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In London at the moment you can’t get away from it. The red cross flag of St. George is fluttering from cars and balconies, plastered on windows and billboards, inscribed on chocolate bars, pizza boxes and soft drink bottles. And in case anyone was not aware that England were off to compete in the World Cup, the message is re-enforced round the clock by every media outlet in the country.
The flag was first deployed as an emblem for England during the Crusades, but since the 18th century has been superseded by the Union Jack, representing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it’s formally known. For many years, the St. George’s flag was widely seen as the property of the far right, a symbol of backward-looking, xenophobic Englishness. However, in the last decade or so it has regained respectability as a sporting symbol, the only one available for those who want to show their enthusiasm for the England team in cricket, rugby or football.
Of course, there’s an obvious logic in supporting one’s own home team, a logic that makes itself felt everywhere. And England supporters understandably resent being stereotyped as narrow-minded national chauvinists. Nonetheless, the ubiquitousness of the flag and the branding of every product under the sun with “England” does raise troubling questions.
Only a month ago, in the English local elections, the racist British National Party seized the headlines by electing 33 candidates to council seats. Though this was less than one per cent of the number of seats up for grabs, it was a significant symptom of the broader impact of the politics of immigration. Polls indicated that between 18 and 24 per cent of the electorate might consider voting BNP. Disturbing, but not surprising, when the agenda of the BNP echoes and is echoed by the mainstream preoccupation with the alleged threat posed by asylum-seekers.
Manipulation of the national identity is by no means confined to politicians of the extreme right. Having re-branded itself, New Labour has also sought to re-brand both Britain and England, pepping up the old identities with hyper-modern connotations, while at the same time reassuring the public that the boundaries with which they are familiar will remain intact.
The nature of Englishness
The growth of the European Union, coupled with the devolution of some powers to Scotland and Wales in the late 1990s, has spurred a debate about “Englishness”. While an awareness that this is not a clear-cut entity is to be welcomed, the problem with this debate is that it never gets very far. The question of what constitutes Englishness always carries with it the question of what constitutes non-Englishness. Cataloguing common values, customs or culture proves impossible, not least because England, like every other society, is criss-crossed with conflicting values, customs and cultures.
What’s more, Englishness carries both national and ethnic meanings. Being English is frequently used as a synonym for being white native-born English. The presence of non-white players in the England team acts as a corrective for this, as does the eminence of England’s Swedish manager. But the context in which England is defined is wider than football. A history of Empire – in which the English were a globally privileged stratum – flows into contemporary debates surrounding the war on terror, the presence of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rights of immigrants and the erosion of civil liberties.
The media, sponsors and advertisers have made a huge investment in the World Cup and will do everything possible to maximise their return on it. That includes dedicating enormous resources to persuading people with no interest in football that the England team’s Cup fortunes should be important to them, that there is a mystical link between themselves and the young men in England jerseys kicking a ball on the fields of Germany. Here Englishness becomes a content-free but potent attachment, easily exploited by the marketeers of both products and ideologies.
However, even as the red crosses proliferate, a more relaxed and fluid approach to sporting partisanship is also evident. In my neck of the woods, in north London, where our community includes substantial numbers of people with roots in the Caribbean and West Africa, the banners of Trinidad and Ghana can be seen, sometimes displayed alongside the flag of St. George. I’ve also spotted more than few individuals wearing Ronaldinho or Ronaldo replica shirts, and Portuguese and Spanish cafes sport their own colours.
The cosmopolitan nature of English club football has also given a shake to the kaleidoscope of loyalties. Compared to national sporting identities, club identities are more a matter of choice and personal circumstance. For the individuals involved, they are therefore more expressive and intimate. Arsenal makes its home hereabouts and I know Arsenal fans whose rule of thumb in this World Cup is simply to support any team that has an Arsenal player in it, which enables them to transform themselves, when required, into supporters of France, Holland, Spain, Ivory Cost, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, Togo or Switzerland.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast by declaring that the only result that really matters to me in this World Cup is that England do not win. That’s not because I dislike the players or the manager; in fact, this side is one of the best and most entertaining England have sent out for many years. But the impact of a World Cup win on the society I live in would be deleterious. It would ignite an orgy of nationalistic celebration, which in present circumstances cannot be dismissed as harmless fun.
Sport is essentially and intoxicatingly trivial, but in the World Cup it’s the trivial magnified to mega-drama. One of the event’s compelling, sometimes disturbing features is the way it infuses the pointlessly beautiful (beautifully pointless) game with an aura of immense consequence. When the penalty is missed, the world gasps. The amazing thing is that the event somehow survives the vast economic and ideological weight foisted on it, and remains such a gripping showcase for human genius and fallibility.