Mark Perryman explores what Andy Murray and the Lions tell us about sport’s impact on national identity
“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people”
Eric Hobsbawm’s acute observation concerning the impact of sport on national identity has been carted out so often that it is in danger of descending into becoming a cliché. Yet its enduring currency is reinforced by the fact that Monday after last weekend’s miracle of British sporting success at both ends of the global hemisphere commentators and politicians were scrambling to stake a claim for what the Andy Murray and Lions victories tell us about Britishness.
Large sections of the Left choose to absent themselves from this debate on the grounds that there’s nothing progressive about patriotism. Yet the ways in which sport represents, and shapes, national identity has been an increasingly popular discourse since another sporting summer, Euro ‘96. Of course being football this one ended in anything but glory, instead the traditional early exit on penalties, and no trophy to show for it. The tournament took place a year ahead of the newly elected Labour government’s devolution referendums began the constitutional break up of Britain.
In support of England the widespread, and then novel, flying and wearing of the St George Cross flag in place of the customary identity-confusion of the Union Jack indicated a growing awareness that England and Scotland shared an island but weren’t necessarily the same. Scotland, and Wales, had of course made sense of this a long time previously, for the English this was something new.
And there was another difference too. In Scotland and Wales this popular mood around national identity connected to a wider politics of civic nationalism, with differing ambitions ranging from devolution to independence. In England, then and now there is no such expression of any such intent at a political level. Some of course on the Left portray any such awakening as reactionary, or worse, but the spectre of a racialised nationalism around Englishness is in large measure confounded by its primary vehicle, football.
Football is by far the most multicultural of all our team sports, on the pitch, in the stands, watching and cheering from the sofa. In many ways the St George cross, wrapped round football, became a symbol of inner-city multicultural England.
Such was the evolving narrative every other summer 1996 through to England’s disastrous performance in South Africa at World Cup 2010. Given a nudge too by the winning of rugby’s World Cup in 2003, cricket’s Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011, all in England’s colours.
But after 2010 the biannual summer of hopeful expectation and flag-waving celebration has taken more than a bit of a knocking. Despite getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and decent TV viewing figures, the popular mood seemed to have changed. England no longer creating the kind of buzz they had become used to. Instead 2012’s summer of sport was absolutely dominated by the London Olympics and all things Team GB. With Wiggins winning the yellow jersey, an incredible last-day recovery to win golf’s Ryder Cup and Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam victory in New York thrown in for happy measure. But these versions of sporting nationalism are more complex.
The Olympic success is often in sports where there is next to no interest outside of the Games, and zero fan culture of the sort football boasts on a weekly basis. Sports where the individual is celebrated, obviously to the maximum by those who share his or her nationality but beyond that it is his or her achievement that matters not the flag embroidered on the kit worn. The Ryder Cup in the most teasing of ironies, given golf’s self-image of Ukip at play, won under the EU flag. Andy Murray's growing popularity defying that favourite sporting maxim of a certain brand of Englishness, ‘Scots when he loses, British when he wins.’
The Lions victory doesn’t fit into a previously cosy version of sports nationalism either. Elite rugby players of course, but entirely unused to playing together as a team until they go on tour. This is teamwork at its best. The incredible third Test victory against Australia featuring a solid core of Welsh internationals, it couldn’t have been won without them. This de-centres a traditional version of Britishness.
As for the Irish contribution. A united Ireland team playing this most English of sports, and all its home internationals are in Dublin. At a club level Ulster ranked alongside the other giants of Irish rugby, Munster and Leinster. Arguably Ireland’s most successful team sport on a global stage, this is a mix that the political imagination can hardly begin to comprehend.
77 years of hurt
And Andy Murray? David Cameron and Alex Salmond in the posh seats, nothing could better represent broken-up Britain. Each desperate for some of the gold dust of Andy’s victory to do their poll ratings some good, to strengthen the case for the Union or the cause of independence. But nobody was very much interested what either had to say, or tweet. Tennis, like most individual sports, doesn’t really do nationalism in the way team sports do. The story becomes a personal one, of family, sacrifice, talent-spotted and developed, turning disappointments into a glorious sunny July afternoon of triumph, with the backhistory of the tennis version of the years of hurt, all 77 of them, adding to the magic of the moment.
Murray's Wimbledon victory was a superlative sporting achievement. But it hardly affects our emotional investment in that joy to add the observation that the All England Tennis Club’s pocket of SW19 doesn’t look much like the rest of that world-famous postcode, the remainder of Wimbledon either, or London for that matter. An almost exclusively white crowd, white flight in reverse, this isn’t metropolitan Britain as we know it. Not ‘political correctness gone mad’ of the Jeremy Clarkson type jibe but enriching our understanding of sport by noting, accounting for, and acting upon the causes why those others are left out.
Sport is socially constructed by gender, race and class in particular. Very few sports are ‘for all’ , some never will be, most could be. Why they aren’t should be as vital to our understanding of Britishness as lifting a trophy in Britain’s name, Wimbledon’s or any other we can get our hands on.
And this means also that John Inverdale’s pre-match commentary on Wimbledon’s women singles champion Marion Bartoli suggesting her father might have told her ‘ you’re never going to be a looker’ and this would explain her playing style ‘ scrappy and to fight’ weren't simply a gaffe but deeply revelatory. And what they reveals is a misogyny at the core of sports media culture. This was a statement that the media star of London 2012, Claire Balding, it is inconceivable to imagine would have made. Inverdale, not an isolated example, rather he is emblematic of a sports media culture blokedom, saloon bar putting the world to rights, keeping women in their place, getting down to the real business of sport, reinforcing their masculinity. As football shuffles away from its summertime tournament stage other sports offer the possibility to challenge this but not so long as the likes of Inverdale rule the studios and backpages they won’t
Meanwhile we can’t afford to get cocky. Last weekend may be as good as it gets this summer. But Chris Froome in the yellow jersey and a home Ashes win would surely set the seal on a British summer of sport every bit as good as the one in 2012 we thought we’d never get close to experiencing ever again. Will it change Britain for good? No, elite success has next to no impact on levels of participation in sport. They can help inspire, of course they can, and popularise a sport. But the tools for increasing participation require a much more serious unpicking of sport’s social construction, to account for the exclusions and inclusions, and most of all to focus investment and initiatives on the level most of us will ever aspire to, the recreational not the competitive.
Yet there could also be the beginnings of a more profound cultural shift. The bi-annual flag waving for the England team as it heads off to a Euro or World Cup only to return early with nothing much to show for the effort turning into a more multi-sports summer, breaking the hegemony of football over sporting culture, enabling a much greater variety of ways to identify with what sport and nation means to us. England, GB, a bit of one, some of the other, or none at all.
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.