World Cup chauvinism

Rioting England fans have set back Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ project

Blair’s hopes of laying hold of any British success in the World Cup and embracing it as part of his ‘Cool Britannia’ consensus were jolted last weekend.

The images of violent England supporters - beamed not only to Britain, but all around the world - were not exactly helpful to the picture he wants to paint. He sees Britain taking a lead in promoting bourgeois rationality throughout the world, and particularly within the European Union. In this scenario the population is united behind a rejuvenated modern state, with New Labour at its very centre.

National chauvinism is at the heart of Blair’s schema - a respectable chauvinism, under the firm control of the ruling class. Thus violence perpetrated in ‘Britain’s interest’ is certainly not ruled out (the belligerent statements from foreign secretary Robin Cook over Kosovo bear witness to that). But it must be organised by and channelled through the state, not left to break out spontaneously on the streets.

Blair views the World Cup as an opportunity to cohere this chauvinist consensus using the culture of the masses. While the Scotland team is not neglected, the focus of government attention - as well as its hopes for a British victory - is on the footballing prowess of the England 22.

With perfect timing, the Labour leader used the occasion of the queen’s birthday honours list to make a “nakedly populist gesture” (The Daily Telegraph June 13). England’s 1966 hat-trick hero, Geoff Hurst, was knighted, and the 1998 captain, Alan Shearer, described this as “brilliant news”. Coach Glenn Hoddle was sure it would be “an inspiration for the whole team”. The Telegraph reported a spokesperson for the prime minister as saying: “It will give active encouragement to Messrs Shearer, Owen and Sheringham to get a hat trick in this World Cup.” After a slight pause he remembered the Scotland team too: “And to Gallagher and Durie,” he added.

A British success would not only be exploited to give a further boost to the government’s fortunes in the short term; it would be used to symbolise Blair’s New Britain itself. The vision of Alan Shearer lifting the World Cup aloft next month may be a dream shared by millions of England supporters. But it is the fervent hope of the government too. Peter Mandelson is no doubt fantasising about the media images of the prime minister alongside the victorious players. The message would be one of a team of selfless Englishmen - black and white - combining in a common effort for the good of their country.

Preparing the ground, Blair was at pains to let it be known that he was following the fortunes of the England team every step of the way. A little matter of the EU summit at Cardiff could not be allowed to infringe too much on his duty as a patriotic football fan. He ensured that the media were informed he was being ‘updated’ every 15 minutes on the progress of England’s opening match against Tunisia last Monday during his deliberations with other EU leaders.

Despite England’s win, the behaviour of the fans in Marseilles have cast a shadow over the whole Blairite scheme. Minor skirmishes could have been ignored, but a full-scale riot was quite another matter. Government ministers were furious. Sports minister Tony Banks said: “What we have seen and heard so far involves drunken, brain-dead louts who seem determined to disgrace both the English team and their country.”

What makes it worse for the likes of Banks is that the violent supporters not only sport the full England regalia, including the supposedly proud and dignified ‘three lions’ emblem, but openly espouse ultra-nationalistic pro-British sentiments. Having been drinking Guinness all week at a Marseilles Irish pub, by Sunday a group of fans - fired up by alcohol, together with the impending battle on the pitch - were attempting to burn the Irish flag hanging outside. “No surrender to the IRA,” they chanted.

A “former” BNP-supporting football thug attempted to explain the mentality of the violent fans on a Radio 5 phone-in earlier this week. “I am proud of our flag,” he said, “yet I see the achievements of this country being put down. Italy and France wave their flags, so why can’t we wave ours?” While supporters of rightwing groups probably make up just a small minority of the rioters, there is more sympathy for their outlook from among the ‘ordinary’ football fans than many would care to admit. The fanaticism of the terraces provides an emotive breeding ground for reactionary ideologies.

More than a dozen British police from the National Criminal Intelligence Service’s football unit were in Marseilles to assist their French colleagues. Several ‘category C’ supporters - allegedly travelling to France with the sole purpose of “causing trouble” - were picked out by the NCIS and arrested by the French authorities. Assistant chief constable Tim Hollis, who heads the British police presence, said: “We know they don’t like being locked in foreign jails. They should be imprisoned, at least until the World Cup ends.”

The French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevénement, threatened “emergency expulsion measures” and was fully backed up by the British government.

But some commentators were going even further. According to The Independent, “It is now time to impose the ultimate sanction: we should withdraw from the World Cup and spare France any more violence and the nation any more shame” (editorial, June 16). It added: “In the long run the most fruitful approach may be to strangle the jingoism at birth by abolishing the England team.”

Just when readers are beginning to wonder how the editorial writer can be so divorced from reality, they come across the concluding sentence: “If fans really are dedicated to the sport rather than a warped sense of nationalism, then they should thrill to the sight of Bulgaria playing Nigeria no less than that of England taking on Romania.”

Blair’s government is rather more in touch with the real world than The Independent’s editorial writer. The performance of Bulgarians or Nigerians, irrespective of their skill, is not what grips the millions of English supporters - or, for that matter, the Scots, French or Tunisians. It is the exploits of ‘our’ boys - the partisan desire to come good at the expense of others - that is the very essence of World Cup fever.

The entire bourgeois establishment, including The Independent, nurtures the national chauvinism of which the football riots are just the most extreme expression. They all hope for British glory rather than “any more shame”. And in this lies the paradox. Precisely because this inward-looking ideology, by its very nature, is directed against outsiders, it is liable to give rise to the most abject jingoism again and again.

The gulf between the establishment and the Marseilles thugs is not so wide as it would at first appear.

Jim Blackstock