I love the football team but I can’t get tribal about England. What is happening? | Kenan malik


Yeses, I screamed with joy when Raheem Sterling scored against Germany last week. I would have been just as happy if he had scored against Scotland. And when India takes on England in a Test Series next month, I’ll be leaning on England, not my country of birth.

When it comes to sports, I am deeply invested in English. But while I’m ready to wave the flag in a soccer stadium or cricket pitch, it remains unchanged in other arenas. I am, as Sunder Katwala and John Denham would say, a “90 minute Englishman”. Katwala, who heads the think tank British Future, 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 most ardent advocates on the left of the need for an English identity. . Together with Steve Ballinger, they released a new brochure titled ‘Beyond a 90 Minute Nation’, which calls 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 a British team, let alone an England team. Whether it was football, cricket or tiddlywinks, it was about ‘anyone but England’.

Today is different. Racism hasn’t gone away, but the kind of poisonous racism that disfigured Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness and English has also changed. According to British Future, few white people would have a hard time thinking that someone like me is English. Only about one in ten people say it is a racially exclusive identity. As for ethnic minorities, less than one in five believe that English is still the preserve of whites. Traditionally, minorities have identified themselves more as “British” than “English”. This gap is narrowing, suggests British Future, and many feel British and English at the same time.

I have long since lost my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I, too, now feel the pain of a loss for Ashes, the joy of a football victory over Germany. But can I consider myself to be more than a “90 minute Englishman”? Could I be an Englishman 24/7?

Tribalism is an intimate part of the sport. Of course, sport is all about skill and prowess, determination and strength. It’s about the dancing feet of Mo Salah, the sublime forehand of Roger Federer, the lightning speed of Dina Asher-Smith. But it is also about rivalries and conflicts, both individual and team. Liverpool v Manchester United, Federer v Nadal, Briton Asher-Smith in an Olympic showdown with Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce: this is what gives the sport its soul and drama, setting individual achievements into a larger story that belongs as much to the spectator as to the athlete.

But the sport generates a kind of tribalism that I would not like to reproduce outside the stadium. It is fierce and ruthless, a loyalty that does not stand rational scrutiny. I might wish that England beat Scotland in football (sorry, Andy Robertson), but beyond the game, I wouldn’t present English interests as necessarily different from Scotland, nor would I want to think of a policy going in the direction of such a division.

The conservative philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, argued that “who are we? “Is a” question that the English never had to ask themselves “because” they instinctively knew who they were “. England was simply “home”. But the home can have many meanings, and be both intimidating and welcoming. According to Scruton, recent immigrants were “not really English at all, but people who had become British, through a strange process that overcame the abnormality [of] foreigners ”. “Concern about immigration” was inevitable due to “the disruption of an old home experience”.

Left-wing supporters of English, like Katwala and Denham, reject such a vision, of course, and define English by its inclusiveness, seeing it as a “civic identity”, necessary to build a “political community”. An identity, however, must be more than just “inclusive”. A striking aspect of much of the contemporary debate is the lack of discussion of what English is, beyond its diversity.

This is in part the product of how the debate arose, largely through the erosion of British identity. As the Scots and Welsh developed their identities and gained their own legislatures, many in England felt a loss of power and control over their lives. This, as the Brexit debate has revealed, is part of a long-standing resentment against the ‘metropolitan elite’ and being abandoned by mainstream political parties, especially Labor. English was not born out of a positive movement to embrace identity, but out of skepticism and contempt for other forms of collective belonging.

It is this thinness of English that made football its first symbol. The British Future poll shows that the England football team far outperforms everything else as an image of an inclusive Anglo-Saxon. As it does in much of the political debate.

“The imaginary nation of millions seems more real than an 11-person named team,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm, a line Katwala quotes in his essay, to stress the importance of football to English. It is worth reading the entire passage where the quote comes from (it is in his book Nations and nationalism since 1780). Hobsbawm described the rise of nationalist fervor in Europe in the interwar period, and the use of sport by the authorities to bridge the public and private spheres and “integrate national symbols into the life of every individual. “.

Hobsbawm asks why so many people were drawn to this project. Much of the answer, he suggests, is that it “filled the void left by the failure, powerlessness and apparent inability of other ideologies, projects and political programs to realize the hopes of the people. men ”. It 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 English, will allay the sense of abandonment and loss of control that permeates much of politics in England. This requires a different type of political project.

I will cheer on England with fervor and fury. But once those 90 minutes are up, my English will fade into the background. I am tribal for the sport, not for the nation.

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