For St George's Day Mark Perryman explores the connections between English football’s golden moment and national identity
In CLR James’ magnificent book on Caribbean cricket Beyond a Boundary he criticises both liberal and socialist historians of 19th century England who can write books on the period entirely missing out any mention of the most famous Englishman of the era, cricketer WG Grace. Recently I was reminded of this by a spate of articles seeking to remind the Left that it ignores at its peril The English Question.
David Marquand manages to write a New Statesman essay on the subject without mentioning the most salient and obvious expression of Englishness at all, not once. Timothy Garton-Ash writes a similar piece for the Guardian choosing to ignore this most obvious of expression of Englishness too, though to be fair he does give rugby a passing mention. I am of course referring to football, a subject the political class wears as a badge of faux-authenticity without actually having the merest grasp of its meaning for a debate they now hold so dear.
My home town is Lewes in East Sussex. Home of Tom Paine, the Bloomsbury Group and Bonfire, you don’t get much more traditionally English than this. Yet despite a spot of Saturday morning Morris Dancing outside The Volunteer St George’s Day will pass by scarcely noticed (it’s today in case you haven’t).
This St George’s Day is a tad special for those of a literary persuasion as it also marks Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. I’m not one for cultural relativism, I’ve as much time for the Bard as most but the most influential piece of writing in the English language isn’t Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead it’s a book written by committee in a room above a pub, The Freemason’s Arms in Covent Garden. On 26th October 1863 the thirteen laws of football were codified in a single rulebook and adopted at the meeting that founded the world’s first Football Association.
No, this isn’t some misguided claim to England being the ‘home of football’, those days are long gone. Rather it is a means to understand how football frames both a brutish form of nationalism and the most popular version of internationalism. Sometimes at one and the same time. Football is the most global of sports because of its simplicity, its suitability to be played on almost any surface, with next to no equipment – ‘jumpers for goalposts’ will do – by bodies of any shape or size, and for the very few it is a route out of poverty from wherever they come. Football is both a global actor and a global subject. Football is played all over the world more or less according to those thirteen rules adopted more than 150 years. While our ‘English’ game couldn’t be more globalised , the players, the managers, the owners, the shirts sponsors, the fans, the TV audience.
The two processes exist side-by-side, globalisation and localisation, occasionally in conflict but mostly not. What the commentariat fail to account for is how that co-existence and conflict become a lived experience, a subject of popular discourse. Take a traditional symbol of national identity, national dress. What might we imagine England’s to be? A busby and red tunic? A Morris Dancer? A crusader complete with chainmail? Not bloody likely, ours has only one contender, a bri-nylon England football shirt with the Three Lions and that frankly embarrassing solitary gold star positioned over the left tit. An easy-looking group on paper to top at this summer’s Euros and the St George Cross will be everywhere it isn’t today. Saturday 25th June is pencilled in for a Group 16 game before the country goes expectation overboard ahead of the near-inevitable, but plucky, exit at the quarter-final stage Friday 1st July.
Five decades on from England’s ’66 golden moment and just the two semi-finals, don’t mention either the score, how we lost, or to whom, on both occasions, please. But there’s been one achievement of perhaps more significance than all this heaped up failure. The one and only World Cup England has hosted and the FA manage to get the effing flag wrong. That’s right, check out 1966’s World Cup Willie, the first-ever tournament mascot, and he’s wearing a Union Jack waistcoat. Same flag all over the rest of the tournament publicity too. There’s not a St George Cross, an English flag, to be seen anywhere. Today it is entirely different, this summer St George in England will be universal. Historian Eric Hobsbawm put it rather neatly to explain why; “An imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of named people”. As a team England has failed ever since to come anywhere close to ’66 but as a means of making England a nation for as long as our stay in a tournament football has no serious rival.
This gets us somewhere close to the core of the mythology of ’66. England’s singular footballing golden moment and the ensuing 50 ‘years of hurt’ are too often treated in isolation from the broader actuality of national decline. A political class seduced by the apparent spoils neoliberalism while turning its back on a very English version of social-democracy, the post-war settlement of ’45. A nation that looks back in anger to the era of great white hopes unsure of how this fits with the multicultural team and country we have become.
The commentariat, sparked by both the rampant success of the SNP and the forthcoming Euro-referendum pleads for an awakening of the English question. But where is their national narrative, what would they start it with? 1966 was a year and a moment of English bliss that explains all that came after. A popular history of England that begins with sublime victory, ruling the world, team and crowd founded on deference followed by a seemingly irreversible period of decline and the ‘hurt’ this causes. Sounds familiar? Despite all those St George Cross flags bedecking England this summer, to date none of the dots between the popular and the political have even begun to be joined up. In a society so rooted in the anti-political this is hardly any surprise. A language and politics to cross this great divide will need to find an entirely different language and means of conversation. Never mind 1066 and All That, 1966, what a great place to start the chat.
Mark Perryman's new book 1966 and Not All That is to be published in May by Repeater Books and is available now in pre-publication from here.
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 The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.