Yen, I screamed with joy when Raheem Sterling scored against Germany last week. He would have been just as happy if he had scored against Scotland. And when India plays England in a test series next month, I will be supporting England, not my country of birth.
When it comes to sports, I am deeply committed to English. But while I am willing to wave the flag in a football stadium or on a cricket ground, it remains unwaved in other arenas. I am, as Sunder Katwala and John Denham would sniff, a “90-minute Englishman.” Katwala, who runs the British Future thinktank, and Denham, a former Labor MP and now director of the Center for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton, are among the left’s most enthusiastic advocates of the need for an English identity. Together with Steve Ballinger, they have published a new brochure entitled “Beyond a 90 minute nation“, Which advocates” an inclusive England both outside the stadium “and within.
There was a time when it wasn’t even 90 minute English. As a teenager growing up in brutally racist Britain that often denied me the right to belong, I consciously failed the Tebbit test, refusing to support any British team, least of all an English one. Whether in football, cricket or tiddlywinks, it was a case of “anyone but England.”
Today is different. Racism has not gone away, but fortunately the kind of poisonous racism that disfigured Britain a generation ago is relatively rare. The nature of the British and the English has also changed. According to British Future, few white people would now have a problem thinking of someone like me as English. Only about one in 10 insist that it is a racially exclusive identity. When it comes to ethnic minorities, fewer than one in five feel that English remains the exclusive domain of whites. Traditionally, minorities have identified themselves more as “British” than “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 something other than “90 minute English”? Could it be an Englishman 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?
Tribalism is an intimate part of sport. Certainly sport is about skill and dexterity, determination and strength. It’s about Mo Salah’s dancing feet, Roger Federer’s sublime right, and Dina Asher-Smith’s lightning speed. But it’s also about rivalries and conflicts, both individually and as a team. Liverpool v Manchester United, Federer v Nadal, Britain’s Asher-Smith in a Olympic showdown with Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce from Jamaica: these are the ones who give the sport its soul and its drama, locking individual achievements within a larger story that belongs to both the viewer and the athlete.
But the sport generates a kind of tribalism that I would not like to replicate outside the stadium. It is fierce and relentless, a loyalty that does not stand up to rational scrutiny. I might wish for England to defeat Scotland in football (sorry Andy Robertson), but beyond the game, I would not pose English interests as necessarily different from Scotland’s, nor would I wish to think of politics along such divisive lines.
The Conservative philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, argued that “who are we?” is a “question the English never needed to ask” because “They instinctively knew who they were”. England was simply “home”. But home can have many meanings and be intimidating as well as welcoming. According to Scruton, recent immigrants “were not really English at all, but people who had become British, through a strange process that overcame unnaturalness. [of] foreign “. The “immigration concern” was inevitable due to “the disruption of an old experience of home.”
Leftist advocates of English, such as Katwala and Denham, reject such a view, of course, and define English by its inclusiveness, seeing it as a “civic identity” necessary to build a “political community.” However, an identity has to be more than “inclusive.” A striking aspect of much contemporary debate is the paucity of discussion about what English is, beyond its diversity.
This is partly a product of the way the debate has arisen, largely through the erosion of British identity. As the Scots and 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 the latent resentment towards the “metropolitan elite” and being abandoned by the main political parties, particularly Labor. English has emerged not from a positive movement of identity adoption, but from skepticism and contempt for other forms of collective belonging.
It is this thinness of English that has made football its main symbol. The British Future poll shows that England’s football team far outperforms any other image as an inclusive Englishman. As is the case in much of the political debate.
“The imagined nation of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm, a line that Katwala quotes in his essay, to emphasize the importance of soccer to English. The entire passage the quote comes from is worth reading (it’s in his book Nations and nationalism since 1780). Hobsbawm described the rise of nationalist fervor in Europe in the interwar years and the use of sport by authorities to bridge the gap between the public and private spheres and “make national symbols a part of every individual’s life.” .
Hobsbawm asks why so many were drawn to this project. Much of the answer, he suggests, is that it “filled the void left by failure, powerlessness, and the apparent inability of other ideologies, political projects, and programs to realize the hopes of men.” That was true then and it is now. John Denham may be right about him need for an english parliament. But no separate legislature, no sense of English, will mitigate the feeling of abandonment and loss of control that permeates much of politics in England. That requires a different kind of political project.
I will cheer on England with fervor and fury. But after those 90 minutes, my English will fade into the background. I am tribal about the sport, not about the nation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism