A soccer contest is upon us. I know nothing of football as a sport, but even a dunce like me knows that these things are about more than 22 men chasing a ball for 90 minutes. Big sporting events such as Euro 2020 matter, especially for England and Englishness.
Any big England game is a rare chance for people to fly the flag and briefly talk about Englishness. But we need to do more than talk about this when the football team is playing. A proper national debate about English identity is overdue and badly needed. New polling from British Future this week showed that only two thirds of BAME people think 'Englishness' is open to them. Worse, 14 per cent of white English people still think only white people can be English. That’s better than it used to be, but still captures the idea of a country that is not aligned with its entire population.
For all Gareth Southgate’s eloquence and the example set by a multi-ethnic national team, football alone cannot build an inclusive national identity. Just ask the French about what happened after their Black-Blanc-Beur team won the 1998 World Cup. Better to look to Scotland, which has built a national identity capable of accommodating (for instance) Asian heritage while consistently fielding all-white national sports teams.
Instead of hoping that some jolly faces in a stadium will sustain a national identity, other people need to do some heavy lifting. That means we need politicians to go beyond their current 'twice a year' approach to Englishness (once when the football team is playing; once on St George’s Day) and talk a lot more about what it is to be English. We need cultural leaders and institutions – the monarchy included – to help develop ideas of Englishness that are simpler bigger, capable of including multiple identities.
We are all used to the idea of hyphenated identities: some of us are Black British, or British Asian. Why should 'English' be a singular status? In truth it’s not and never has been. We are all more than one thing. I’m Northumbrian, English and British. We need to reach the point where people speak routinely (and comfortably) of being Black English or Asian English, just as they could of being Scouse and English or Geordie and English.
That idea of English should also be big enough to embrace both those who take the knee and those who boo them – but not the behaviour of the latter group. Of course it’s acceptable to dislike and disagree with the ideas that other people support and express. But shouting at someone just for expressing an idea is rude and therefore unEnglish.
The idea of England as racially exclusive, an identity reserved for 'people who look like me' is part of a bigger challenge described very well in a new book, Fractured, by Jon Yates. It shows how, over time, Western societies are fracturing into self-selected groups of people who are a lot alike. So graduates are only friends with graduates, young people only talk to other young people, rich people have no relationships with poor people. This is a particular problem in schools, where whiter, richer people cluster their kids in schools away from the poor and non-white
Yates’ compelling point is that we’re losing common experience, things that we share and that bring us together. He’s the British heir to the great US sociologist Robert Putnam; his book should be our Bowling Alone, a text that everyone in politics should be reading and digesting.
Yates says the answer is for the state to take a more assertive approach to pushing people into shared experiences that mean they mingle with people who are not like them. He says we should learn from Singapore with compulsory civic service for the young, as well as parenting classes for people having a baby, and a national retirement service. All would foster more common experience, he reckons. I think he’s probably right, but I wonder if there’ll ever be the political will for such things in a society where we have grown used to abundant personal choice.
Intriguingly, the MP David Lammy is also keen on national service, and for broadly similar reasons: he wants to bring people together to construct a clearer idea of England, a shared idea and experience of a nation that often lacks definition. At a British Future event this week, Lammy spoke openly, and well, about his case for 'nation-building'.
Bad things tend to happen when national identity becomes a matter of partisan contention, as a glance at Scotland shows. So it’s a good thing that serious people on all sides are thinking seriously about nation and community. Lammy is a Labour frontbencher. Yates is a former Conservative spad.
The leaders of those two parties need to do some actual leading on this issue. Boris Johnson is happy to wink at the England-only group that he’s on their side, and thus turn a blind eye to Tory culture warriors siding with those who boo the England team for kneeling. But if he really is the One Nation Tory he says he is, he needs to do more to build an idea of England as a nation open to all.
If anything, Keir Starmer has even more work to do. He needs to do much, much more (he could start by just copying David Lammy) to reconcile the Left to Englishness and accept the need to build more common ground.
But this stuff is bigger than politics and needs the involvement of people and organisations elsewhere, many of whom currently avoid the issue of Englishness.
As John Denham, the former Labour minister who now studies Englishness at Southampton points out, too many people in the civil society groups that help shape culture are still scared to discuss or embrace Englishness. Some even promote the notion of the English flag as a sign of bigotry and exclusion.
'Because the staffing and leadership of many NGOs, arts and cultural institutions, academia and the media, are much less likely to identify as English than the general population, these organisations often lack confidence in engaging with English identity. Many internalise all the worst misconceptions of Englishness and fear that to associate with it is to endorse those imagined values. This challenge needs to be recognised and tackled.'
Quite. A new, enlarged English identity could deliver a happier, more confident and harmonious country, one that is (even more) resistant to culture war politics and strife. But that won’t come about just because of a few games of football in the summer sunshine. Time to fight for England.