Now even progressives should embrace an English identity

I do love a football tournament. It gives me childish pleasure to stick an England flag on my car and catch the sniffy looks of some of my Hampstead neighbours, contrasting with smiles and thumbs up signs down the road in more multi-racial Hackney. 

Like clockwork, every tournament triggers debate about good versus bad nationalism and the re-emergence of Englishness from under the smothering canopy of Britishness. Yet whatever happens tonight, the team’s success has nudged us a bit closer to the normalisation of that English national identity, especially in places like Hackney.

I’ve always supported England teams in all sports, even when a card-carrying progressive, terrifying my small children with roars of approval or disappointment from the sofa during big games. It just seems obvious that moderate national feeling is a force for good, promoting a common identity and mutual obligation across classes and regions and generations, a shared home transcending bank balance or skin colour.  

And when England is represented by disproportionate numbers of young blacks in football or young south Asians in cricket what better symbol could there be of recent waves of immigration strengthening, literally, the national team? The inclusive civic British identification versus the exclusive ethnic English identification always seemed an artificial binary, and it is now dissolving thanks in part to the electric performances of the multiracial football team. 

“Many first generation Commonwealth migrants, like my father from India, were proud to become British, but few felt that they were invited to become English too,” writes Sunder Katwala of the British Future think tank. For the second and third generation things have moved on. According to British Future polling 77 per cent of white people say Englishness is open to all and nearly 70 per cent of ethnic minority people agree. Only about 10 per cent of whites have a racially exclusive view of Englishness. 

This is a big shift in a short period. And it comes at a hinge moment for England and Englishness in the wake of a narrow Brexit vote driven by England, against the perceived interests of a majority in Scotland and both parts of Ireland (and many in England itself), strengthening an already strong sense of disenfranchisement north of the border. 

And notwithstanding a new benign sense of Englishness within, there remain the awkward realities of demographic and historical domination that make the very fact of England a threat to some of those without, especially in the other nations of these islands. 

As devolution within the UK has created a new sense of English identity and interests, once downplayed in the interests of the Union, the question of how the country representing 85 per cent of the UK population can express those interests without damaging the interests of the smaller nations has rarely been faced. Commentators in Ireland and Scotland often describe England as the elephant in the bed and assume it should continue to keep still, but elephants have rights too.  

Values and interests within these islands do not actually diverge much, but England voting to leave the EU against the wishes of the smaller nations, apart from Wales, has created an unprecedented challenge. It has been exacerbated by the post-devolution, post Good Friday Agreement, settlement which has invited all the other nations to partially reinvent their institutions and rethink themselves, but not England.

This is why our English sports teams, especially football, carry such a burden. “Sport has to carry too much of the weight of projecting an inclusive Englishness,” says John Denham the ex-Labour minister and scholar of Englishness. 

There are still no English national political institutions, not even an English national anthem. The Tories may have an Anglo-centric sense of Britishness but despite their political domination in England they don’t talk much about it, Labour even less. And, as Denham says, those who staff England’s most influential institutions—civil service, academia, media—emphasise a British not English identity. 

No wonder football tournaments create such an outpouring of emotion for this nation that is at the same time so ill-defined and yet sharply real. And, fortunately the 26 young men in England’s squad, along with their thoughtful manager Gareth Southgate, are a worthy receptacle for those emotions. 

Southgate spoke at the 2018 World Cup about how England was “a bit lost about what its modern identity is” and this time he has written a celebrated “letter to England” about how his squad, without the club cliques of the past, represents a unified, tolerant country. And one that, thanks to social media, feels closer to its fans than in the past.

This is not just about the ethnic diversity of metropolitan England—11 of the squad are either black or mixed race—but also about the mainly white working class towns that many key players come from.

There have been minor political skirmishes around the Black Lives Matter-inspired taking the knee and Southgate’s apparent “wokeness”. Some liberal commentators contrast Southgate’s humility and decency with Boris Johnson’s bombastic Brexit nationalism. Will Hutton, the former Observer editor, even blamed the booing of other team’s anthems on Brexit boorishness even though it has happened since the 1970s. 

Yet it’s equally ridiculous to claim the team’s success is Brexit inspired. It’s more to do with the fact that this generation of players don’t carry the scars of past failure in the way that other post-1966 generations have done. It also has something to do with the quality of the Premier League, which used to squeeze young English players out but has recently seen the proportion of English players starting games rising to around 40 per cent.

Boris Johnson’s Government will probably benefit from a Euros feel-good factor even if the team falls at the last. Sporting success creates intense national feelings—even more so after 18 months of pandemic restrictions and the wrenching divisions of Brexit—though seldom with lasting political impact.

For most English people celebrating victory or mourning defeat tonight their England is a special but not superior place, an “incredible” nation, as Southgate puts it, but not a triumphal one, as it is still often seen by our smaller neighbours. The only triumph in the iconic “Three Lions” anthem of fellow Hampsteaders David Baddiel and Frank Skinner is that of hope over experience. Yet watching their wonderful video 25 years on I am struck by the sense of nostalgia and resignation of mid-1990s England. Does Englishness today, and the football team, not feel both more open and more confident? 

I am just old enough to remember 1966 and the 55 years of hurt is burnt into me. I was in Germany, watching with German friends, in 1990 and at Wembley in 1996 for the second semi-final defeat on penalties to Germany. I recall the absolute silence on the crammed tube carriage home and my fear for the safety of those same German friends who were with me.  

There will always be a few nutters who attract headlines, and in the past we had more than our share. They are a diminishing band. We may once have been a warrior nation and our national story will never be an uncomplicated one. But I do hope that elite England, and especially its progressive wing, will eventually follow ethnic minority England’s lead and realise that it is now safe to come out unapologetically as English. Even in Hampstead.

David Goodhart works at Policy Exchange. His latest book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century is now out in paperback (Penguin)

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