Sunday 11 July 2021

We're Singing for England

England didn't win, but the campaign on the pitch has brought about a victory in the culture wars. At the beginning of the Euros, rightwingers lined up to attack the England team for taking the knee. The likes of Laurence Fox and Paul Joseph Watson accused them of "surrendering" to "Marxism". And where they prepared the ground, opportunist rightwing politicians followed. Nigel Farage, pretending to be England's biggest fan before the match was straight on the attack with a defence of booing the players. Always looking for a rightwing bandwagon to jump on, Priti Patel likewise defended racism on the terraces, before the inevitable about turn and staged photos of celebrating goals. The only one to stick to his guns was Lee Anderson. Vying for the title of the Tories' most bigoted backbencher, he said he would be boycotting England matches and will carry on doing so. No doubt he'll be pleased Italy won, but don't tell him they took the knee too.

This has made England's run all the sweeter, with the team pushing a soft solidaristic, inclusive, anti-racist politics articulated in these terms, and acuitting themselves with aplomb on the pitch. Meanwhile, the right have overreached and put themselves on the wrong side of public opinion - an opinion that has shifted even more in the direction of England's stand as the tournament progressed. The chance of Boris Johnson, with his flag-bedecked Downing Street, awkward appearances in the team shirt, and its politicians mobilised for the so-called war on woke, being able to identify the penny-pinching miserablism of Tory Britain with a much improved England seems a bit of a stretch. One cannot be associated with attempts to rubbish their efforts and then claim credit for their success. A fun fact repeatedly noted by leftwing Twitter, who have loudly (and no doubt irritatingly, for some) claimed credit for England's success. After all, if we accept the arguments of sundry Tories and rightwing screechers about taking the knee, the adoption of Marxism by the team has produced more success than 55 years of tabloid-powered jingoism.

Surveying the scene from The Sunday Telegraph, David Goodhart argues there has been an appreciable shift among elite opinion as well: "progressives" are singing for England too. This marks a sigificant change from the embarrassed disdain they normally reserve for popular expressions of Englishness. One might recall thw Emily Thornberry/White Van Dan incident all those years ago. Goodhart argues these professional layers have traditionally been estranged from Englishness because there are no unique English state institutions, and the national identity they tend toward is Britishness. There's some mileage in this. Thinking about his social universe of politicians, wonks, academics, senior civil servants, media people, and upper management, their work immediately links them to the British government and other UK-wide institutions, and their spontaneous national consciousness reflects this. Englishness, as filtered through the media and its cynical self-appointed champions is traditionally conceived as something lesser, an atavistic throwback of congealed racism and the EDL that can be mobilised for backward political projects that are a direct threat to their station. Goodhart argues the action on the pitch and in the culture wars off it has made the case for an inclusive Englishness, and one congenial to their liberal attitudes.

Yes, but there's more going on. For one, when establishment commentators write about "the left" this is who they mean. The actually existing left, at least in my decades of involvement, have happily supported England because whole swathes, most of it are footy mad. With the possible exception of Socialist Worker, who in all seriousness wag their finger and affect revolutionary defeatism whenever England plays. Rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi who invaded their metropolitan Labour branches may have left some populist tastes hanging in the air, making the great unwashed that little bit less alien. The second is the consequence of Britishness becoming more inclusive itself. An idea of 'the British' as a multi-national, multi-ethnic common identity was taken up by New Labour with some enthusiasm, enabling the party to distinguish itself and their rebranded Cool Britannia from the tired and narrowly white Britain of the Tory imaginary. Meeting with the anti-racist and social liberal push from below, equalities legislation and managerial initiative enforced a bureaucratic, 'official' multiculturalism, an inclusivity cemented by quotas, mission statements, and diversity workshops. It was inevitable this would fold into Englishness, what with social liberalism the spontaneous common sense of growing millions and the membrane between Britishness and English identity measured in microns, not miles. The administrators of multicultural Britain aren't leading but following the drift of popular culture and values.

There's another. Just as the left have claimed England for Marxism thanks to the right's excesses, the stupidities of Anderson, Patel, et al has given, to the minds of Goodhart's contemporaries, the permission to endorse and embrace the team and the theatre around it. If the vulgars and grotesques are piling into England for wokeishness, they have effectively relinquished Englishness for someone else to take up.

Am I guilty of overreading a tournament and the hype surrounding England's excellent young team? Events commanding national attention are crucibles for sentiments and ideas. If something is working its way through national life, if there are movements in opinion they can bubble to the surface and code the event with significance, announcing what is already an accomplished fact. England in the European championships is one of these moments. It affirms the advance of social liberalism, and underlines the retreat of conservatism from mainstream values.

1 comment:

Jon Hegerty said...

Just to pick up on your final comment - no, I don't think you're reading too much into this. These events become national conversations (in pubs, schools, workplaces). And people are talking about racist abuse, "taking the knee", national identity etc in a meaningful way. Our job is to engage in that conversation. Oh, and to enjoy the football...