany) is admirable, necessary and should be supported by people on the left, whether or not they support England, as one of many grass-roots efforts to seize space from the corporations, the media and the state.
Yes, fans on the terraces can influence the wider ‘consumption of the spectacle’, particularly in matches against designated ‘rivals’ such as Germany or Argentina. In a broader sense, there’s a vital distinction between direct (but also critical) engagement and highly mediated engagement: submissive consumption of the product on offer.
Once upon a time, popular culture was derided by both the left and academia—now everyone wants a piece of the action. Too often, that means an uncritical embrace of the popular. Intervening in popular culture, locating and exercising power in an arena dominated by the elite, involves a mix of going with and against the grain.
I remain sceptical about the role of ‘Englishness’ and ‘soft patriotism’ in this process. A good deal of the submissive consumption of the World Cup in this country will be ‘England’-induced.
In its time, the patriotism of the English Jacobins carried a radical thrust—championing the people, the vast majority, against a self-interested clique. But they soon found that turned against them when the rulers rallied the populace for war against revolutionary France. Even with identities of resistance, clawed back from the oppressor through struggle, such as those shaped by African-Americans or Dalits in India, there’s a double edge. With Englishness—handed down to us by the oppressor—the edge cuts mostly the wrong way.
The right didn’t appropriate patriotism merely because the left was indifferent or snotty. It’s an ‘ism’ of national unity: for anyone seeking to obstruct class conflict or critical thinking, it’s a logical resort. ‘Englishness’, in particular, blurs the ethnic and the national (‘English’ often being a synonym for ‘native born white English’). That remains problematic.
Sport is beautifully trivial. In the World Cup, it’s the trivial magnified to global mega-drama. One of the democratic tasks of critically engaged sports fans is to rescue that triviality from the exploitative forces that pump it up with dubious meanings, paeans to economic individualism or national character.
As someone who lives happily with no sense of national identity (born and raised in the US, lived in London 30-odd years, worked in south Asia, internationalist by inclination), I have the luxury of choosing and altering my sporting allegiances (really that’s open to everyone, if the environment is free enough to permit it). My watchword in the ‘World Cup’ will remain ‘Anyone But England’. I don’t prescribe that to others—telling people who they should or shouldn’t support is a violation of the game’s precious triviality. I do however reserve the right to gloat, discreetly, if or rather when England stumble in this World Cup.
Mark Perryman is the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation (Simon & Schuster, £10. 99). Mike Marqusee is the author of Anyone But England: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket (Aurum Press)