What did England expect?
Following narrow defeat at the hands of Italy, the meaning of it all is being hotly fought over. Paul Demarty urges the left to think beyond gesture politics
It had to end that way, of course. It matters not that England had long been capable of winning penalty shootouts, had long developed the habit of - you know - actually practising penalty kicks. The loss, at the death, is too hardwired by too many memories: it is now confirmation bias raised to the level of ancestral trauma. The face of the current manager is itself a reminder of the curse. Twenty-five years ago, we watched Gareth Southgate place a penalty onto the gloves of the German keeper; on July 11, he, along with the rest of us, watched three excellent young players - all, indeed, younger than he was in 1996 - miss their penalties.
The disappointment appeared overwhelming, if not surprising. This was certainly the most favourable opportunity to sneak that first major title since 1966 - this absurd, pandemic-mocking, continent-wide tournament had somehow conspired to send England to Wembley repeatedly, giving them something close to home advantage; and there really are a lot of good English players nowadays.
Yet reaching the final certainly counted for something, and really this will be remembered at least as a successful campaign. The press on July 12 largely trod this line. “Pride of lions”, saluted The Sun, and reminded us all that the World Cup is, after all, only a year away. The improvement over the 2018 World Cup was obvious, which in turn was a marked improvement over England’s capitulation to Iceland in Euro 2016. Excepting any dreadful career-ending injuries, we expect the squad to be stronger next year. Today, if you can believe it, is a good time to be an England fan, which is a welcome change from the directionless mediocrity of the first 15 years of this century.
Also in the news, however, was the depressing, but not at all surprising, fact that the three players who had missed their crucial penalties - Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, all black - had been subject to the usual barrage of racist internet abuse. The controversy over this abuse is a good place to start unpacking the political meaning of all this, since it is so very prominent in the discourse. The condemnation of the abusers is, naturally, universal - Southgate and the England setup, the respective clubs of the three players, and, since they insist on weighing in on these things with banal ‘concern’, the political class. Boris Johnson used his opening remarks at a press conference on Monday to tell these unknown internet trolls to crawl back under the rock they came from (forgetting perhaps that the great advantage of internet abuse is that one need not ever crawl out in the first place!).
But that piece of rhetoric rang hollow for many. Johnson, and home secretary Priti Patel, who also got a few swipes in, had refused to condemn the booing of players who were ‘taking the knee’. When his MPs started claiming that the national team was under the spell of an anti-British, Marxist ideology and therefore not worthy of support, Johnson mildly urged people to get behind the boys without specifically condemning such ravings. Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner wasted no time in making that connection. Likewise Gary Neville, quietly growing into the conscience of football punditdom, who said: “when we get racist abuse after a football match at the end of a tournament, I expect it - because it exists, and it’s actually promoted by the prime minister”. And indeed, Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi, who is often called upon to be the only rightwing voice who views these questions as more than raw material for a culture-war strategy of tension. Even Johnny Mercer, the inveterate militarist Plymouth MP, retrospectively criticised the actions of Johnson and Patel.
There is certainly some justice to these accusations, and the same could be said of the various rightwing papers which connived at promoting the idea that a totally anodyne anti-racist gesture was some kind of basic assault on Englishness or Britishness. If that is your attitude, then - whatever impact your actions actually had on the abuse - you are exposed as the most laughable hypocrite if you go on to condemn it (not that such exposure ever seems to do any of these creatures any harm). The question of exactly what difference it does make is rather harder to grasp. Frankly, black footballers are often the object of racist taunts, and if the policing of fans in grounds has reduced such incidents considerably since the bad old days of the 1970s and 80s, the advent of social media simply gives angry and alienated people a giant, world-spanning terrace from which to make monkey chants. Perhaps there were more racist tweets this time around than usual, but it is not as though we could do some kind of double-blind experiment.
Somewhat obscured by this spat over explicit racist abuse is the peculiar interaction of England football fandom and English (and British) nationalism in the last few weeks. The relationship, until recently, seemed rather more straightforward - something like a Venn diagram of three concentric circles. There were those who supported the team, but whose support was not connected to any real conscious national sentiment; those who supported the team and also took the opportunity to make a big show of patriotism; and, finally, those whose big show of patriotism was explicitly chauvinist, racist and what have you. Outside the circle were small numbers who consciously did not support the team: the ‘anyone but England’ brigade - but also perhaps, in the old days, ‘official communists’ who would support the USSR or other teams from the ‘actually-existing socialist’ bloc. Mainstream English bourgeois pontificators would certainly advocate supporting the team as part of a hearty patriotism, while ritually condemning the hooligan or racist element.
The ‘taking the knee’ culture war narrative threw this whole arrangement out of whack. We were treated to the spectacle of Tory ideologues refusing to support the national team - in the name of patriotism, of course. The prime minister, no less, equivocated on the matter. And, as usual, it was in the name of patriotism that the racism was both committed and condemned (we fought the war over this sort of thing, didn’t we?).
