With the World Cup kicking off in less than 100 days time Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football explores the collision between football, national identity and Englishness

FootballIn their book The Changing Face of Football the sociologists and anti-racism campaigners  Les Back, Tim Crabbe and John Solomos describe the presence of Englishness as a subject in and around the support for the team at World Cups as representing  contestation about who and what should be associated with support for the England national team.’

And they locate this process as follows in relation to race :

‘Whilst the side has become a focus for the display of a variety of forms of English patriotism, for a significant proportion of fans the national team represents a means through which to associate with historically grounded notions of a particular white, working-class English identity. However, for many of those supporters this has more to do with an appreciation of the normative behaviour and cultural styles associated with football supporter traditions than ideologically motovated notions of England as a nation, or even the racial exclusiveness of those styles.’

To a much greater extent than arguments over Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish identity, debates about Englishness are dominated by the question of race. When we track the emergent popularity of the St George Cross flag as a potential symbol of our multicultural Englishness, this is the contest we are observing. A team, flag and nation for all, or only for some?

There are those who parade their Englishness as a barrier to a new nation. And those who celebrate inclusion as a core value of the England that we seek to build – not in denial of our imperial and martial past – but in recognition of, and opposition to, its worst excesses.

In this sense the flags we fly, the shirts we pull on and the teams we cheer for are part of our interpretation, as individuals and communities, of the connections that bind and separate us. These are complex and contradictory, rarely uniform.

As a shift away from national insularity gathers pace, an opposition that resists such a process also emerges. Previously support for the BNP was the ugly end product of this, in 2014 UKiP, which despite draping themselves in the Union Jack are an almost exclusively English party, represent  this trend.

But it is also remarkable that this period of an unfolding emergence of Englishness as an identity has been accompanied by ever-increasing numbers of black and Asian football fans identifying with England.

Does that mean an end to racist discrimination, abuse and assaults, let alone the rising support for UKiP speciifically as an anti-immigration party?  No – and who in their right mind would make such a claim?

But it does indicate that in an imagined England of inclusion and identity is not the impossibilist dream that some on the Left  presume. A place we can call multicultural England is emerging, with a pride in what makes us different – without that there’s no basis of nationhood – but proud, too, of our differences.

The temptation to retreat into an unchanging past, a theme park for an old country is strong, offering security  versus global risk and the comfort blanket of the familiar. Of course it is the processes of history that have shaped our particularities of custom and culture, landscape and diet, sense of place and faces we think we recognise as our own. But history isn’t just about the past. It has a present and future too.

The historian Raphael Samuel described the mixture that constitutes a nation :

‘Nation is a symbolic complex, with a multiplicity of discrepant meanings at any given time and ruptures over time that are far more significant than the continuities.’

The contestation lies in the  varied construction of those meanings, unpacking the ruptures, maintaining in good repair the continuities we favour, junking the ones we don’t.

Eric Hobsbawm ‘s depiction of the significance of all this to Englishness is absolutely spot-on :  ‘The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’ Never mind the Scottish independence referendum for evidence of Scotland as an independent nation simply witness the prevalence of the ‘anyone but Ingerland’ brigade north of the border for the duration of the World Cup. Yet in England there is next to no political expression for what England wold look like in a broken-up Britain. Instead our imagined community comes down more or less to  eleven named people, and the millions more of us too roaring them on from the sofa. In this way for the past eighteen years, since Euro ‘96, every summertime a Euro or a World Cup comes around a  process of imagining all of this as a nation begins and never entirely ends either with the inevitable exit of the team without winning a trophy. To be sure, welcome or not. it is an irreversible process, only the outcome, remains uncertain.

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here