This essay, on football and Englishness, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 4 July 2021, under the headline “I love the football team but can’t get tribal about England. What’s going on?”
Yes, I shouted with joy when Raheem Sterling scored against Germany last week. I would have been equally joyful had he scored against Scotland. And when India play England in a Test series next month, I will be rooting for England, not for the country of my birth.
When it comes to sport, I am deeply invested in Englishness. But while I am willing to wave the flag in a football stadium or on a cricket field, it remains unwaved in other arenas. I am, as Sunder Katwala and John Denham would snort, a “90-minute Englishman”. Katwala, who runs the thinktank British Future, and Denham, former Labour MP and now director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Southampton University, are among the keenest advocates on the left of the need for an English identity. Together with Steve Ballinger, they have published a new pamphlet called Beyond a 90-minute nation, which argues for “an inclusive England outside the stadium” as well as inside.
There was a time when I wasn’t even a 90-minute Englishman. As a teenager growing up in a viciously racist Britain that often denied me the right to belong, I consciously failed the Tebbit test, refusing to support any British team, still less an English one. Whether in football, cricket or tiddlywinks, it was a case of “anyone but England”.
Today, it’s different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of venomous racism that disfigured Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness and Englishness has changed, too. According to British Future, few white people would now have a problem thinking of someone like me as English. Only around one in 10 insist on it being a racially exclusive identity. As for ethnic minorities, fewer than one in five feel that Englishness is still the preserve of white people. Traditionally, minorities have identified themselves more as “British” than as “English”. That gap is closing, British Future suggests, and many feel both British and English.
I have long since lost my “anyone but England” attitude. I, too, now feel the pain of an Ashes defeat, the joy of a football victory over Germany. But can I see myself as being more than a “90-minute Englishman”? Could I be a 24/7 Englishman?
Tribalism is an intimate part of sport. Certainly, sport is about skill and prowess, determination and strength. It’s about Mo Salah’s dancing feet, Roger Federer’s sublime forehand, Dina Asher-Smith’s lightning speed. But it’s also about rivalries and conflicts, both individual and team. Liverpool v Manchester United, Federer v Nadal, Britain’s Asher-Smith in an Olympic showdown with Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: these are what give sport its soul and its drama, encasing individual achievement within a wider story that belongs as much to the spectator as to the athlete.
But sport generates a kind of tribalism I would not wish to replicate outside the stadium. It is fierce and unforgiving, a loyalty that bears no rational scrutiny. I might wish England to trounce Scotland in football (sorry, Andy Robertson) but beyond the game, I would not pose English interests as necessarily different to those of Scotland, nor wish to think of policy along such divisive lines.
The conservative philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, argued that “who are we?” is a “question that the English never needed to ask themselves” because “they instinctively knew who they were”. England was simply “home”. But home can have many meanings, and be forbidding as well as welcoming. According to Scruton, recent immigrants were “not really Englishmen at all, but people who had become British, by a strange process which overcame the unnaturalness [of] foreigners”. “Disquiet about immigration” was inevitable because of “the disruption of an old experience of home”.
Leftwing advocates of Englishness, such as Katwala and Denham, reject such a vision, of course, and define Englishness by its inclusivity, viewing it as a “civic identity”, necessary to build a “political community”. An identity, though, has to be more than just “inclusive”. A striking aspect of much of the contemporary debate is the paucity of discussion of what Englishness is, beyond its diversity.
This is partly the product of the way the debate has arisen, largely through the erosion of British identity. As the Scots and the Welsh have developed their identities and gained their own legislatures, many in England have felt a loss of power and control over their lives. This, as the Brexit debate has revealed, is part of long-simmering resentment of the “metropolitan elite” and of being abandoned by mainstream political parties, particularly Labour. Englishness has arisen not because of a positive movement to adopt the identity, but from scepticism towards and scorn for other forms of collective belonging.
It’s this thinness of Englishness that has made football its primary symbol. The British Future poll shows that the England football team far outranks anything else as an image of an inclusive Englishness. As it does in much of the political debate.
“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” Eric Hobsbawm wrote, a line that Katwala quotes in his essay, to emphasise the importance of football to Englishness. It’s worth reading the whole passage from which the quote comes (it’s in his book Nations and Nationalism Since 1780). Hobsbawm was describing the rise of nationalist fervour in Europe in the interwar years, and the use of sport by the authorities to bridge the public and private spheres and “make national symbols part of the life of every individual”.
Hobsbawm asks why so many were drawn to this project. A large part of the answer, he suggests, is that it “filled the void left by failure, impotence and the apparent inability of other ideologies, political projects and programmes to realise men’s hopes”. That was true then, and it is true now. John Denham may be right about the need for an English parliament. But no separate legislature, no sense of Englishness, will assuage the feeling of abandonment and loss of control that pervades much of politics in England. That requires a different kind of political project.
I will cheer on England with fervour and fury. But after those 90 minutes are up, my Englishness will fade into the background. I am tribal about sport, not about the nation.