This peculiar situation, of course, revived the occasional hopes among certain sorts of Labourites and social democrats for a ‘progressive’ reimagining of English national identity. It is not the first time in recent history that sport has figured into this. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics was an acute embarrassment to the government of the day, being a solidly Labourite and sentimental-socialist spectacle from beginning to end. Was there, perhaps, a more humane patriotism being born - one that loved this country for its cultural melange and its subterranean history of radicalism and common-sense communitarian values? Would Blue Labour be the wave of the future?
From the vantage point of that same future, the whole thing looks rather silly - or would do if the same false dawn was not being announced by the same kind of people at just this moment. But it is not wholly silly. There are, after all, societies where nationalism has crystallised into a leftwing rather than a rightwing form in official ideology. We could mention, since it is in the news, Cuba, whose regime survives in part because the fierce desire for freedom from the Yankee jackboot remains tied to Stalinism.
Real faultlines were exposed by the politics surrounding the English Euro 2020 campaign. The attachment to ‘Queen and Country’, supposed by our Tory refuseniks to be the natural national mood, is so obviously partially an invention that it could never exist outside the imagination of especially moronic Daily Mail readers. Nationalisms are constructed quite artificially; thus they are periodically prone to embarrassments, sometimes trivially (as with the bungled culture-war offensive against the English national team) and sometimes very severely (as when the contradictions between northern capitalists and southern slave-owners in the USA divided the national mythos into two rival class-national ideologies and set them to four years of brutal warfare).
The fact that the ‘ideal type’ of English patriotism is, in point of fact, a rightwing ideology, not a ‘blue Labour’ type, does not follow from the fact that nationalism is reactionary. It follows from the fact that, though the content of particular nationalisms is artificial, it is not arbitrary. The surrounding society matters. In the English context, we live in a declining post-imperial power whose labour movement is decimated and whose economy is essentially based on financial parasitism. Moreover, thanks to the Irish border fiasco and the intimidating levels of support for separatism in Scotland, the rather grander ideology of Britishness is looking a little wobbly. All these factors push us towards an atomised, resentful form of English national chauvinism, and a general situation in which Boris Johnson will find the St George’s Cross easier to bear than will Keir Starmer.
Above all, this is not a matter of bourgeois-political wonkery, but of deflected class politics. It is not enough for Billy Bragg or Maurice Glasman to stand up and declare that there should be a progressive reimagination of English national identity for such a thing to really take root. It needs to capture the attention of the paid persuaders in the media and elsewhere; and it will never do that without a threatening counter-force among the popular classes to make such diversionary concessions necessary. It is not, as galaxy-brain neo-Gramscian types seem to imagine, a way to produce such a counter-force.
There is a simple-minded left reaction against all that, best exemplified by the soccer-phobic Socialist Workers Party. “Remember when the left was against nationalism and flags?” began a Socialist Worker editorial of July 6. (All flags? What about the red flag? But I digress.) “A few successful England football games later, that’s all forgotten.” Instead we have Starmer, and old SWP enemy Owen Jones, photographing themselves with the English flag.
It’s a diverse team, they say. Its players take the knee. We can all unite behind this progressive patriotism. It’s plastic rubbish … National unity - no matter how twee and fluffy - unites us with those at the top and sets us against those from ‘outside’. If football comes home, it’s going to Johnson’s house.
For communists, the fight against nationalism is crucial, ultimately because production is internationalised, and so socialism in a single country, or a few disconnected countries, is extremely vulnerable to defeat by the remaining capitalist order. Even the most ‘progressive’ nationalism must, in the end, deny this truth. By the same token, a world divided into national states implies competition for narrow advantage between those states, with the result that our being ‘set against those from outside’ is not a clever trick accomplished by sporting pageantry, etc, but inherent to the world system. We need, as it were, a better offer for the masses than the beggar-thy-neighbour policy of the bourgeois states, not merely ever more histrionic gestures of anti-racist symbolism. A meaningful movement towards concrete international political action of the class will make a real impact here; ever more tedious petitions from Stand Up To Racism will not.
The political defeat of nationalism need not entail the obliteration of national cultural signifiers like, for instance, national football teams, any more than pervasive nationalist ideologies are inconsistent with the existence of local rivalries between football clubs. What the SWP approach does is insist on fighting nationalism as a culture war issue, indeed as gesture politics, as Priti Patel put it (as if her government was not doing the same thing). But fighting this way is utterly hopeless. It involves replacing the sectional, backward, beggar-thy-neighbour politics of nationalism with nothing but fine sentiments. That particular trophy really is coming home to Johnson’s house, not to SWP headquarters.